He once chased Lincoln Chafee in a George W. Bush mask. Now, he's in line to lead RI AFL-CIO.

PROVIDENCE – Patrick Crowley first made headlines in Rhode Island by chasing then-Republican U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee around in a George W. Bush mask and flight suit.

Later, he exposed then-Gov. Don Carcieri’s failure to pay $12,000 in property taxes on his luxury condominium in Florida.

FWIW: he also had a Donald Duck costume he wore around the State House when lame duck Carcieri went to war against the state's public employee unions. (His theory: "We can call him all the names we want. We can lawsuit this and grievance that. Let's just make fun of the guy ... That's how you beat a bully.")

Once describing himself as a "punk kid with a good imagination," Crowley, at 50, is on the verge of making news again, but this time in a crisp white shirt and blue herringbone-patterned tie.

With George Nee easing back as the president of the state's AFL-CIO, Crowley – the current secretary-treasurer of the 80,000-member amalgam of labor unions – will be taking the helm for the remainder of Nee's term when Nee sets a retirement date. His four-year term runs through December 2025.

Patrick Crowley at the Providence offices of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. Now serving as secretary-treasurer, he will take over as president upon the retirement of George Nee.
Patrick Crowley at the Providence offices of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. Now serving as secretary-treasurer, he will take over as president upon the retirement of George Nee.

Crowley's first step? Giving up his current full-time job as the political director for the state's largest teachers union, the National Education Association of Rhode Island, on Jan. 1 and fully moving into what he already calls his "other full time job" at the AFL-CIO headquarters at $149,500 a year.

On this reporter's arrival at the AFL-CIO's Smith Street headquarters, Crowley gifted her with one of the T-shirts his colleagues had made for him on his birthday.

Quoting what the far-right Justin Katz wrote about him in an online column, it says: "Arguably the most VICIOUS radical union activist in the state for the past twenty years."

Policy wonk, rabble rouser with a megaphone, author ("The Battle of the Gravestones & the Saylesville Massacre of 1934"), former owner (2008-09) of a progressive blog – the now defunct RIFuture – and online yoga teacher during COVID (bet you didn't know that), Crowley enjoys a good laugh at his own expense.

How did he get into the union business? By chance.

The son of a nurse and a gym teacher, he grew up in Marshfield, Massachusetts, and studied English at what is now Bridgewater State University, thinking he'd become a teacher ... until his sophomore year, when he took a philosophy class.

He "absolutely fell in love with it" and graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy. He applied to graduate-level philosophy programs all over the country, thinking it was his calling, until a phone call changed his life's trajectory.

"So I was driving a Zamboni at the Armstrong Arena in Plymouth, Massachusetts, when I get a call from a friend of mine who was a grad student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

They'd met "protesting the first real wave of budget cuts to public higher education in Massachusetts in the early nineties," Crowley said.

"He asked, 'Did I get into grad school anywhere?' I said, 'No, I didn't.' He says, 'well, any chance you could get out to Amherst today? The program I'm in had a couple of people drop off at the very last minute, and if you get here today, I think I can get you at the front of the list.'"

"So I literally drove to UMass from Plymouth in my coveralls from work. And I think that was the selling point."

He ended up in "one of the last remaining labor-side graduate programs'' as others morphed into "labor-management ... or human resources-based management side programs."

While there, Crowley was elected president of one of the country's first grad student worker unions. He graduated in 1997 with a master's in labor studies and went to work for the Teamsters Local 25 in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Negotiating in the pre-internet days

His first union job after graduating? "Strategic Campaigns and Research Coordinator" at Teamsters Local 25, "providing economic data for folks that were going into negotiations."

"Remember, this is pre-internet," he said.

"Most of the folks working for the labor movement at the time came right from the rank and file. They were dealing with attorneys and corporations that had access to all different types of information that rank-and-file truck drivers and warehouse people didn't have," he explained.

"But my boss in Boston at the time, George Cashman, was foresighted enough to say, 'Hey, if I get some kid in here that knows how to get me financial information, my guys will surprise the other side.'"

"So I would get SEC reports and 10 K documents ... basic financial information [so they then could say) ... 'You are saying you have no money, but according to this quarterly document you had $8 million in this account.'

"And they'd be looking around like, how the hell did he know that?"

"It morphed into more of a street organizer job at a time when labor was under assault. We were losing more than we were winning, but we were so active at Local 25, we organized thousands of workers in a period of five years."

Then his boss went to jail.

What did he do? "What a lot of Teamster bosses did back in the day," Crowley says. "He got a little bit too ahead of himself and he ended up getting indicted and going to jail. And I figured it was time to move on."

One union job led to another

Next stop? A field representative with the hospital workers union on Cape Cod.

"I used to tell people I had the best job in the labor movement," he said.

"I represented the nursing homes and hospitals on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. ... I had to take a plane to work." Great in summer, not so great in winter.

Then his wife-to-be, who had been working as an organizer in Boston for the SEIU, took a new job back home in Rhode Island. The commute got to be a bit much, "so I started to look for jobs in Rhode Island."

