Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.


Luciano leads labor through turbulent times

HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan Sal Luciano became organized labor's most powerful person in Connecticut when he took the helm as president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO Dec. 1.

When Sal Luciano took a job as a social worker with the Connecticut Department of Children and Youth Services in 1980, he quickly saw gaps in what was expected of employees there, and the resources provided to them.

“The case loads were very high … whichever case was the crisis of the day that you were dealing with,” Luciano said, adding that clients of what is now called the Department of Children and Families (DCF) are some of the state's neediest residents, many living in poverty. “(But) poor people generally don't vote, and abused children certainly don't vote, so we didn't get a lot of the resources that we needed to protect them.”

Within six months of starting at DCF, Luciano became a union steward for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' (AFSCME) Local 2663 union.

Nearly four decades later, Luciano is now president of Connecticut's chapter of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest federation of labor unions. His top union post comes at a turbulent time for the labor movement.

While public support of unions stands at a 15-year high, union membership in Connecticut has lagged in the last few years. At the end of 2018, 268,000 residents were union members, down 3.5 percent from a year earlier.

That dip comes as organized labor in the state faces a host of challenges, from a 2017 Supreme Court ruling that threatened its funding stream to a possible strike by AFL-CIO-affiliated Stop & Shop workers.

At the state Capitol, Gov. Ned Lamont's budget proposal asks for union givebacks, which means labor may be forced back to the negotiating table. Unions are also leading the fight for a $15 minimum wage, paid family medical leave and other measures that are putting them in the crosshairs of the business community.

“It's our job to try to lift people up,” Luciano said. “We have an opportunity to … make things better in the state.”

Rising through the ranks in AFSCME Local 2663, Luciano became chief steward in 1984 and chapter president in 1989, while still keeping his day job as a DCF social worker.

He took his first professional union job as the AFSCME Council's executive director in 2001. Overseeing concerns of public employees ranging from janitors to police officers — all with job-specific problems — was a lot to handle, Luciano said. But the throughline was almost always funding and pay.

“Mostly the fights were about budgeting, about getting enough custodians to clean a school, or getting enough police to protect the public, and it's mostly been about resources,” Luciano said. “And I watched as middle-class people got taxed more and more, and the wealthy continued to essentially never pay their fair share.”

But the No. 1 reason people cite when choosing to join a union isn't money, Luciano said, but rather to have a voice in workplace issues. That's likely why the 2017 Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME hasn't led to a mass exodus from public employee unions that some expected, Luciano said.

In the Janus case, the Supreme Court ruled that unions can't force nonmembers, who share the benefits won through collective bargaining, to pay dues.

The fear for labor was that unions might see a steep decline in members and fees. Luciano said that hasn't been the case, although union membership in Connecticut did drop from 16.9 percent of the overall workforce to 16 percent between 2017 and 2018.

“People realized, '[Janus' plaintiffs are] not trying to give me a couple bucks more in my pocket, they're trying to weaken my union, and therefore trying to weaken my ability, and my voice in the workplace,'” Luciano said.

Legislative agenda

Luciano's tenure as AFL-CIO president began Dec. 1, right on the heels of the state's gubernatorial election, which installed as governor Democrat Ned Lamont, a familiar face for Luciano.

The two first met in the early 2000s when Lamont challenged Joe Lieberman for his U.S. Senate seat. Luciano developed a friendship with Lamont over the years, at times participating in debates organized by Lamont for courses he taught at Yale University.

Lamont's proposed budget, which calls for $274 million in benefit concessions from public employees, has led to some pushback from organized labor. Luciano says additional concessions may be untenable this year, despite the state facing a $3 billion-plus deficit over the next two years.

“State employees have done concessions, and the latest three were in '09, '11 and '17 … and we saved over $2 billion a year,” Luciano said. “I think there's a real concession-fatigue amongst the members.”

However, Luciano believes Lamont will eventually back off the give-back request.

Labor unions will also be at odds with the Connecticut Business & Industry Association on a number of issues that impact employers.

For example, one of Luciano's top priorities this year is to do away with so-called “captive audience meetings” in which employers hold a meeting to discourage workers from unionizing, he said.

“They sit people down, they're given horror stories, they don't know what to believe,” Luciano said. “When people are confused, they tend to vote 'no.' ”

The CBIA argues the bill violates federal law and interferes with the relationship between employers and employees.

Also under his purview is support of legislative efforts to raise the state minimum wage to $15 per hour and adopt a paid family medical leave program, two policies CBIA says will increase the cost of doing business in the state.

With a full plate of highly politicized issues on Luciano's radar in 2019, the year could prove to be a consequential one for organized labor. But politics aside, he sees his job heading the state's AFL-CIO chapter as similar to his first position as a social worker — ultimately focused on human services.

“We care about each other, and we care about the majority of people who struggle and work for a living,” Luciano said.

Check out a video clip of Sal Luciano's interview here.

Sign up for Enews


Order a PDF