It doesn’t take much prodding for John W. Olsen to launch into a diatribe when the subject of worker pay and Connecticut’s labor movement comes up, and Wednesday was no exception.
Olsen delivered his final speech after 25 years as president of the state AFL-CIO, and he went out as he came in: Glorifying the fight for justice. But while he’s well known for attacking corporate interests and political opponents, most of the battles he recounted Wednesday were with brothers and sisters of the union movement.
More than one chair was thrown over the years, and Olsen makes no apology for infighting.
“If we don’t change direction, if we don’t change what we’re doing, we will die,” Olsen said at the federation’s convention at MGM Grand/Foxwoods, waving a finger and shaking a fist. “The day that there isn’t a debate and discussion going on in this hall, there’s something wrong — because we’re alive.”
Typically, Olsen, 63, could remember the characters — he named at least three dozen fellow labor leaders, many now deceased — but not the issue of the moment that led to the row. What matters now, what mattered then, was the big picture, the real fight on behalf of workers in the factories, hospitals, casinos and schools.
There’s no false modesty here, nor arrogance. Olsen is part of a vast team of organizers that he thanked profusely. But he’s been the fireplug, the largest public voice of labor in Connecticut for a quarter century — and at the same time, a leading partisan Democrat, former state party chairman and 17-year member of the Democratic National Committee.
“Everyone who’s ever been associated with me had to sacrifice for me to be able to do what I’ve done,” Olsen said after the speech. “This is a political arena here, okay?”
The organized labor movement, 225,000 strong in Connecticut and shrinking but not as fast as many people believe, will by most accounts continue with equal zeal under Lori Pelletier, who will win election Thursday as executive secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO. The job of president, reorganized as a non-executive role, will go to Sal Luciano, executive director of AFSCME Council 4.
But with Olsen’s exit as state president, the way that zeal unfolds, the style of constant needling, will change as he takes his place in history as one of the all-time colorful figures of organized labor.
Pelletier, 50, the No. 2 official and chief lobbyist at the federation since 1999, is a former Pratt & Whitney testing inspector who brings a respected, lower-key style marked more by negotiation than ranting. Her ascension parallels the direction of organized labor — as leadership through vocal aggression, often by white, male tradesmen, gives way to a smoother approach.
Pelletier, the nation’s first openly gay leader of an AFL-CIO state federation, said Olsen is a cool negotiator behind closed doors. She and Luciano both downplayed Olsen’s firebrand style as unique.
“I think Lori is every bit as passionate, and it’s in her blood,” Luciano said, adding, “I’ve been known to blow up.”
And how about those chairs? Olsen recalled a tiff in 1991 with Merrillee Milstein, a leader of SEIU District 1199 who passed away in 2008.
“It was a Bobby Knight moment,” he said, referring to the college basketball coach who heaved a chair onto a court and drew scorn. He added, smirking, “It was one of those lighter chairs.”
“I’ve seen him throw a chair,” Luciano said.
And yet, Olsen is not only forgiven his tirades, but praised as, of all things, a peacemaker. After winning a close re-election in 1991, he embraced the Machinists union that had not backed him, Pelletier recalled.
In recent years, Olsen was a key player in a pact that kept unions working together rather than against one another after SEIU and the Teamsters broke away from AFL-CIO in 2005. Some say the state AFL-CIO under Olsen has been too complacent about organizing, and that a deeper rift with SEIU might have been a good thing, but Olsen argues that resources are too limited.
Always, he’s been a fighter — “We’re too plastic…too scripted” — and a peacemaker in one package.
After ousting an old party hand, Ed Marcus, in a voteless coup for the state Democratic chairmanship in 2000, Olsen reached out to the pro-business wing of the Democratic party. He naturally downplayed the rift, and defending against charges that his two roles would lead to conflicts by saying, “You could probably find a conflict with anyone. … John Olsen would never be someone who would cause problems with either state central or AFL-CIO.”
Luciano freely admits that he’s among those who raised the issue of a conflict between Olsen’s roles. “My disagreement with John has always been that his loyalty has been divided.”
But like Ronald Reagan, Olsen has the magic of Teflon, winning over opponents through sheer hard work and an understanding that the fight is not personal. A former plumber-pipefitter from Greenwich — the tough side of town, he always points out – he always gets back to the struggle of the working man and woman, including at MGM/Foxwoods, where four AFL-CIO unions represent 3,000 employees.
“I was a construction worker. You get on your knees in a trench and it’s hot. It’s cold.”
He leaves office scandal-free, proud of everything from keeping his wife, Janeen, on the payroll as his assistant to poking and prodding his fellow Democrat, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Olsen urged gunmakers this spring to modify their military-style rifles to avert Malloy’s ban. He slammed the administration last year for failing to support biomass as a source of renewable energy – and as always, later played down the dispute.
Malloy, understanding the big picture as well as anyone, paid homage Wednesday to Olsen, and to the AFL-CIO, which he’ll need next year in his likely re-election bid. The governor offered his pro-union bona-fides – organizing rights for home health care and child care workers, an earned income tax credit, paid sick leave, a higher minimum wage – and shared Olsen’s expansive view of the rights of working people.
“We are a better state for his having been with us,” Malloy said, joking that the plaudits might sound like a eulogy. “John is a patriot and a labor leader beyond compare. “Hard work…must be rewarded, otherwise our democracy can be in danger.”
Democracy is indeed threatened in Olsen’s world view. “We’re working more hours for less pay and there’s a lot of insecurity out there,” Olsen said. “For workers, they see that they are an expendable commodity in this country.”
He said those words back in 1996 and they are much truer today as median household income falls and unemployment is much higher. But Olsen’s sardonic and heartfelt attacks are so Old Faithful-regular that some of us journalists tune them out at times, or take them for granted.
On Wednesday, he took the language of the struggle to the ultimate heights.
“For those who are Christian, you know the apostles hid, they were crucified…and then what happened was the Holy Ghost came.”
His voice rose. “And then they went out and preached the gospel, and today you look at what Christianity became because they had the Holy Ghost that gave them the courage to go out and preach.”
He roared, “This is a movement that needs to embrace a gospel.”
Call it over-the-top, but the Christian comparison was a perfect symbol of his style of fighting. He says he’s not retiring and will work for elderly housing, among other causes. Public life needs people of his ilk. Beneath all the caustic quip-making, Olsen is a true gentleman in the battle.