Back to the trenches

Steve Tolman left the Massachusetts Senate to run the state’s biggest labor organization, bringing his political skills with him.

even in massachusetts, the bluest of blue states, labor unions are on the defensive. Union membership keeps slipping. High unemployment plagues unions in the private sector, while public-sector unions are seeing their health care and pension benefits trimmed by usually friendly Democratic lawmakers.

Steve Tolman until recently was one of those lawmakers. He says he always voted union during his two terms in the House representing Brighton and seven in the Senate, where his district included Water­town, where Tolman grew up. But he decided he could do more for the labor movement by using his political skills to run the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization representing 400,000 workers from 750 union locals. Tolman was elected to the post in October, running unopposed after the only other declared candidate bowed out. He resigned his Senate seat shortly after.  

Tolman, 57, is a sharp contrast with his predecessor, Robert Haynes, who was an elected officer in the AFL-CIO for 24 years and held the state’s top union position for the last 13 years. Both men are passionate about union issues, but Haynes has an in-your-face style that often alienated labor allies and political leaders. He issued electoral threats to politicians who took what he perceived as anti-union positions, a strategy that was no longer working. Tolman, by contrast, is a politician. He knows how to lobby. He knows how to cajole. He knows how to compromise.

He says coming out of high school as the sixth of eight children in a large family—which includes younger brother Warren, a former legislator and Demo­cratic lieutenant governor nominee —college was not the first option for him because money was tight. Getting a paycheck was.

“I couldn’t afford it; my parents didn’t have any money,” says Tolman, whose father was a railroad union rep. “So at 18 I got a job on the railroads and down at South Station working for Amtrak.”
For Tolman, who continued to pay his union dues throughout his legislative career and has the card in his wallet to prove it, it was a move that would define his adult life. At 23, he was elected a rep for his union and went down to Atlantic City for an AFL-CIO convention where he en­countered New Jersey union boss Fred Kroll, who Tolman says would change his life.

“Freddy was my national president, who in 1976 took a corrupt union and probably turned it into the most militant union in the railroad industry,” Tolman says, as he looks at a 35-year-old picture on his wall of Kroll standing next to a gangly, bushy-headed, 23-year-old Steve Tolman. “And what he was saying is what touched me. He basically was saying the role of a union representative is not just in the workplace, and I kind of perked up to listen. He really inspired me and instilled in me the value to be involved and I respected that.”

Kroll sent Tolman to a 13-week labor course at Harvard and Tolman, in turn, used the position as a launching pad for his political career. Now, as Tolman returns to the union ranks, he faces a very different environment.

In the 1970s, union workers represented more than a third of the workforce nationally and close to 40 percent in Massachusetts. Today, only 12 percent of the national workforce is represented by unions. In Massachusetts, about 415,000 of the state’s 2.9 million workers—about 14.5 percent—were union members in 2010. That was a drop of more than 60,000 members from 2009, even as the state’s workforce grew by 20,000. Many of the AFL-CIO unions are public sector, such as the MBTA and municipal workers, handing Tolman a delicate balancing act between advocating for government workers and listening to concerns about taxes and budgets from his private-sector union members.

It’s hard to pin Tolman down on his vision or agenda for the union. Whether asking what his plans are, what he would see as a successful first year in office, or what his legislative agenda is, Tolman continually points out how new he is to the job.

He says he intends to draw some of the unions who are not part of the AFL-CIO, such as the Carpenters’ Union, back into the fold. But his biggest priority, he says, is to change the perception of how people see labor.

