Olsen to step down as AFL-CIO president

John W. Olsen, the tough-talking plumber from upscale Greenwich who became the face and voice of organized labor in Connecticut, is retiring in September after a quarter-century as president of the state AFL-CIO.

Olsen is leaving the labor federation as it downsizes, retrenches and focuses on year-round lobbying at the State Capitol and political outreach, echoing a new mission pushed by the AFL-CIO’s national leadership.

Elected in 1988 at age 38, Olsen leaves as the federation’s longest-serving leader, one of only three presidents over the past half-century. He also will be the last full-time paid president.

In September, the top paid post in the state AFL-CIO will be the new position of “executive secretary-treasurer,” the merging of his post as president and the one now held by Secretary-Treasurer Lori Pelletier, who will seek election to the new top job.

“I wouldn’t say I have any regrets,” Olsen told The Mirror after announcing his retirement to his executive board. On a host of issues, he said, “We fought as hard as we could.”

Olsen never retreated as the wages and benefits of public-sector employees increasingly came under fire or when the first Democratic governor in 20 years, Dannel P. Malloy, demanded labor concessions the month after his inauguration in 2011.

When Malloy pushed for givebacks, Olsen called for a more progressive income tax and more tax revenue, even after Malloy proposed $1.5 billion in new taxes. The workers were not to blame, he said.

“I refuse to blame any workers for the problems we have in this nation,” Olsen said after the governor’s first budget address, insisting that the sluggish economy was the product of corporate greed and irresponsible government. “We didn’t create this mess.”

He also sided with Republicans in opposition to a proposed legislative moratorium on wind farms in 2011.

“This bill is simply a project killer, a jobs killer and it will devastate the emerging wind industry in the state,” Olsen told legislators at a public hearing.

His was an early voice on the income tax, a controversial position among is base in the trade unions. He pushed a resolution  in favor of the income tax in the early 1980s, a decade before the state adopted its first broad-based tax on wages.

Olsen’s is one of several high-profile retirements from the executive ranks of the AFL-CIO. Sharon Palmer left as an executive vice president after becoming the state labor commissioner, and Leo Canty, who often acted as a spokesman for the labor movement, also recently retired as the executive secretary.

Olsen’s successor will be elected in September at a three-day convention at the MGM Grand Hotel at Foxwoods Casino and Resort. It is unclear if Pelletier will have competition.

“I don’t think it will be a mad scramble,” she said.

If elected, the 50-year-old Pelletier would be the federation’s second female and first openly gay president. Olsen was preceded as president by Betty Tianti, who served three years. Her predecessor was John Driscoll, who was president for 24 years.

The demographics of organized labor have shifted steadily during Olsen’s tenure, away from the industrial giants, such as Pratt & Whitney Aircraft and Electric Boat, to the public sector. It is a national trend.

Union representation in the private sector has fallen from about a third of all workers in 1979 to fewer than 10 percent today, while union membership in the public sector has more than tripled over the same period to 36 percent.

“The biggest challenge going forward is the world we live in,” Pelletier said, saying that even when private sector workers vote to unionize, getting employers to negotiate is difficult.

Olsen is the embodiment of the close relationship between labor and the Democratic Party. He served on the Democratic town committee in Greenwich from 1978 to 1993, serving a term as chairman. He was the Democratic state chairman in 2001 and 2002 and is a member of the Democratic National Committee.

Olsen was a union plumber and leader in his local long before joing the state leadership.

“I’ve been representing working people since I was 29 years old,” Olsen said.

He was the president and business manager of the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Steamfitters, Local 133, and a former secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut State Building and Construction Trades Council. 

Olsen now resides in Clinton.