Mashantucket – Without a whiff of irony, the longest-serving president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO railed against the status quo Wednesday as he prepared to step down after 25 years, warning of dangers to labor even in this bluest of states.
“The status quo is our enemy,” John W. Olsen told labor delegates, his voice booming, jabbing the air with a pointed finger. “If we don’t change what’s happening, if we don’t change direction, if we don’t change what we’re doing, we will die.”
Olsen, 63, who once served simultaneously as AFL-CIO president and Democratic state chairman, offered a fiery farewell as he opened the federation’s three-day biennial convention. It will end Friday with him handing Secretary-Treasurer Lori J. Pelletier his gavel.
Pelletier is set to succeed him by acclamation, with support from the two major public employee unions that now comprise nearly half the AFL-CIO’s membership: AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers.
A dozen years ago, Olsen was nearly toppled in a challenge from industrial unions, including the union where Pelletier got her start in the labor movement: the International Association of Machinists. With 5,299 members, the Machinists have shrunk at least by half.
Today, AFSCME is king, with 36,888 members, most employed in state or local government. Number two is the American Federation of Teachers, with 27,107 members. (The Connecticut Education Association, the state’s other major teachers’ union, is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.) Third is the United Food and Commercial Workers, with 16,713 members.
No other affiliate has more than 7,000 members.
The convention is at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods Resorts & Casino, the scene of a union victory by four unions that have won the right to represent nearly 3,000 casino, service and maintenance workers. The service economy, once spurned by organized labor, now represents growth.
“I can’t tell you how significant that is to this nation and this world. Thank God, you’ve been given a human right, a right to bargain,” Olsen said, noting the presence of unionized tribal employees. “From the bottom of my heart, thank you. That’s our future.”
Olsen recited a long list of union leaders with whom he worked, fought or did both. He recalled his start in labor as a “pain in the ass,” a young, loud-mouthed apprentice plumber from Greenwich, of all places, who was tolerated and brought along by older workers. He urged the delegates never to shy away from a fight, even with each other. He pleaded with them to tolerate the next young pain in the ass.
“We’re not a perfect movement, we’re a democratic movement,” Olsen said, insisting that the movement will lose its energy and passion when it no longer engages intself in “raging debate. We’re not alive unless we’re having that debate.”
Olsen thanked his wife, Janeen, who also is retiring from a staff job with the AFL-CIO, for tolerating his hours, his demands, his moods. He even thanked his ex-wife.
But he looked forward.
Olsen has his eye on the 2014 election. He pointed to strong labor states that have elected Republican governors and, in some cases, Republican legislatures, where collective bargaining laws have been weakened.
“Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, take a look, brothers and sisters,” Olsen said. “We cannot afford to take one break, one day off until we can assure ourselves we are protected.”
Salvatore Luciano, the executive director of AFSCME Council 4 and an AFL-CIO vice president, said Pelletier’s unchallenged succession of Olsen reflects the times. Labor rights in the public and private sectors increasingly are under assault from billionaire businessmen.
“We have enough enemies,” Luciano said. “We have to stand together like we never have before.”
Pelletier takes over a federation facing financial pressures.
The Connecticut AFL-CIO, with an annual budget of about $1 million, ended its fiscal year in June with $99,089 cash, less than one-third of the $343,841 it had a year earlier. Net assets shrank by $262,639. A year earlier, they shrank by $173,099.
Pelletier will hold the new title of executive secretary-treasurer, which will be the only full-time AFL-CIO leadership post. Until now, the federation had two paid leadership posts: president, with a salary of $186,666; and secretary-treasurer, with a salary of $177,778.
Luciano will hold the unpaid post of president.
Despite the challenges, labor remains a political force in Connecticut., and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the first Democrat elected governor since William A. O’Neill won re-election in 1986, made a point of coming to publicly offer Olsen his thanks.
“It’s tough out there. Nobody knows it better than organized labor,” said Malloy, who faces re-election next year.
He wore a union button given to him after a meeting earlier with AFT-Connecticut members at Lawrence and Memorial Hospital fighting outsourcing of union jobs.
Malloy has yet to announce his candidacy, but he sounded campaign themes that play well with organized labor, talking about the fashion of some in politics who seem to base campaigns on the dismantling of the middle class.
“The top 1 percent is doing very, very, very well and yet, and yet, you watch the ongoing onslaught with respect to organized labor,” Malloy said.
Malloy alluded to his own clashes with labor: He demanded a pay freeze and other concessions in his first budget, and he infuriated teachers with a call for tenure reform, using rhetoric that teachers found insulting. But he did not attack collective bargaining.
He mentioned a combative nature that comes from being the youngest of eight.
“That gives rise to sharp elbows, I know, and sometimes I don’t always use them appropriately,” Malloy said. “But more often than not, I have used them on your behalf. And I am happy to have done that.”
The delegates gave him a standing ovation.