MASHANTUCKET, Conn. – The Tenth Bienniel Constitutional Convention of the Connecticut AFL-CIO was filled with standing ovations, reflections and optimism as retiring president John Olsen’s quarter century of leadership for the cause of working people was celebrated and Lori Pelletier was elected to the new top position of Executive Secretary Treasurer, becoming the only woman head of a state federation in the country. Pelletier, a member of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), has held the second leadership position at the Connecticut AFL-CIO for many years.
The convention’s clear agenda was to organize the unorganized and stand up for the rights and needs of all working people, following the national AFL CIO mandate. Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, UFCW, described their success at organizing taxi drivers in New York and poultry workers in Alabama.
“We didn’t just ask the community to support us – we asked them to join us,” he said. “We didn’t just show up at community rallies,” he said, explaining that the union developed meaningful relationships with community leaders and made sure a broad coalition was at the decision making table.
A panel on best practices in union-community organizing highlighted the struggle against for-profit hospitals in Waterbury, election of union and community leaders to city government in New Haven, and a jobs pipeline in Meriden.
AFSCME organizer Suzanne Haviland described the coalition organized in Waterbury when a private firm moved to take over the hospital. “If it wasn’t for Governor Malloy’s veto at the last minute we would have fast-tracked private hospitals in our state,” she said.
All of Connecticut’s constitutional officers addressed the convention. Governor Dannel Malloy decried the actions of other governors who “balance the budget on the backs of working people,” in contrast to the approach of his administration which supported legislation that increased the minimum wage, established paid sick days and expanded voting rights.
“We need labor’s strong voice,” said Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman, once a member of 1199. “We need to help you in any way we can to make sure unions are alive and well in Connecticut.”
Labor Commissioner Sharon Palmer, formerly president of Connecticut AFT, held a discussion with women delegates about their working conditions for the newly formed Commission on Pay Equity. Since her appointment several months ago, the Department of Labor has recovered $6.5 million for victims of wage theft, and has issued 180 stop work orders. “Employers should live by the laws and respect their workers,” she said.
“We are at a crossroads,” exclaimed Pelletier in her report to the convention. “The Koch brothers are in town. If we weren’t at the legislature as union members their voice would be louder. We need a stronger, bolder labor movement,” she said asking delegates to “stand with the legacy John Olsen has left this labor movement. Stand with me.”
Pelletier’s first public appeal following the convention was an email request to sign onto the AFL-CIO message to House Republicans – “Get a grip. Stop the hostage taking. Don’t shut down our country.”
A special resolution was adopted unanimously naming Olsen as President Emeritus in recognition of his 25 years of service. A stream of delegates took the floor to thank their outgoing president for his passionate support and solidarity at all times citing his participation in shop steward conferences, for health and safety, plant closing struggles, strikes and organizing drives, contract negotiations, encouragement of constituency groups and leadership in elections.
Delegates also joked with Olsen about disagreements and arguments over the years. “We may not agree on all the issues,” said one AFSCME delegate, “but the one thing we do always agree on is the fight.”
Olsen described his start in the labor movement as an apprentice in the plumbers and pipefitters union where he led a fight for equal pay. “That is the passion that brought me to this hall,” he said charging the delegates with nurturing and developing the next generation of leaders for the labor movement.
The convention was addressed by Steve Protulis of the union-run Elderly Housing and Development Corporation, where Olsen will serve as a national consultant.
The convention stood in solidarity with Lawrence and Memorial hospital workers who are in a struggle to stop the hospital from outsourcing as many as 186 jobs. “We should not have private corporations at a community hospital, health care is a right!” exclaimed Melodie Peters, president of AFT CT which represents the workers.
The convention also addressed international solidarity, and gave standing applauses to Mahmoud Abu Odeh, a Palestinian trade union leader who described the ordeal of five hour waits to cross checkpoints to get to work in Israel. He asked for solidarity from union sisters and brothers in the United States and called for recognition of the Palestinian state according to the 1967 borders established by the United Nations.
Resolutions were passed in support of the Affordable Care Act, to end rising inequality and create living wage, full time jobs, and in support of the Future Commission, enacted by the state legislature this spring, to study potentials for converting the state’s economy to non-military production.
Mary Elia, corresponding secretary of the Connecticut Alliance for Retired Americans, received the Betty Kuehnel Leadership Award at the annual Women’s Breakfast.
The convention, held at MGM Grand Hotel at Foxwoods Casino, was greeted by unionized casino workers represented by the United Auto Workers, Stationery Engineers, Firefighters and United Food and Commercial Workers.
Photo: Outgoing President John Olsen passes the gavel to incoming Executive Secretary Treasurer Lori Pelletier at the Connecticut AFLCIO convention. Photo courtesy of AFL-CIO.