The Vermont Workers’ Center: Movement Building Through Healthcare Organizing

It’s a dark night in January and the chambers of the Vermont state legislature are filled with a sea of red. Hundreds of Vermonters, many of them wearing the red t-shirts of the Vermont Workers’ Center’s Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign, have driven in from all corners of the state to attend a joint hearing held by the Senate Health & Welfare Committee and House Committee on Healthcare. The hearing, at the opening of the 2010 legislative session, is to consider two bills that would establish a universal, single-payer healthcare system in the state — bills that, as recently as a year ago, few felt had any chance of passage. With a clear strategic vision, a movement-building approach and a ton of grassroots organizing, the Healthcare is a Human Right (HCisHR) campaign has mobilized thousands of Vermonters around a vision of healthcare for people, not for profit, and has therefore succeeded in changing what was considered “politically possible.”

Campaign Origins

The Vermont Workers’ Center/Jobs with Justice was founded in 1998 by a group of low-wage workers, to fight for “an economically just and democratic Vermont in which all residents have living wages, decent health care, childcare, housing and transportation.” Over the first decade we engaged primarily in struggles around livable wages, workers’ rights and the right to organize. The number one issue we kept hearing about — from callers to our workers’ rights hotline, from low-wage workers struggling for a livable wage, from nurses and other healthcare workers organizing unions to have a voice to speak out for patient care — was the dysfunctional healthcare system.

At the same time as it was becoming increasingly clear that we needed to take on the healthcare system, we began to understand the need to connect to national and international movements and develop deeper political analysis among our leadership. In 2001, the Workers’ Center affiliated with the national workers’-rights network Jobs With Justice, and in 2005, we joined Grassroots Global Justice, an alliance of grassroots organizations based in working-class communities, communities of color and Indigenous peoples.

Members of the VWC attended the World Social Forum in 2002 and 2006, and we sent a dozen folks to the first US Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007. Learning from the other organizations we got to know through these networks and forums, we developed and launched a popular education program in the winter of 2007, a three-day “Solidarity School” that has since become an annual event. Solidarity School covers hands-on organizing skills, strategic thinking, people’s history and in-depth analysis of capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy.

At our 10th anniversary celebration dinner in April 2008, we announced the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign. Rather than a legislative campaign to win a single-payer bill, we were clear that this was a campaign about building people’s power. We consciously framed the campaign as a human rights campaign, rather than a campaign for single-payer legislation, to encourage movement-building discussions of how healthcare intersects with other issues such as domestic violence, racism, immigration, privatization and attacks on the public sector.

Our campaign plan for the first year avoided anything related to the legislature. Instead it focused on base-building in local communities, elevating the voices of those most affected by the healthcare system through surveys and public hearings, leadership development, and the direct action of calling in sick on May 1st of last year, for a massive rally at the statehouse while it was in session.

Eyes on the Prize

One of the tools used by corporate power to manage dissent is indoctrinating people with the belief that social change comes through elections and polite lobbying of legislators — the “low-intensity” democracy that is taught in high school civics classes. As we began to talk to people about fixing the healthcare system, the immediate reaction of a lot of people was shaped by this assumption, that we simply needed to talk to our legislators.

Maintaining a clear focus on our campaign goals — building a movement that is strong enough to compel the legislature to adopt legislation that meets human-rights standards — as we built organizing committees in communities around the state required lots of patient conversations new members about the nature of power, how social change really happens, and what it means to build a social movement. Few people — especially working-class people in rural Vermont — have been exposed to this way of thinking about politics. In addition to building this kind of education into our organizing conversations, we brought HCisHR leaders to Solidarity School and developed a one-day popular education workshop specifically for the campaign, which we held around the state.

We also connected the HCisHR campaign to broader campaigns and movement-building opportunities. Recognizing that a failure to address racism and white privilege has been a key weakness of many progressive movements in the US, we brought the Catalyst Project to facilitate a series of anti-racism workshops around the state in the fall of 2008.

In December of 2008, we organized the Ella Baker Human Rights Conference at the University of Vermont. Working with allies from the labor, student, anti-war, women’s, LGBTQ, anti-racism, anti-domestic violence, immigrants’ rights, indigenous, disability rights and other movements, we brought 500 people together on an icy winter’s day for workshops on a wide variety of topics. We heard keynote speeches from VWC allies Senator Bernie Sanders, Ai-jen Poo of Domestic Workers United and Ashaki Binta of Black Workers for Justice and the United Electrical Workers (UE).

From May Day to the 2010 US Social Forum

Our patient work paid off. On May 1st, over a thousand people descended on the state capitol in the largest weekday rally in Vermont in recent memory. In the fall, seasoned local organizing committees held ten “people’s forums” around the state which, unlike what many legislators were used to, were not platforms for the legislators to explain themselves but forums for the people to explain their experiences with the system and their demands for change. At the opening of the legislative session we delivered over 4,000 postcards demanding that the legislature take action in 2010 by passing the single-payer bills, and within the first week joint hearings were held on those bills.  We have launched an ambitious 16-week plan to increase pressuem which will culminate in a mass rally on May 1st of this year. The action is scheduled for May Day in order to connect the struggle for healthcare with the history of working-class struggles — from the struggle for the 8-hour work day in the 1880s to the worker-led struggle for immigrant rights that reclaimed May Day in 2006.

We also see the second US Social Forum in Detroit this June, as a key part of our campaign. It is the most important space for national movement-building, cross-sector exchange and connecting with international movements, and our campaign would not have been possible without the social forum process and the lessons we have learned and relationships we have built with Jobs with Justice and Grassroots Global Justice. We hope to bring a bus full of our members and allies from Vermont and are looking forward to sharing our experiences and continuing to learn from the experiences of others.

The Vermont Workers’ Center chose healthcare as our major campaign not only because it is an issue that affects all sectors of the working class, but because it offers an opportunity to engage people in a discussion about social values and a vision for a different society. Too often, we let our policy work be restricted to what is “politically possible,” our mass grassroots organizing be restricted by our policy work, and our visionary work — movement-building and political education — be restricted to abstract discussions, and not brought to policy work or mass organizing.  Since all these areas of work are necessary, we offer our experiences — with its mistakes and weaknesses as well as its victories and strengths — as our contribution to building a movement for a more just society.

This was originally written for Left Turn magazine, and was published in their March/April 2010 issue.  A version of this was also published in Labor Notes.