Tolman, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the Univ­ersity of Massachusetts Boston while in the Senate, sat down with me in his Malden office on a raw afternoon the day before Thanksgiving. A tall man with wisps of thin, gray hair that he has trouble controlling over his mostly balding pate, he anointed Elizabeth Warren as the Demo­cratic nominee for US Senate against Scott Brown, let slip a reference to a new “Haynes rule” at the national AFL-CIO that prevents elected union officials from receiving money from outside groups, and touted his support for single-payer health care, although he says he isn’t sure his fellow union members would agree with him.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

—JACK SULLIVAN

commonwealth:  Why did you decide to pursue this job? What was it that you saw that you could bring to it and why you thought you’d be the guy for it?

tolman:  Bobby [Haynes] had announced that he wasn’t running, so I had to think about it. And I talked it over with my family and it was a big change in my life because I was assistant majority leader in the Senate, a good spot. It was something actually I went to work every day to do and I loved. But the reason I was in politics is because of the labor movement. And it’s funny because so often people would say to me, “You have to get away from the labor movement. You’ll never get elected Senate president.” And I thought to myself, “Well, why would I get away from the labor movement? That’s why I’m up here.”  And it’s a perfect opportunity to take everything I love, everything I believe in and transition from public life to the president of the AFL-CIO, to try to bring it back together.

cw:  You say that one of the pieces of advice you got is that you’d never be Senate president if you didn’t get away from the labor union. Why is that?

tolman :  First, I don’t necessarily say that I agree with that philosophy that I would’ve had to get away from the labor movement in order to be Senate president. How­ever, I think that’s the corporate agenda. In other words, I think people in many ways want to stymie the labor movement. And I think over the last 30 years, we have been kept down and labor probably hasn’t grown the way it should. In fact, there’s a direct correlation between the loss of middle-class [buying power] and the demise of the labor movement. We had like 34 percent [of the workforce] at one point; we’re down to about 12 percent, if that, now.

cw:  In Massachusetts, though, it’s a little stronger, right?

tolman:  We’re one of the good states, yeah. We still have about 400,000 members. We are going to work to bring all the unions back under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO. We are working on that. I would say clearly we are not the force that we were back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. How­ever, I think that there is actually more of a need for organized labor to step up to the plate and address the inequities in society today than ever in our nation.

cw:  Why’s that?

tolman:  We’re an organization that wants to be able to make sure that if a guy gives his 40 hours work, he should get a decent pay, he should get benefits, and he should have some sort of retirement to look for at the end of his time. But all of that’s gone now. What you and I grew up to expect is diminished for the middle class. However, the very wealthy have more money than they’ll ever be able to spend.

cw:  On the one hand you’ve got municipal employees, state employees, in the AFL-CIO who have very enviable benefits. On the other hand, you’ve also got private-sector union members who look at it and see that these are health care programs that they consider the Cadillac programs, very low co-pays, low premiums, and these private-sector union guys look at it and say, “I just want a job, and I don’t want to pay the taxes for that [public employee’s benefits].” How do you balance those two?

tolman:  The way you described it isn’t exactly the way it is. It’s perception, what you described. And I want to be very clear on that because the point is that if I were to think about municipal employees generally, they didn’t make a lot of money. Their pay scale wasn’t that good but one of the things people know about municipal employees: You got decent retirement, you got decent health care, and your benefits package was kind of pretty good. People used to say you’d never get rich but you’ll have a good job with good benefits. That’s how they looked at the state. And that was one of the compromises, that you wouldn’t make a lot of money but your benefits package was a pretty good package.

The average pension in the state is like $28,000. It’s the sometime elaborate schemes that certain individuals work out for themselves, and then it’s portrayed as though everybody has a special deal. You understand? So that you have to kind of get through the mud a little bit to figure out exactly what the issues are. So I would say that municipal employees certainly don’t make a great hourly wage or state employees weren’t always overpaid hourly, in fact a little underpaid, but they got a good package. And in the last maybe 10 years, [critics] tried to portray [employee benefits] as though that was a problem and that that was the anchor on municipalities when in reality if you looked at the studies it’s not actually the case.

cw:  You talk about the labor movement and the union but it’s not a monolithic base. When you look at the election of Scott Brown, who I don’t think anybody is going to mistake for Warren or Steve Tolman as far as being a friend of labor, a lot of his support came from union households.

