Mike Priem, electrician and union organizer, dies at 73

Mike Hughlett, Star Tribune
·3 min read

Mike Priem took up the electrician's trade as a young man and then devoted a good part of his life to expanding the ranks of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Priem, a longtime union organizer and member of IBEW Local 292 in the Twin Cities, died of a heart attack Sunday. He was 73 and lived in St. Michael.

"He believed in the rights of everybody — that everybody should have a shot at a good job with fair wages and good benefits," said Greg Shafranski, a longtime friend of Priem and a retired IBEW leader. "Mike was the smartest guy we had."

Other building trades unions also relied on his organizing expertise, Shafranski said.

Priem was born in Minneapolis, the son of a bread truck driver who participated in the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, a landmark event in Minnesota's labor history.

Priem grew up in Robbinsdale, graduating from Robbinsdale High School in 1965, and then served three years in the U.S. Army. He went to what was then called Dunwoody Institute to learn his trade, graduating in 1971.

Priem joined the IBEW, the nation's largest electrical workers union, and worked as a journeyman electrician until 1982 when he became a union business representative and organizer.

Bringing new workers into the union would be his primary focus until he retired in 2009, including a five-year stint as the IBEW's Minnesota organizing coordinator.

He also worked in Wisconsin as a union organizer.

"He literally lived, slept and breathed that job," said Ginny Priem, one of his daughters. "He had a really great work ethic."

The union was a social cornerstone for Priem, too.

"As a kid, we went to every event — every picnic in the summer, every Christmas party — put on by the IBEW," Ginny said.

Priem was at the heart of an organizing battle in Minnesota that eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The dispute between the IBEW and contractor Town & Country Electric involved "salting," a longtime organizing tactic in the construction trades. The practice involves planting union workers with nonunion employers.

Town & Country had a contract to work on a big addition to Boise Cascade's International Falls paper mill in 1989 — a nonunion job that sparked much controversy in Minnesota labor circles.

Priem and Shafranski were two of about a dozen electricians who applied for jobs with Town & Country.

Local 292 filed a complaint with federal labor regulators, saying the workers were not interviewed or considered for a job because of their union membership — a violation of federal law.

The regulators agreed, and Town & Country contested the case all the way up to the Supreme Court.

In a unanimous 1995 decision, the court ruled against Town & Country, a major victory for the tactic of salting.

In addition to his passion for union work, Priem loved to play cards, bowl, fish, hunt, and most of all, golf.

He is survived by his wife of 45 years, Donna; children Jaque Bethke, Lori Stottler, Michael Priem and Ginny Priem; eight grandchildren; several great-grandchildren, and four siblings, Roxanne Shaughnessy, Linda Boline, Cheryl Vesovich and Bill Sufficool. He was preceded in death by a son, William Todd Akes.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003