Trumka honors Olsen, recalls when a coal strike came to Greenwich

Hartford – Richard L. Trumka, once a coal miner and now the nation’s top labor leader, joined the governor Friday to promote a jobs program for veterans, but the real reason for the visit to Connecticut was to reminisce with a recently retired friend, John W. Olsen, about the Great Greenwich Coal Strike of 1989.

No, there are no mines in Greenwich, not even in the vast reaches of its “brambly back-country,” as it once was described in a New York Times dispatch. But it was home to the corporate headquarters of the Pittston Co., whose holdings included coal mines struck by the United Mine Workers while Trumka was president.

And in 1989, that meant mineworkers coming to Greenwich, the home to Olsen, a tough-talking union plumber who had been elected the previous year as president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

“I didn’t have a single member in this state. But Pittston was headquartered here, and I needed help, and he was the first one to stand up,” Trumka said. “And he was the last one to sit down, by the way. He was always there to help out. He was a tremendous, tremendous trade union[ist], and that’s why I’m here.”

Olsen retired last month as the state AFL-CIO’s longest-serving president. Trumka, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and a long roster of other speakers were to toast him Friday night at the Omni, a New Haven hotel with a unionized workforce.

“I hate to see him retire,” Trumka said. “I’ll miss him. I’ll miss him a lot.”

Olsen was elected president at 38. Trumka took over the leadership of the Mine Workers at age 33.

Trumka accompanied Olsen’s successor, Lori Pelletier, on a visit to a Department of Labor office in Hartford with Malloy, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Labor Commissioner Sharon Palmer, a former AFT-Connecticut president and AFL-CIO vice president. They were there to applaud unionized state employees who created two jobs program for vets, Vets to Cops and Vets to Firefighters.

One of the employees, Veasna Roeun, himself was an Army infantryman with service in Afghanistan.

Malloy, who clashed with state employees over concessions in his first year as governor, praised the initiative of state workers. Trumka said he had no problem with governors who sought help from their union employees to balance the budget in times of real crisis. He said the unions are willing to be partners in such times.

But he had made clear that the AFL-CIO will oppose any politician, Democrat or Republican, who tries to cut Social Security benefits, including measures that would raise retirement age, impose a means test or link benefits to inflation.

“We’ll take on anybody,” he said.

Trumka said the AFL-CIO supports lifting the cap on the Social Security taxes beyond the increase scheduled to take effect next year: The maximum pay subject to Social Security taxes will increase from $113,700 to $117,000. The tax rate is 12.4 percent, with 6.2 percent paid by employers and 6.2 percent by employees.

“How about raising the age? That sounds real simple,” Trumka said. “My dad worked 44 years in a coal mine. He retired the day he was 62 because he couldn’t go a day more. There are millions of people who can’t go. You work in an office, I work in an office, a lot of rich people work in an office. Yeah, they can go another year.”

Delaying retirement for an office worker -- and the 64-year-old Trumka, who went to college and law school after leaving the mines, now places himself in that category -- might be fine, he said. But many Americans work jobs that are physically demanding, and delaying retirement past 65 is dangerous.

“It’s a life or death sentence for some of ‘em,” Trumka said. “So I wouldn’t be so cavalier to say that’s so easy.”

He also opposed imposing a means test on recipients.

“That’s a slippery slope,” Trumka said. “People have earned those benefits, and I think they should get those benefits, even people in Greenwich.”

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