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Lawmaker joins race to lead state AFL-CIO

Tolman, 2 others promise changes

BACK TO HIS ROOTS State Senator Steven Tolman, a Brighton Democrat, said he would step down from the Legislature if he wins. BACK TO HIS ROOTS
State Senator Steven Tolman, a Brighton Democrat, said he would step down from the Legislature if he wins.
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / July 26, 2011

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State Senator Steven A. Tolman is joining the race for president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, adding a prominent name to a contest defined in part by how much the state’s largest labor organization should distance itself from the confrontational style of its current leader.

The AFL-CIO, which has seen its membership dwindle and its clout ebb, is scheduled to elect a replacement for Robert J. Haynes in October. It is the first competitive race for the position in nearly 30 years.

A veteran lawmaker with deep ties to legislators and labor leaders, Tolman will be competing against Haynes’s protégé, Timothy Sullivan, who at age 31 is pitching himself as the voice of a younger generation, while still embracing Haynes’s legacy.

Also in the race is a lesser-known candidate, Edward W. Collins, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers from Springfield.

Looming over the contest is Haynes’s shadow. For 13 years, the former ironworker has led the organization with a bellicose style that has sometimes alienated the public and the state’s political establishment. All the candidates are trying in subtle ways to emphasize that they would strike a more conciliatory tone.

Tolman, a Brighton Democrat, began telling union allies yesterday that he would seek the job and step down from the Legislature if he wins.

“He’s the perfect person for the job,’’ said Joseph Faherty, who led the state AFL-CIO in the 1990s. “He knows how to negotiate, and he has a mild-mannered temperament. And I think one of the things the labor movement needs is that kind of personality. It’s not all fun and games, but it’s not all war, either.’’

Collins, too, said Tolman will be a formidable candidate.

“It shakes it up,’’ he said. “There are a number of unions, particularly in the public sector, which have a sense of loyalty to him because he’s carried some pretty heavy water for them in the Legislature, to his great credit.’’

Sullivan, who joined the race last month when Haynes announced his departure, started working for the AFL-CIO eight years ago and became its lobbyist three years later. He welcomed Tolman to the race, but suggested the senator could better serve the labor movement by remaining in his current job.

“He has been an incredible advocate for us,’’ he said. “It would be a significant blow to the labor movement to lose him in the state Senate.’’

The son of a union conductor on the Framingham commuter rail line, Tolman, 56, got his first union card in 1972, when he graduated from Watertown High School and went to work selling tickets at South Station.

He rose through the ranks of the Transportation Communication International Union, becoming New England division chairman, before winning election to the House in 1994 and the Senate in 1998.

His brother, Warren, is a former state senator and former candidate for governor who is mentioned as a potential challenger to US Senator Scott Brown in 2012.

Steven Tolman said he wants to improve labor’s image, which he said had been tarnished by conservative attacks, and to reach out to activist unions that have broken away from the AFL-CIO, frustrated by the labor movement’s long decline.

Union membership has fallen from 24 percent of the state’s workforce three decades ago to about 14.5 percent today. The AFL-CIO also suffered a major setback when the state approved a measure last month to curb the collective bargaining rights of some public employees.

“It’s a critical juncture for the labor movement in our state and in our nation,’’ Tolman said. “I do believe that I have the skill set to bring the unions back together and unite them under one umbrella, so we are speaking with once voice.’’

Tolman declined to directly criticize Haynes, calling him a friend of 35 years. But, he said, “my leadership style, I think, would be a breath of fresh air.’’

Sullivan, unlike his competitors and past presidents, has never been a blue-collar worker, but said his relative youth would help the AFL-CIO, which represents about 400,000 workers in the state, appeal to younger workers.

Sullivan said he refuses to let his generation “turn the lights out on the labor movement.’’

“There’s got to be a bridge to this younger generation, where people start to realize if they’re not the boss, they should be in a union,’’ he said.

Sullivan, though endorsed by Haynes, has been trying to delicately avoid being cast as his clone.

“Bob Haynes is not on the ballot,’’ Sullivan said, adding that while he is proud of his boss’s record, “I don’t think anybody who’s interacted with me would say I have the same approach as Bob Haynes in any way, shape, or form.’’

Sullivan has won endorsements from several unions eager for a fresh face, including AFCSME Council 93, the largest union in the state AFL-CIO.

“That sends a strong message that the labor movement is strong and vibrant and is going to make an appeal to young people to get active,’’ said Kevin Cotter, business manager of the Plumbers and Gasfitters Local 12, which has also endorsed Sullivan.

Tolman, however, is hoping to bank on years of good will to secure his own endorsements.

Veronica Turner - president of SEIU 1199, which represents 44,000 workers - said Tolman sponsored a bill three years ago that allowed the Service Employees Union to unionize 27,000 personal care attendants.

“We haven’t endorsed yet, but I’m very excited about him,’’ she said. “He’s a very great advocate for the middle class and working class.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.