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Veteran union leader retiring

AFL-CIO’s Haynes leaves amid crisis in labor movement

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / June 1, 2011

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Robert J. Haynes, the longtime president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, announced yesterday that he will step down in the fall, prompting soul-searching about the future of the labor movement and a potential fight for succession.

A tough-talking former ironworker who has led the state’s largest labor group since 1998, Haynes is a powerful and divisive figure, influential in elections but prone to strident rhetoric, some of which has alienated his allies in the Democratic Party. His departure follows a series of historic defeats at the State House this spring.

Labor leaders say they are wrestling with how to reinvigorate a movement that has seen union membership fall from 24 percent of Massachusetts’ workforce three decades ago to about 14.5 percent today.

“I honestly don’t know where labor goes,’’ said Carolyn Federoff, a union vice president who is on the AFL-CIO board. “Ultimately, what we need are more union members, more people who appreciate unions and what collective bargaining is about. If that doesn’t happen, I think we’ll continue to shrink.’’

In a letter to union members yesterday, Haynes, 61, said he would not seek reelection when his term expires on Oct. 6, because he wants to spend more time with his family. He said the organization, which represents about 400,000 union workers in the state, faces “extraordinary challenges’’ presented by changing demographics and repeated benefit cuts.

“Transformation requires new ways, new ideas, new strategies, new and young and innovative thinking, and today’s challenges require boundless energy,’’ Haynes wrote. “Only younger labor members and leaders can carry the day and inspire the new generation of union members.’’

Haynes’s decision, while a shock to some union leaders, was not a surprise to others, who said he felt worn out after suffering painful setbacks.

Recently, he failed to persuade the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature to drop its bid to cut the collective bargaining rights of municipal employees in an effort to save money for cash-strapped cities and towns. He also angered some Democrats with his vow to oust lawmakers who voted for the bill.

“It’s a done deal for our relationship with the people inside that chamber,’’ he declared after the House approved the bill in April.

Haynes was also criticized this spring for accepting nearly $73,000 to serve on the board of the nonprofit Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts as the board approved an $11 million severance package for its chief executive, Cleve Killingsworth. Haynes’s payment was seen as a potential conflict of interest and an embarrassment for a labor leader who frequently rails against the pay of chief executives.

“I think he’s tired,’’ said David J. Holway, president of the National Association of Government Employees, who said he had urged Haynes to stay on as president. “There’s no good time to get out, but he’s reached that point in his life when he wants to smell the roses.’’

Haynes wrote that he would be supporting as his successor Timothy P. Sullivan, 31, who is currently the AFL-CIO’s spokesman and State House lobbyist. Sullivan did not return calls seeking comment. But writing on Facebook, he said he wants to “hit the reset button and reenergize the labor movement.’’

Labor leaders said they expected that other candidates may challenge Sullivan for the presidency. Among those being mentioned is Martin J. Walsh, a Democratic state representative from Dorchester, who is secretary treasurer of the Boston Building Trades Council. Walsh has been an outspoken voice for labor in the Legislature. He declined to comment.

Haynes, who has served as an officer in the AFL-CIO for 24 years, wrote that he was proud of his accomplishments, which include increasing the minimum wage and fending off attempts to roll back the prevailing wage law. He was also a pivotal player in the Democratic coalition, providing crucial ground support for union-backed candidates.

Federoff, who represents federal housing employees, said she was not sure if the organization should now turn to a lower-key president.

“Bob can be over-the-top and bombastic,’’ she said, but his tone reflects the views of many other labor leaders who “feel similarly frustrated’’ with wage and benefit cuts for workers in the public and private sectors.

“Would it be better if we had a less strident voice?’’ she said. “I don’t think it would be different.’’

She said that whoever becomes president will need to focus on mobilizing younger workers who no longer feel connected to a movement rooted in the state’s industrial past.

“We have to do a better job talking to our members, because on some level our members don’t understand the issues,’’ she said. “That’s the failure of all of us as leaders. That’s not Bob’s fault.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.