The new voice of labor in Connecticut is female and gay

Hamden – Lori J. Pelletier appears set to be chosen by acclamation in a casino hotel ballroom Thursday as the new voice and face of labor in Connecticut, becoming the first openly gay woman to lead a state labor federation in the United States.

But on Tuesday, Pelletier stood at a busy shopping plaza, trying to be heard over idling CT Transit buses and passing delivery trucks as she spoke in support of U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro’s push for a federal version of Connecticut’s groundbreaking paid-sick day law.

“The workforce today is like it is in this plaza,” Pelletier said.

A majority of U.S. private-sector workers are non-union, with many drawing paychecks from service and retail jobs where minimum standards for pay and benefits often are set by law, not by the marketplace or negotiated contracts.

“That’s why we’re here,” Pelletier said.

Standing in the shade of a tree, Pelletier joined DeLauro, state Comptroller Kevin Lembo, and Teresa Younger and Christine Palm of the legislature’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women. They were celebrating labor’s successes in Connecticut, promoting DeLauro’s federal agenda, and making a pitch for a new concept: family and medical leave insurance.

The General Assembly this year created a task force to study the feasibility of creating an insurance plan that would provide a lost-wages benefit for those who take a leave under the state’s groundbreaking Family and Medical Leave Act, which was passed in 1987 and was later emulated by Congress.

The law protects workers from losing their jobs if they take a leave to care for a newborn, an adopted child or a sick family member. But the leave is unpaid.

New Jersey adopted an insurance plan. Lembo said the concept is worthy of analysis.

The press conference was a reminder that organized labor often is more able to obtain benefits through public policy than by contract negotiations.

Pelletier said unions can protect their members and the larger workforce by legislation. A case in point, she said, was Connecticut’s passage of the nation’s first state law mandating paid sick time.

“As Rosa said, 50 percent don’t have sick time, and that’s a problem,” Pelletier said. “That ends up putting pressure on those that do. And most of those that do are union members. It becomes more of a pressure at the bargaining table.”

Pelletier, 50, a former aerospace worker, is set to succeed John W. Olsen, a one-time union plumber who is retiring after 25 years as president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. Now secretary-treasurer of the federation, Pelletier will take over in a time of transition for the federation and labor.

“It is a moment, a moment for a number of reasons,” DeLauro said. “You’ve got Lori coming in as the head of the organization. You’ve got a very robust national leadership.”

DeLauro said labor needs to reach beyond the traditional borders of organized labor and protect workers by “partnering with those groups that want to see social justice done. That’s what labor is all about.”

At the national AFL-CIO convention two weeks ago, an issue was how to make unions more closely look like their communities, a poignant message for a gay woman about to achieve a first, albeit one seen more as a milestone than a breakthrough in Connecticut.

“For me to be the first openly gay woman to be elected to lead a state labor federation is significant,” Pelletier said. “But in Connecticut, it’s part of our community. If this was happening in North Carolina or Texas, I think it would be, quite honestly, a bigger issue.”

The three-day state convention opens Wednesday morning at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods. Olsen will address the 300 delegates in the morning, delivering his valedictory. Pelletier will make a speech in the afternoon, as will Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

The election is Thursday.

The state AFL-CIO is downsizing its top leadership ranks. The new top paid position will be executive secretary-treasurer, not president.

Sal Luciano, the executive director of AFSCME Council 4, is expected to be elected to serve in the unpaid position of president. Luciano’s election has its own symbolism, reflecting the increasing dominance of public-sector workers in organized labor.

Younger, executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, joked about Pelletier’s jaw-breaker of a new title. She greeted her friend as “Madame Executive Secretary Treasurer, blah, blah, blah.”

After the press conference ended, Younger smiled told Pelletier she needed a punchier title.

“I like demi-God,” she said.

Pelletier laughed and said, “I like that.”

“Or queen for a day,” Younger said.

Pelletier shook her head.

"For more than a day."

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