AFL-CIO holds convention in city

The Connecticut AFL-CIO opened its three-day biennial Constitutional Convention Wednesday morning at the Omni New Haven Hotel.

The AFL-CIO, a group of labor unions with 9 million members nationally and 211,000 in Connecticut, works to promote labor interests, particularly through political action. The biennial convention is mandated by the constitution of the Connecticut AFL-CIO and draws delegates from all over the state. Connecticut AFL-CIO President John Olsen said the convention is an opportunity for members to discuss broad union issues such as the structure and direction of the labor movement.

Delegates will consider 27 resolutions on topics ranging from Wal-Mart to health care to hurricane relief. Delegates will also be electing officers and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the AFL-CIO merger.

Olsen said an important issue this year will be the decision in late June by the Teamsters, an influential union of freight and transportation workers, to leave the AFL-CIO, which they said was not adequately addressing the current decline in union membership.

Olsen said the departure threatens the organization’s solidarity. But regardless of the recent split and the fact that each delegation comes to the convention with its own goals, Tom Lang, a member of broadcasting and cable television sector of the Communications Workers of America, said the organization remains united

“I don’t think the movement is divided,” Lang said. “There was a big ripple with the Teamsters breaking loose, but those things happen. I’ve been to other labor events this year and I saw a lot of solidarity.”

Olsen said the disagreements within the labor movement relate to the allocation of resources and the structure of the movement.

Looking to the future, Olsen said the union should focus on increasing its clout.

“We need to work with unions in and out of the AFL-CIO and build a broader coalition,” he said. “We need to use politics as a tool for organizing and use the legislative process and community organizations as well.”

Olsen said also the often difficult relationship between Yale and local unions, most recently surrounding the planned Yale-New Haven Hospital cancer center, which has been slowed by debate over labor rights and community benefits, is a continued point of concern. Olson said the democratic process is crucial in the workplace.

“You would hope that Yale, being a university, would be a more enlightened employer than Wal-Mart, but they all seem to work from the same playbook,” Olsen said.

But Olsen also said the relationship between labor and Yale will not figure prominently in discussions.

“I think Yale issues would come up here only in the context of the broader struggle,” Olsen said.

The convention opened Wednesday morning with an address from New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., whose gubernatorial campaign workers were a visible presence in the hotel lobby. DeStefano spoke about the importance of unions in addressing the continuing loss of manufacturing jobs in Connecticut’s slowing economy. Gov. M. Jodi Rell, will speak Thursday afternoon.

Other speakers include Roger Vann, president of the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union, and former U.S. Reps. Barbara Kennelly and Sam Gejdenson.

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