tolman: Right, but that’s okay. See, that’s the big misnomer here. There’s nothing wrong with that. He ran a better campaign. And here’s the thing, that he had been previously endorsed by the AFL-CIO just a couple of years previous as a state senator.

cw:  Do you see him as a friend of labor?

tolman:  Do I see Scott Brown as a friend of labor? When he served in the [state] Senate, he was friendly to labor. His agenda now—I see it probably as not the working people’s agenda. He voted against the jobs bill. Labor’s candidate for the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] he voted against, you know, right out of the box. He hasn’t demonstrated that he is nationally in line with labor beliefs.

cw:  So why is it okay that so many union households support him?

tolman:  Because they have the freedom to make that choice. We don’t tell our people how to vote. We can only provide them with the information and let them make an intelligent vote. And that’s the best way a democracy should work. And in this particular case, the attorney general, [Martha Coakley], did not effectively get her message across in her campaign, and his touched people. His [truck], his commercials were, whether we like it or not, very powerful. So I don’t have a problem with losing an election on grounds like that. Now as we come into this next year, hopefully we can educate our members so that they will evaluate the senator on his votes.

cw:  When you give that analysis, are you giving that as a politician, as someone who understands campaigns, somebody who understands elections, or are you giving that analysis as the president of the AFL-CIO?

tolman:  That’s what I am.  I am the president of the AFL-CIO, and I believe that we have to educate, give our members the tools to make an informed decision. That’s the most effective way to win elections. We have to support our friends and defeat our enemies. When Scott was elected to the US Senate, I argue he rightfully ran a better campaign and touched the people. And that’s okay; we lost.

cw:  Who’s we?

tolman:  The Democrats. In that particular case we lost Senator Kennedy’s seat, who clearly we all loved. It was “the people’s seat,” of course, you know all that stuff. We lost the seat but we lost it in a fair race. And now we will be addressing that this year. We have a candidate that thankfully will relate to the Democratic majority or the Demo­cratic electorate. We have a candidate who challenged Wall Street, who spoke out long before it became popular.

cw:  Elizabeth Warren is the candidate now for the union? Even though there’s still another…

tolman:  No, we haven’t endorsed yet, but I would suspect that Elizabeth Warren will, has, a very good chance of garnering the AFL-CIO’s endorsement. It hasn’t happened yet and I can’t speak for that. I shouldn’t put that in the paper, should I?  I was with her last week and you know what, I think she has a great story to tell. We have a process at the AFL-CIO and the appropriate process will be followed.

cw:  When you say you’ve got to change this perception, you’ve got to change the way people portray you, is there any acknowledgement in there that maybe labor itself has to change?

tolman:  We have a lot to be proud of but we just don’t tout it enough. And organized labor is what’s right about the working class and we need to start to talk about that a little bit. And we need to stop being identified by our enemies, by people who don’t like us, who portray us as selfish, who portray us as feather-bedders, who portray us as not interested in what is right about communities, about our state, about America. And I think that we need to change that. And I think we can change that because we just have to say and identify who we are, rather than be identified by others who want to make us look like something we are not.

We see the richest 1 percent in America holding 90 percent of the wealth. Yet there isn’t the atmosphere to have a decent pension for an individual who spends his life working for a corporation, or while they’re working for a corporation they shouldn’t have health care at an affordable cost? Today the cost of health care for a family plan is becoming like a second mortgage to a family. I think what labor stands for is what’s right about America. What is bad about having a representative represent employees, standing up on an even platform? What is bad about that?  

cw:  How can you bring pressure to bear on Blue Cross, Partners to lower their rates so that hospitals are more accessible?

tolman:  Frankly, I am a big fan of single-payer health care system, and I do believe that’s what we should have. I believe that no matter where you work, no matter where you live, everybody should have the basic package of health care. And it should be promoted in a way so that you do your exams so that we’d be checked for serious illnesses ahead of time and that there’d be incentives for that. So that we educate properly in nutrition, so that we do get people off of cigarette smoking, so that we try to detect [who is at risk for] strokes before they happen because those are huge costs on society. And with the proper health care system, we can do all that. And a single-payer system sets up the plate to do that.

