Shellye Davis and Ed Hawthorne outside AFL-CIO headquarters. The AFL-CIO supports a bill that would outlaw "captive audience" meetings. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
The new faces of labor: Shellye Davis and Ed Hawthorne outside state AFL-CIO headquarters in Rocky Hill. It is dedicated to the two longest-serving presidents, John J. Driscoll and John W. Olsen.

Connecticut’s AFL-CIO opens a two-day virtual convention Thursday, marking a changing of the guard at a time of great strife in national labor relations, yet unusual unity in the state’s labor movement.

Left-leaning SEIU 1199 just rejoined the state AFL-CIO. Conservative building trades no longer threaten to bolt. And on Friday, delegates are set to choose new leaders: Ed Hawthorne, president; and Shellye Davis, executive vice president.

Hawthorne and Davis are going to the convention with an insurmountable list of endorsements from the federation’s member unions, and as of Wednesday night they had no announced competition.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been as united,” said Sal Luciano, the longtime labor leader who is stepping down as AFL-CIO president, credited with helping to craft a legislative agenda that spans factions in the movement.

At 36, Hawthorne would be the youngest person to lead the state labor federation. John W. Olsen, the longest-serving president when he retired in 2013 after 25 years, was 38 when he took over.

“I always tell people, ‘I’m a millennial, but I’m an elder millennial.’ I can still talk to you about dial-up,” said Hawthorne, a lawyer in the state Department of Labor who will quit state service to take the full-time position as president, which paid $142,000 according to the AFL-CIO’s most recent public filing with the Internal Revenue Service.

Davis, who leads the AFT affiliate representing paraprofessionals in the Hartford schools, would be the federation’s first Black executive vice president. 

She and Hawthorne, an AFSCME officer, ran as a ticket. Each is president of one of the state’s two regional labor federations within the AFL-CIO: Hawthorne in the western half of the state; Davis in the east.

“We’re looking forward to bringing everybody back together,” Davis said.

The biennial convention comes as unions, whose membership peaked in 1954 as a percentage of the U.S. workforce, try to assess how the pandemic has altered the balance of power in labor-management relations.

Paradoxically, the economy is emerging from the pandemic with both high unemployment and labor shortages. Unions are pressing for advantage, staging strikes in what has been dubbed the month of “Striketober.”

“Now is the time to grow the labor movement,” Hawthorne said. “People are fed up with being taken advantage of in the workplace. They want better pay. They want predictable hours. They want affordable health care. They want to retire with dignity.”

Liz Shuler, 51, who became president of the national AFL-CIO in August after the death of 72-year-old Richard Trumka, is scheduled to address the convention Thursday afternoon. She said in a speech two weeks ago that the labor movement is looking at a historic opportunity.

“The pandemic laid bare the inequities of our system,” said Shuler, the first woman to lead the AFL-CIO since its founding in 1955. “Working people refuse to return to crappy jobs that put their health at risk. Essential workers are tired of being thanked one moment and treated as expendable the next.”

The percentage of unionized workers increased in Connecticut during the pandemic-induced recession, in part a reflection of the job losses disproportionately hitting service jobs with low rates of union membership.

As total employment fell from 1.68 million to 1.533 million, the number of unionized workers rose from 244,000 to 262,000, lifting the percentage of union members in the workforce from 14.5% to 17.1%.

Even with the jump, the percentage of union members in Connecticut still is short of the 20.1% recorded in 1983, when the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking union density.

Connecticut ranks fourth in union membership rates on the U.S. mainland, behind New York at 23.6%, Rhode Island at 19.1% and Washington at 18.6%.

With a far greater percentage of unionization among public-sector workers, the biggest players in the state AFL-CIO are the unions of Hawthorne and Davis, AFSCME and AFT.

At the convention two years ago: Liz Shuler, then the number two leader of the national AFL-CIO, and Sal Luciano, the Connecticut president. Shuler returns this year, at least on Zoom, as the national president.

Luciano is the former executive director of AFSCME Council 4. He succeeded Lori J. Pelletier, who resigned in 2018 with three years left in her second term as the AFL-CIO’s top leader.

Pelletier and Olsen both came from private-sector unions: Olsen was a union plumber, and Pelletier was a member of the International Association of Machinists, representing Pratt & Whitney workers.

The labor federation had booked space for this year’s convention at Foxwoods Resort Casino, whose workers are represented by four unions. It shifted to Zoom when COVID-19 positivity rates rose above 4%. They have since fallen.

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat whose administration is in contract talks with state employees, also is scheduled to address the convention Thursday remotely, as is the U.S. secretary of labor, Marty Walsh.

A month ago, Lamont was given a standing ovation by the Connecticut State Building Trades Council, whose members appreciate the governor’s push for increased spending on infrastructure, which would yield steady work for the building trades.

His relationship with more liberal unions, especially SEIU 1199, is fraught due to his refusal to back higher taxes on the wealthy and past disagreements over state Medicaid rates for nursing homes. SEIU 1199’s 25,000 members include 6,000 state employees, plus thousands of private-sector nursing home and group home workers.

The trades, which complained two years ago that the rest of the labor movement had done too little to support its members, recently voted to reaffirm their intention to stay in the AFL-CIO.

The executive board of the SEIU 1199, which had been outside the federation, recently voted to rejoin, a consequence of Luciano’s fence mending and confidence in the new leaders, said Rob Baril, the union’s president.

“I think that this is a time where it’s just important that folks that represent working people find ways to deepen our collaborations,” Baril said. “I certainly would not be suggesting to the executive board that the local rejoin AFL if I didn’t feel positive about the incoming leadership.”

The union took strike votes at several nursing homes, relenting only when the state provided more funding. But Baril remains critical of Lamont and the Democratic Party for not being more supportive, in his view, of front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“How are we going to manage our relationship with the Democratic Party? How are we going to manage a relationship, in particular, with a governor who has absolutely — absolutely — no frame of reference for what working class people have to endure on a daily basis?” Baril said, referring to Lamont’s family wealth. “I don’t think he’s even curious.”

Had the convention been in person, Baril would have been there to greet the governor.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.