A former plumber elected to head the state’s AFL-CIO when he was just 38 years old, John W. Olsen announced Tuesday that after 25 years he will retire in September.
The move comes as the federation is downsizing and merging the position of president with that of secretary-treasurer, a position currently held by Lori Pelletier, who, according to Olsen, is expected to seek election to the job.
“We reorganized in April so we would be better equipped to meet the challenges of the future,” Olsen said Tuesday in a phone interview. He said he feels like he’s leaving the organization, a federation of all the state’s labor unions, in good hands.
While there’s always room for improvement, Olsen said he feels pretty good about where things stand at the moment recalling that he took over the organization at the tail end of a Republican landslide. One of Olsen’s proudest accomplishments would come early in his career. He said he offered a resolution to support creating a state income tax before the idea was embraced by former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker.
And even though Olsen criticized Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s first budget proposal that called for $2 billion in union concessions in 2011, he said the former Stamford mayor did “make the tax more progressive and he probably doesn’t get enough credit for that.”
A battle Olsen didn’t win was over changes to workers’ compensation laws back in 1993. He said the recent school shooting in Newtown highlighted how weak state law is in that area and he hopes the issue will be revisited during the next legislative session.
In 2000, Olsen shook up the political world by unseating former Democratic Chairman Ed Marcus. Olsen said he didn’t plan to become party chairman, but he was fed up with how “poorly” things were being handled. He won that election and ran the party from 2001-02.
Olsen said he paid off the party’s debts and made the Democratic Party a little more professional during his tenure.
“When a town committee member would ask me: ‘What came first the AFL-CIO or the Democratic Party?’ I would reply by asking them, ‘What comes first the Democratic Party or your family?’” Olsen said. “I never answered.”
Olsen said that fact that he’s the first chairman whose picture is in color and not black and white is an indication of how he moved the party forward and paved the way for its future chairpeople.
He doesn’t have any regrets, but he said his biggest disappointments came when former Gov. John G. Rowland was in office and laid off nearly 3,000 unionized state employees. A federal appeals court ruled last week that what Rowland did by targeting only union employees was unconstitutional.
“It was a sad episode for us,” Olsen said.
He said the Republican Party has changed a lot over the past 25 years. He said the late U.S. Rep. Stewart McKinney had an 85 percent AFL-CIO voting record. These days that’s rare in a world where there are fewer private sector and more public sector unions.
“Republicans back then were a different breed,” Olsen said.
He said even when he was the head of the Democratic Party the AFL-CIO endorsed a few Republicans that year.
The man who was once arrested with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and became the face of Connecticut’s labor movement is ready for some new challenges. When he leaves the AFL-CIO, Olsen will become a consultant for the Elderly Housing Development Corporation, which manages and secures affordable housing for senior citizens across the United States.
As far as volunteer positions — he holds on a number of seats on state boards — Olsen said he will be looking to the governor’s office for guidance in transitioning out of them. Some of them he’s been a member of since they were created.
He was appointed by former Gov. William A. O’Neil to Connecticut Innovations Inc. and the Connecticut Employment and Training Commission both of which he serves on today. He also serves on the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund.
The AFL-CIO membership will elect a new principal officer to replace Olsen at a convention that will be held on Sept. 25-27 at Foxwoods Casino.