cw:  Where’s the union’s role in that?

tolman:  I don’t know. But I can tell you this: As far as the cost of health care, it’s becoming another mortgage and people cannot continue to go on this road.

cw:  Well, here’s an uncomfortable question for you then. When you talk about Blue Cross, for instance, your predecessor sat on their board and collected $70,000 per year as a stipend.  How do you bring, as a union, the force of moral authority to that when the union head is sitting on a board of the organization that you were just…

tolman:  Let me answer that because I think that’s a terrific question and it’s a very valid point. First of all, the executives from the corporate world who served on that board also got that same pay, okay? Why should a labor person serve on that board and not get paid if the executives are getting paid? So you have the argument there about who gets paid and who doesn’t. But the bottom line is that the national AFL-CIO has changed the bylaws so that the AFL-CIO president—any money I make outside this goes into the political fund or into the AFL-CIO.

cw:  When was that change made?

tolman:  They did it this spring.

cw:  Was it because of . . .[I start to say Bobby Haynes, Tolman’s predecessor].

tolman:  I wouldn’t say that. No, the fact that they call it the Haynes rule? No, so don’t go there. You know what, because I don’t care. This isn’t about disparaging my predecessor. And the point is: Why should he have not gotten that if the executives were getting it? I don’t say that I subscribe to that because if I get that appointment, I can serve but I can’t get paid. However, if I were to appoint somebody there, not affiliated with us, not double-dipping or whatever, I would love to be able to put an advocate there that couldn’t work, someone with a disability, someone who was limited. That $70,000 would provide them with the perfect annual pay. What’s wrong with appointing somebody like that?

cw:  Okay, so let’s say we’re sitting here a year from now. What is it that’s going to change having Steve Tolman, former state senator, now speaking on behalf of labor?

tolman:  I have come through the House of Repre­sent­atives. I served two terms, and I was in my seventh in the Senate. And I understand that in order to accomplish anything you have to communicate effectively. I’ll give you an example. Taking health care out of collective bargaining was a bill that passed both houses. I voted against it. We lost pretty handily in both branches. Demo­cratic­ally-controlled legislators thought it would be best not to have a collective voice on health care, one of the biggest issues.

So how do I look at that? I believe that we have to write to the Legislature and let them know the history of collective bargaining. I think that people miscalculated the concept of what collective bargaining means to health care. My gut tells me we need to notify those people that voted that way why we disagree with them, not send them a stupid letter, not send them a threatening letter, but to send them information providing them the right information about why collective bargaining is important to health care. So that’s how I believe I’m going to be different. I want to be able to let them make a more informed decision and I think many of them made that decision out of a vacuum.

cw: Do you think threats work?

tolman:  No. No.

cw:  Do you agree that the approach a lot of times by some union members has been to threaten Democrats?

tolman:  I couldn’t argue that may have happened.

cw:  Were you ever threatened?

tolman:  No, not by labor. How could I? I was with them all the time.

cw:  What insights and experiences do you bring here that you’re going to tell your labor associates and colleagues, “This is where you’ve made mistakes before.”

tolman:  I’m not worried about mistakes in the past. I’m focused on the future. I’m Steven Tolman, and I want to do things differently. And I am Steven Tolman, and I am a trade unionist. And I’m Steven Tolman, and I’m very proud of the AFL-CIO. I’ll candidly admit, we’re probably not without sin, but I will also say that we are an organization that’s going to be on the move, that’s going to stand for middle-class America, that’s going to challenge the imbalance in society.

cw:  How long do you think it’ll take you?

tolman:  Sixteen minutes [laughing]. I would hope that we lay pretty good groundwork over the next year and reestablish relationships and trust. It’s one step at a time. It’s a step forward and a deep breath.