In 2005, he landed at NEA Rhode Island as a field representative.

A year later, he was haunting then-Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee at sidewalk press conferences.

About that George Bush mask

"That was surprisingly well received, and it was so much fun. But it was [also] so important at the time," Crowley said.

"We were in the middle of this dark period in 2006," Crowley said. "George Bush and [Senate GOP leader] Mitch McConnell were at the ascendancy of their power. We're in the middle of this incredibly destructive war in the Middle East against Iraq."

A photo in Patrick Crowley's office shows him wearing a George W. Bush mask and flight suit at a 2006 press conference held by then-Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, right.
A photo in Patrick Crowley's office shows him wearing a George W. Bush mask and flight suit at a 2006 press conference held by then-Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, right.

"American soldiers are torturing prisoners," he continued. "The war is not going well. Soldiers are coming home with PTSD and wounds while ... hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians are being killed. I mean, it was really bad. And here we are in Rhode Island. We've got liberal Republican Linc Chafee who pledges to support Mitch McConnell as Senate president who had pledged to [give] George Bush a blank check to prosecute this really unjust war."

Wearing the mask from a Halloween store and a flight suit he found at an Army & Navy store, the unidentifiable Crowley showed up at a Chafee press conference.

"I just [gave] a big thumbs-up, like George Bush did when he landed the plane on the [aircraft carrier] ... and everyone knew exactly what it was about."

"I didn't have to say anything, didn't have to mouth off or cause a commotion. Just stand there and make that spectacle. And it helped change the narrative of what we were actually trying to do. It really turned this campaign in sleepy, small liberal Rhode Island into a referendum on the Iraq War."

"And I'm proud if I had any small part in that. We elected Senator Whitehouse, and it still took a couple of years to stop the war, but the tone changed and in the Senate, the tone changed because the Democrats took over."

More: Meet the fence viewer, Rhode Island's quaintest government position.

From NEARI to Climate Jobs Rhode Island

So began Crowley's career at the NEARI, where he has had quote-worthy roles in unionization drives, teacher contracts, high-stakes testing and education funding debates, strikes and other public actions, including one that sparked this Journal headline: "At rally, unions find unity in their dislike of Carcieri."

More recently, he helped create Climate Jobs Rhode Island, a coalition "committed to a just transition to an equitable, pro-worker, pro-climate green economy."

But that's another column for another day.

Legislative priorities?

Crowley has many hopes for the 2024 legislative session, including state-level action to ban "captive audience meetings," where an employer attempts to scare employees out of unionizing.

He also hopes legislators push state government to move faster to make state buildings fossil-fuel free.

But he believes the top priority for organized labor at the State House in 2024 will be pensions, and, more specifically, a reworking of the dramatic 2011 "pension overhaul" that suspended annual pension increases for retirees and made current-day public employees work longer for smaller pensions.

"Let me start by saying this: The focus of organized labor as it relates to the Rhode Island state pension system ... is going to be on the active employees," said Crowley, one of 10 appointees by current state Treasurer James Diossa to a new pension advisory group.

"We are hoping to address some of the concerns of the retired workers, but from our point of view, we have to prioritize the active employees," Crowley said.

Why? Active workers "elect us," Crowley explained, and their interests have to come first. And, he said. active employees face the worst consequences of the pension changes. They have to work longer than their predecessors, he said, and for a much-reduced benefit. The result? It's harder to recruit and retain state workers, who are "doing more work with less coworkers because the state in local cities and towns can't keep the people that we need to do the job," Crowley said.

Options? He thinks the state needs to lower the minimum retirement age and ratchet up the "accrual rate," which is pension-speak for the value of each year of work toward a pension.

The current accrual rate is 1% of a salary for each year of work. "So after a 40-year career, their pension benefit would be 40% of their salary. It's not enough to live on," he said.

He suggests increasing the rate gradually, to give the state enough time to adjust the [required] contribution for the active workers without adding time to the projected 2031 date when annual COLAs return.

He also questions why the COLA return date has to wait until the state-run pension system is 80% funded? "Why not 70%?" he asks.

There's more on the priority list, including more realistic funding of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, and that all costs money.

One of his answers to this financial puzzle? The same he's had for years: Raise taxes on the rich even when the state is awash in surplus dollars, because there's never a better time to do it politically.

Any residual grudges against the architect of the 2011 pension cutbacks: current U.S. Treasury Gina Raimondo, a rising star in the Biden administration?

"We can't let a fight that we lost in 2011 determine what we do in 2023 and 2024," he said. "That's why I was proud of the members of NEA Rhode Island when they endorsed [then-Gov. Raimondo] for reelection, because I thought that helped change the tone of what we were able to even just talk about."

"Yeah, and there's still people out there that are angry with us at NEA about that. And that's OK. But when you look at what our job is in the labor movement, it's not to complain about lost battles, it's to win the next battle."

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Patrick Crowley readies to lead Rhode Island's AFL-CIO