That's One Good Politician Who Can Go from Railroad Clerk to AFL-CIO President

Friday, September 16, 2011

If all goes according to plan, Steve Tolman, the Assistant Majority Leader of the Massachusetts Senate, will be elected president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO on Oct. 7, five days after he turns 57. He will then resign from the Senate, where he is fourth from the top in the leadership pecking order.

For this son of a staunch union family and product of a blue-collar Watertown neighborhood, gaining the presidency of the largest, most prominent labor group in a major state is a huge achievement, and undoubtedly the fulfillment of a lifetime dream.

Tolman is a popular guy and he's done very well in politics, having entered the legislature as a state rep from Brighton in 1994, vaulted to the Senate in 1998, and moved steadily up through the ranks in the 40-member upper branch. On matters big and small, he has the ear of Senate President Terry Murray.

Many politicians would kill for the career this former railroad clerk has made for himself.

But when he takes the helm of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, replacing the retiring Bobby Haynes, Tolman will be in charge of a group that has 400,000 members. He will be an executive giving orders, not a lawmaker cajoling others for their votes. Any day of the week he wants it, Tolman will be able to commandeer a media spotlight that will put him in front of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of television viewers and radio listeners -- a far cry from his early days in public life, when it was mainly greenhorn reporters for low-wattage weeklies in his district dogging his steps.

Oh, and his bank account will undergo immediate improvement in October -- no small consideration for a devoted family man. (He and his wife have three children.)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Tolman's ascent has been its apparent ease. Haynes announced earlier in the summer that he was going to retire in the fall. One of Haynes's bright, young deputies, Tim Sullivan, immediately went to work securing the votes needed to replace him; it looked initially like Sullivan was an odds-on favorite. Then Tolman let it be known that he was seriously interested in the job and would not hesitate to leave the Senate to get it.

There followed a couple of months or more of ostensible quiet, although most observers figured that a fairly intense, behind-the-scenes battle was going on. This was an internal union contest and union guys know how to fight the way cats know how to stalk birds. They also don't give up without a fight.

At the end of August, just before Labor Day, Sullivan announced he was dropping his attempt to become president, meaning Tolman would be able to get the job practically by acclaim when the delegates from the various member unions of the AFL-CIO gather for the big vote.

"Rather than spend the next number of weeks campaigning against one another in pursuit of nearly identical goals," Sullivan told the State House News Service, "I am excited to become part of one team to build a plan for the future and unite the labor movement anew for many years to come."

Translation: Couldn't beat Tolman, had to join him.

In retrospect, Tolman had some considerable advantages going into this fight. He's older than Sullivan by 26 years, has long been recognized as labor's strongest voice and most effective advocate in the legislature, and has an impeccable union pedigree. After attending the Watertown public schools, Tolman graduated from the Harvard Trade Union Program and completed his bachelor's in law and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts while working for the railroads and becoming active in the Transportation Communications International Union (TCU). For years he served as local TCU chairman.

Tolman's late father was a railroad conductor and served as the local and general chairman of the United Transportation Union. His brother, John, is the vice president and national legislative representative of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen; one of his sisters is a former president of the state's largest nurses' union, the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Once Steve Tolman becomes president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the really hard work will begin. The restoration job they're handing him will be extremely difficult.

The recent drive by unions to stop the legislature from restricting their ability to negotiate changes in health benefits at the municipal employee level, which fell far short of the goal, only underscored the decline in union influence and power that has been going on for years. Tolman will be expected to reverse that decline.

We saw Bobby Haynes pull out all the rhetorical stops on the health benefits issue and the majority of legislators basically ignore him. Haynes is a good and intelligent man, a passionate and principled champion of labor, but maybe he was in the job too long, maybe people just stopped listening to him.

Steve Tolman will not be tuned out at the State House. People like him too much. Maybe that's why he won hands-down.

NEXT: How Tolman's style will work at the AFL-CIO.

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