A new labor day

Bay State unions make Steve Tolman their new public face. Will Boston lose his senate seat?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  September 7, 2011

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LABOR PANGS Steve Tolman has promised to give up his State Senate seat if he wins presidency of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. 

The past couple of years have not been great ones for the labor movement in Massachusetts — even aside from the general economic strife that has seen workers struggle for jobs. The casino bill, which unions championed, repeatedly failed to pass. Changes to municipal health-plan rules, which they bitterly opposed, passed. In Boston and elsewhere, tough budgets forced give-backs from teachers, firefighters, and other employees.

And perhaps most galling, at least to labor leaders in the state, huge swaths of union households bucked their locals' advice and helped elect Scott Brown, whose first act in the US Senate was to cast the deciding vote blocking the nomination of a union-friendly labor secretary.

Nobody pins the blame for all this entirely on the somewhat gruff and combative nature of long-time Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes; still, when Haynes announced his retirement in late May, many in the movement saw an opportunity to put a new, savvier, more inclusive face on the movement when they choose a successor at their October convention.

Steve Tolman of Brighton will apparently be that face. A late entry into the race, Tolman clinched the post when his lone remaining rival, Massachusetts AFL-CIO legislative and communications director Tim Sullivan, bowed out in time for a show of Labor Day unity. (That's assuming no last-minute convention shenanigans, which some veteran Massachusetts labor insiders say can never be ruled out.)

Labor activists say Tolman is exactly what the labor movement needs. He has the savvy and strong political relationships, but is also a friendly, likable, and compassionate man who will be difficult for opponents to demonize.

Tolman, state senator since 1999 and currently assistant majority leader, has long been a union guy. His roots in the labor movement got back to 1972, and he was once New England division chair of the Transportation Communication International Union.

While his new role will put him outside Beacon Hill looking in, it will make him arguably more politically powerful than a state senator — even one in leadership.

"There's a vacancy, and many of my dear friends in labor have encouraged me," Tolman says. "It took some time. I really weighed the pros and cons."

The Massachusetts AFL-CIO is an umbrella for more than 750 unions, representing some 400,000 workers — including state and municipal government workers, nurses, teachers, electrical workers, and plenty more. Many Beacon Hill insiders considered Haynes one of the most important political figures in the state.

"Steve is going to be a breath of fresh air for the labor community," says Edward Kelley, state president for the International Fire Fighters.

One thing Tolman may be able to do, some say, is build public support for unions. The labor movement nationally is coming to see the importance of that public support — they have seen it play a crucial role in recent high-profile labor battles in Wisconsin and other states.

So, instead of drawing us-against-the-world battles, labor wants to promote itself as part of a broader middle-class struggle.

"Corporate America has really bankrupted our government," Kelley says. "The gap between the richest people and the middle class is getting larger and larger, and the only thing that can stem that tide is the labor movement."

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