Union leader Harry Lester dies

The Detroit News
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Downriver labor leader Harry E. Lester, a former district director of the United Steelworkers of America, died Saturday, April 18, 2015. He was 85.

Mr. Lester was a 24-year board member of the Huron-Clinton MetroParks Authority and retired director of District 2 (Michigan and Wisconsin) for the steelworkers union. The Brownstown Township resident was active in the civil rights movement and efforts to save McLouth Steel, an integrated steel company with plants in Detroit, Trenton and Gibraltar, during the 1980s and 1990s.

"Harry was a very tough, resourceful guy who was totally dedicated to the best interests of working people," said Bruce Miller, a Detroit labor lawyer who was counsel for United Steelworkers District 2 during Mr. Lester's tenure.

As an example, Miller said Mr. Lester engineered the adoption of an employee stock ownership plan at McLouth in 1988 that transferred 85 percent of the company's common stock to its employees. The union leader helped make the move to get leverage with Chicago financier Cyrus Tang, who eventually bought McLouth, he said.

In some instances, Mr. Lester fought with steel managers about disciplining underperforming workers, Miller said.

"McLouth was being operated by a management committee, and Harry was trying to keep the mill open. Some of the workers in the plant were not performing appropriately," he said.

"This came up in one of the management meetings, and Harry told the management: 'Hey, don't fool around with these people. If they aren't performing, you have to come down on them.' In other words, Harry was taking a responsible position. He was a terrific guy."

Born in rural West Virginia, he moved to Detroit to find work, an experience he recounted in his autobiography, "The Boy from Bud." He started at Ford Motor Co. and eventually moved to McLouth Steel, where he rose through the union ranks.

His website says "Harry was thought of as the 'Peacemaker' between the different unions and played a key role in keeping leadership from other unions on great terms and working together toward common cause. He fought for steelworkers and working people everywhere for social issues important to the middle class, regardless of your work title or place of employment."

Mr. Lester also served on boards of the regional and state AFL-CIO, United Foundation, United Way of Michigan, National Kidney Foundation of Michigan, Economic Alliance of Michigan, Greater Detroit Area Health Council and the Michigan Economic & Environmental Roundtable.

Among other honors, Mr. Lester has a union hall named in his honor in Southgate. He is also a former Citizen of the Year in Brownstown, his home since 1969, and was named ambassador for the Detroit Muslim Temple of the Shrine.

The MetroParks and other groups also honored him for his efforts to save McLouth.

Survivors include his children, Terry Lester, Julia Fuller, Theresa (Charles) Cowell and Mary Ellen (Edward) Sype; 13 grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; a brother William (Betty) Lester and a sister Ellen (Paul) Lusk.

Visitation is 4-9 p.m. Friday at the Ford Chapel, Martenson Family of Funeral Homes, 23620 N. Huron River in Rockwood. A funeral is Saturday but the time has not been announced. Burial is in Ferndale Cemetery in Riverview.

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