As president of the state AFL-CIO for the past 25 years, John Olsen is a kingpin in the Connecticut labor movement.
And as a member of the Democratic National Committee since 1996, he is a power player in the state Democratic Party that he once headed as chairman.
But Olsen says he’s not sure if he will seek another four-year term in September as union president at the age of 63, and some union members are pushing for former House Speaker Chris Donovan to take his place. A longtime union member who was seen at the Capitol as the most influential union supporter, Donovan had widespread support from union leaders in his unsuccessful race for Congress last summer.
Olsen was noncommital on his future, but he said he has never backed away from a fight. He declined to criticize Donovan and said that any member of the AFL-CIO has the right to challenge him.
“From my standpoint, I’ve always welcomed a democratic process and fair and open elections,’’ Olsen said in a lengthy interview with The Hartford Courant. “I haven’t announced anything I’m doing yet, either. You don’t generally announce these candidacies that far in advance. I’ve never announced in January that I’m running. I’m serving right now. There’s nine months left in this term. It’s early for anybody to be saying what they’re doing.’’
With 25 years to his credit in a business known for its turnover, Olsen is the longest-serving state AFL-CIO president in the country. He says he is also the longest-serving president in Connecticut history.
Donovan, 59, has kept a relatively low profile recently, and some legislators are not sure what he will do in his post-Speaker life. But Rep. Peter Tercyak, a longtime union supporter who is now the co-chairman of the legislature’s labor committee, said that word is spreading among union members about Donovan possibly taking over the state’s umbrella union organization.
“There are a lot of people who would like him to do that,’’ Tercyak said Wednesday at the state Capitol in Hartford. “Public service is important to Chris, and if there are enough members of the AFL-CIO to elect him president, I think he’s be great if that’s where the body wants to go.’’
Regarding Donovan, Olsen said that he had not spoken recently to the former House Speaker. Some in the labor movement were upset with Olsen when he moved relatively quickly to endorse Democrat Elizabeth Esty after she had defeated Donovan in the Democratic primary for Congress in mid-August. Tensions were still raw among diehard union members over Donovan’s defeat, and some wanted Donovan to continue in the race because he had the endorsement of the union-backed Working Families Party.
Olsen acknowledged at the time that Donovan’s defeat was like a death in the union family and “almost like a grieving process’’ that represented a huge blow for union members to accept defeat in an important primary. Donovan went on vacation and essentially disappeared from public view after his defeat, and he did not relinquish the Working Families endorsement until more than two weeks later.
Donovan, who has rarely talked to reporters since his campaign finance director and campaign manager were arrested by the FBI during his Congressional campaign last summer, did not return three telephone messages to his home and cell phone. He has not been charged in the federal criminal case, which is continuing.
Insiders say that Donovan spread the word that if the unions want him as their leader, they need to organize and rally support. Donovan is not trying to rally support by calling every firefighters’ union local.
A political fundraising scandal in Donovan’s campaign led to eight arrests in a complicated scheme that was designed to block legislation that would increase taxes on roll-your-own tobacco. The legislation was blocked, but it later passed in a special session after the Donovan scandal became public.
Three of the eight arrested have pleaded guilty in the case. The first was Raymond Soucy, a former treasurer of AFSCME Local 387 who wore a wire and became a cooperating witness in the case. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a public official. The second was David Moffa, a former union president and member of AFSCME Local 387 who pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to cause a false campaign finance report to be filed with federal authorities. Moffa admitted in court that he gave a check for $2,500 to the Donovan campaign, but the money was provided by others.
Olsen said he had asked Donovan what he planned to do after stepping down as House Speaker, but he said that Donovan has not revealed his plans.
“He hasn’t spoken to me,’’ Olsen said of Donovan. “He wants to play a role, whether it’s in the progressive community or the labor movement. … He’s been out a couple of weeks [as Speaker], kind of unemployed. I wish him well – him and his family. I suggested he take a look at the Healthcare Foundation because of his work on healthcare. I’m sure when he makes a decision, he will call and let me know. I’m sure Chris will give me a call.’’
With more than 200,000 members, the state AFL-CIO is a force at the state Capitol and in local Democratic politics.
One of the key reasons why Olsen has maintained his power for so long is that he had huge support for decades from AFSCME, the hugely influential labor organization. A key supporter during those years was Dominic J. Badolato, the executive director of AFSCME Council 4 for nearly three decades who also served as executive vice president at the AFL-CIO.
A battle between Olsen and Donovan would come at an important time for unions in Connecticut. As reported by Mara Lee for The Courant, the decline of unions nationwide continued in 2012 to the point where only 11.3 percent of all workers nationwide are union members. The latest data, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Wednesday, showed that union membership declined by 0.5 percent from the previous year.
In Connecticut, 14 percent of workers are union members — a drop from 16.8 percent in 2011. When including workers represented by a union, even if they don’t pay dues, the proportion of unionized Connecticut workers is 15.1 percent. That total represents a drop from 272,000 jobs in 2011 to 232,000 in 2012.
Regardless of what happens in the labor battle, Olsen said he would not become involved in a negative campaign against Donovan. He cited his race against incumbent Democratic state chairman Edward Marcus, whom Olsen defeated in 2000 as state chairman.
“I don’t believe in negative campaigns. Period,’’ Olsen said. “I understand the impact they have. For me, when I ran against Marcus, he ran a negative campaign. That’s why I welcome campaigns because they’re about debates. There’s nothing wrong with so-called debates and arguments. Anyone who thinks they know it all is in deep trouble.’’
He added that he has a history of not backing down.
“I’ve been known to welcome a fight,’’ Olsen said in the interview. “It’s not so much a fight. It’s about people debating ideas. Listen, I’ve had plenty of debates and discussions.’’
One longtime union insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that union activists are talking about a Donovan challenge of Olsen.
“That’s exactly what the buzz is. That’s certainly the word that’s going around,’’ the insider said of Donovan. “What I’m hearing consistently is he’s casting around and getting people’s commitments if he is to run. He’s interested, but everything is in flux.’’
Another union insider, who is well known publicly but also requested anonymity, said Donovan’s career as House Speaker and former co-chairman of the legislature’s labor committee shows that he could certainly hold the job.
“He’s got the background for it. He’s got the chops for it,’’ the insider said.
But Olsen has a long track record of fending off challengers that include several during his tenure as president and an upset victory over an incumbent in the pipefitters union back in 1978. Olsen keeps coming back, and his supporters say he should not be counted out.
“I’ve been referred to as a dinosaur 15 years ago,’’ Olsen said. “I said, ‘I may be prehistoric, but I’m not extinct.’ I’m like the sharks and cockroaches. I’m still here.’’