A union negotiator who grew up in house of labor

Dan Livingston could be a literary invention. The son of progressive activists, he was the boy who talked to Martin Luther King Jr. about social justice, marched on Washington as a 7-year-old and grew up with a passion for movement politics that peers might have felt for baseball cards.

Now, for the second time in eight years, Livingston is the chief negotiator for state employees, facing a governor desperate to balance a budget by wringing concessions out of labor. The last time, the talks ended badly for all parties — layoffs of 3,000 workers and an erosion of support for the governor, John G. Rowland.


Dan Livingston

This time, Livingston is facing the administration of an ostensible ally, Dannel P. Malloy, the first Democratic governor in 20 years. Malloy is demanding $1 billion from labor, saying the alternative is “unimaginable consequences” for labor and all of Connecticut.

Labor leaders compliment Malloy for much of his budget, including his willingness to take a step embraced by few other governors — proposing a $1.5 billion tax increase, rather than gut state aid to municipalities. But their praise is tempered by disappointment over who would pay those new taxes.

At town hall meetings, like the one Monday night in Norwalk, union members regularly confront Malloy over taxes, complaining they would fall too heavily on the middle class, letting off the richest of the rich relatively lightly.

“With your proposal, you’re ultimately destroying my way of life and my friends,” said Jessica Carroll, a Department of Social Services employee, who complained of facing concessions and a tax hike. “How can you call it a shared sacrifice?”

It is a question Livingston calls relevant to the broader budget debate, even though it cannot come up in concession talks.

“We don’t bargain about taxes,” Livingston said.

But it hangs over everything. To Livingston, tax equity is part of a 30-year conversation about the concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer Americans.

“There’s been a war on middle-class and working families, and an economy that works very well for a very small percentage of the people, and not very well at all for the vast majority. And we’d like to see that change,” Livingston said. Then he broke into a grin and added, “We haven’t really kept that secret.”

Little about the passions and politics of Daniel E. Livingston are secret.

At 55, he still is the son of David and Beatrice Livingston, the couple who used to entertain King at their home in Manhasset, Long Island. The walls of his cramped office on Prospect Avenue on the Hartford-West Hartford line are a testament to his political DNA.

His father, David Livingston, who died at age 80 in 1995, was a Columbia University student who organized rallies against Hitler on campus before the outbreak of World War II, then became a labor leader. He was president of District 65 of the United Auto Workers, a local that represented everyone from textile workers to writers for the Village Voice. Livingston’s mother was a psychiatric social worker.

The son, who is a divorced father of two sons, works in an office dominated by black-and-white photographs of demonstrations and rallies, most featuring his father, a man with horn-rimmed glasses and dark, wavy hair. In one picture, his father is addressing thousands at an outdoor rally opposing Richard Nixon and the war in Vietnam.

It was a memorable day. It was the first time Livingston heard his father curse.

His father denounced Nixon. The crowd responded with a profane, two-word chant. The second word was “Nixon,” the first an epithet never heard in the Livingston house, at least not during the waking hours of the Livingston children.

His father glanced at the son, then at the crowd, back to the son. The crowd’s chant was insistent. David Livingston finally gave in to the moment, thrusting his fist in the air and yelling, “F— Nixon!”

Livingston March on Washington

Peeking from behind the sign, a 7-year-old Dan Livingston.

These are the stories of Danny Livingston’s childhood.

He grins as he tells the story. It an impossibly wide smile, both boyish and slightly maniacal.

Another picture is of a more decorous scene, his father seated across from Eleanor Roosevelt. Then there is a photo of David Livingston at the 1963 March on Washington.

Seven-year old Danny peeks out from behind a placard held by his father.

His father’s union was part of the larger civil rights and, later, anti-war movement. Its headquarters at 13 Astor Place in lower Manhattan was where protests and demonstrations were carefully planned. His parents’ home was a place where King could relax on visits to New York.

“He and my dad were good friends. He would stay sometimes at my parents’ house,” Livingston said. “And I was very, very lucky in terms of being able to see first hand the difference the labor movement makes in the lives of so many people.”

Livingston went to work for the union after graduating from Hampshire College, where he was one of the students who occupied to the president’s office to protest U.S. foreign policy in the waning days of the Vietnam war.

He worked in New Jersey on a number of labor campaigns, including a drive to organize workers at Hartz Mountain, the pet supplies company then in Jersey City. He was threatened with guns at one point.

The workers unionized, but the company closed its warehouse operation in the northeast.

“It was a success story and not a success story,” he said

After two years as an organizer, Livingston entered Yale Law School, his UAW card still in his wallet. He remains a member.

“I went to law school to be a labor and civil rights lawyer,” he said.

He has spent nearly his entire legal career at the same firm: Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly. It represents unions, plus individuals who bring labor and employment discrimination cases. His facebook page describes him as the firm’s “Longest Serving Troublemaker.”

His client in the concession talks is SEBAC, the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition. But he represents other unions. A partner, Gregg Adler, is the lead attorney for the International Association of Machinists in Connecticut.

Livingston said he misses organizing.

“I still struggle. Being an organizer is to me the most noble and important thing you can do, and I try as a lawyer to emulate the things good organizers do,” Livingston said. “The way they help empower people to change their lives, organizing is one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”

In the concession talks, Livingston faces Mark Ojakian, an ally in some past fights for civil rights. Ojakian, who is the deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, has known Livingston for years.

“He is a very passionate guy, extremely passionate. And he is very ideological in his view point,” Ojakian said. “I think some other leaders might be more pragmatic. I think Danny is pragmatic in a sense, but he really believes in what he’s doing, and that’s a good thing.”

Livingston acknowledges that passion must be tempered in negotiations.

“You have the potential for making the biggest difference if you have a passionate commitment to the long term ideals of the working families you represent and the movement to make a more just society, but that is always tempered with an understanding there is a perspective on the other side, and that there are human beings on the other side,” Livingston said.

“Passion can get in our way if it’s not tempered with empathy. I think without passion, you lose the connection to the real long-term changes, which is what this is about,” Livingston said. “The labor movement has always been about being connected to a change in a certain direction, and it’s a change that right now, obviously, everybody understands you’re running against the wind right now.”

But Livingston is an optimist, a believer in cycles.

“I learned from my dad that sometimes the brightest periods follow the darkest periods, and that’s been true of labor,” he said.

Livingston never has lacked for confidence, in himself or his cause. He is slightly built: he confesses to overcoming a tendency toward self-deprecation in 2003, when he gave his height to a reporter as 5 feet 6. Ask his actual height, he smiles and says, “Five-six. Maybe.”

But that did not stop him from rushing to the aid of a friend, Paul Filson, at the AFL-CIO convention in 2006, when Filson erroneously described the position of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman on a labor issue. It was not malicious, but one of Lieberman’s partisans, Martin Dunleavy, became enraged.

Dunleavy, possessed of a stevedore’s physique and temper, stormed after Filson, who seemed unaware of the looming danger as he exited the union meeting. Livingston set off after Dunleavy, who outweighed him by at least 100 pounds. A wide-eyed Ken Dagliere, then a Lieberman aide and now a Roman Catholic seminarian, took off after all three.

Dagliere told them to knock it off, noting that a reporter was standing behind them, taking in the whole scene. They stood down.

The reporter asked Livington what exactly had been his plan had he caught Dunleavy? Appeal to his better nature? Bite his ankle? Livingston shrugged, then broke out in that wide, toothy, slightly maniacal grin.

He would have thought of something. But doing nothing, that was not an option.