Forced Labor

What kind of labor movement do we need in the era of Trump?

These should be exciting, if terrifying, times to be part of the labor movement. Following the actions at airports last weekend — a crucial part of which was a one-hour strike against pickups at JFK called by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance — novelist Francine Prose called for a general strike in the Guardian. Calls for a “#NationalStrike” on February 17th have been circulating on Twitter and other social media. And labor lawyers Moshe Marvit and Leo Gertner published a piece in the Washington Post, “Where’s the Best Place to Resist Trump? At Work,” whose pullquote is “From solidarity strikes to slowdowns and sit-ins, workplace revolt is a key strategy in opposing the new administration.”

Meanwhile, the institutional labor movement is under existential threat. National Right to Work legislation was introduced into Congress this week, and with Republican majorities in both houses and You-Know-Who as president, it is hard to imagine it not passing. In the state where I got my start in the labor movement, Iowa, new Republican majorities are planning to make it “the next Wisconsin” by gutting or rescinding entirely the state’s collective bargaining law for public-sector employees.

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Can we stop complaining about “check your privilege” already?

This morning I saw this tweet from Jacobin magazine:

which was promoting this article, Let Them Eat Privilege: Focusing on privilege diverts attention away from the real villains.

The article itself is, actually, not as bad as its title would imply – it is primarily a take-down of this stupid article, which essentially tells people that if you have any kind of middle-class status (college degree, etc.), you shouldn’t complain about the 1%. In fact, the Jacobin article is not bad at all – I was worried it would be yet another white male leftist explicitly complaining about how being told to “check your privilege” (by women and people of color and queer folks and people with disabilities and so forth) is destructive to focusing on “the real villains,” building a united class movement, etc., etc.

This critique is, of course, not limited exclusively to white dudes – last year at Left Forum I got to hear Vivek Chibber and Arun Gupta deliver a much more searing denunciation of how destructive “privilege talk” is to the Left.

There is a moral rebuttal to this line of reasoning: privilege is real, and I as a straight, college-educated white dude, while far from being a member of the 1%, just have a much easier life than my sisters and brothers who, well, are not straight college-educated white dudes.  And that is wrong.

But there is also a practical rebuttal to this: suppressing talk about privilege does not, in fact, help us build a united class movement — quite the opposite.  I’ve spent most of my adult life in the trade union movement — the movement that, however battered and backward, offers the best hope for actually changing the imbalance of power between the 1% and the 99%. We have to value solidarity of all workers: it’s not just an abstract political commitment, it’s necessary to organize new workplaces, to win decent contracts and grievances and strikes and political struggles.  But we recognize that building that solidarity requires recognizing, and dealing with, ways in which some of us are, in fact, treated better by the boss, by the state, by each other, because of the privilege of real or perceived whiteness, of maleness, of being “able-bodied,” of being or being perceived to be heterosexual.

Now, we don’t use the term “check your privilege” exactly.  But my union, the UE, devotes a significant chunk of its national conventions — as well as a lot of the educational work done in the locals — to addressing issues of racism and sexism, among a membership that is still primarily white and more-than-majority male.  Because we have learned from decades of experience that if you don’t address the very real differences in power between different groups of workers based on race, gender, etc., then you cannot in fact build the kind of unity that is necessary to win real, concrete class victories.

It is not an accident that some of the most vibrant parts of the broader labor movement right now — the National Domestic Workers Alliance*, the National Day Labor Organizing Network and the Fight for 15 movement among fast food workers — are organizing low-wage workers of color (in the case of NDWA, women of color who are primarily immigrants).  To varying degrees, these organizations operate from an analysis that understands race and gender as deeply intertwined with class.

And, let’s not forget the very real privileges that college-educated middle-class workers have – the ones enumerated in the stupid article.  It doesn’t mean we don’t struggle — but if we are insensitive to the way that our relative privilege (and our sometimes arrogant cultural assumptions) come across to our working-class sisters and brothers, then we won’t be able to build the deep unity that will allow us to not just “focus on” the real villains, but actually take away their power.

*Full disclosure: I work for NDWA

April 15: Presenting at “School Lunch”

Next Wednesday, April 15, I’ll be giving a talk on “Good, Old Fashioned Class Struggle for the 21st Century” at Radio Bean’s “School Lunch” series.

What does class struggle mean in the 21st century? Is it even relevant to the “new economy” of AirBnB, Uber, Kickstarter and startups? Will there even be a labor movement in the future, and what will it look like? What kind of stake do working people have in fights over state and city budgets? We’ll look at these questions as tens of thousands of fast food workers strike on April 15.

Wednesday, April 15, Noon
Radio Bean Coffeehouse
8 North Winooski Avenue, Burlington VT

Back to the Cooperative Commonwealth?

I think a lot about the problems of building a labor movement for the 21st century.  And, as a long-time labor activist who now finds himself a member of a worker-owned cooperative (I work at Webskillet Cooperative, which is both a worker coop and a UE union shop), I struggle with reconciling the militant traditions that have shaped my outlook with the sometimes overly optimistic approach of the cooperative movement.

On Saturday I drove down to Glens Falls, New York, for an international meeting of union cooperative workers.  The newly-formed network of cooperative workers inside UE, which includes four worker coops and the organized workers at two food coops, was hosting a coop delegation from Mexico’s Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT).

FAT coop delegation at UE Regional Council Meeting

The UE and FAT have a long and deep relationship.  Initially formed during the fight against NAFTA, when the “official,” government-controlled trade unions in Mexico supported the free trade agreement, the UE-FAT Strategic Organizing Alliance has included joint organizing projects targeting the same multinational employers, support for each others’ organizing — including the FAT organizing Mexican unions to file a complaint against the US for denying collective bargaining rights to public sector workers in North Carolina, and many, many exchanges of rank and file workers.

The UE’s semi-official slogan is “The Members Run This Union,” reflecting both a commitment to democracy and a belief that working-class people have the capacity to run their own unions.  The FAT’s slogan, “¡Por la autogestión de la clase trabajadora!” doesn’t translate smoothly into English, but it means, roughly, “for the self-management of the working class” — reflecting a belief that working-class people have the capacity to run everything about their lives.

The FAT, unlike UE, is not solely a union (the name literally means “authentic workers’ front”).  While the union sector is the largest, they have long had a cooperative sector.  In large part, this stems from the fact that Mexican labor law, in some cases when an employer cannot pay the settlements they owe to the workers, allows workers to take over buildings and equipment and either sell them or run them cooperatively.  However, it also reflects the FAT’s commitment to autogestión.

The FAT delegation we met with on Saturday included the director of the FAT’s cooperative sector, a leader from a state workers’ union which is forming coops to help its members build their own green housing, the general accountant of a credit union which was formed by the FAT in the wake of a strike 26 years ago, and a member of Bicicooperativa Urbana, a coop of young bicyclists in Mexico City who are sort of an incubator for bicycle-based businesses in the city, including a parcel delivery service, bicycle repair and bicycle parking lots.  This was the second UE-FAT exchange to focus on the cooperative sector, following a visit by UE coop members to Mexico in November of last year.

The cooperative movement and the labor movement, of course, emerge from a similar history of working-class organization.  The modern coooperative movement generally traces its history to the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of weavers, Owenite socialists and other workers who started a cooperative grocery in 1844, in an area of England with a rich history of working-class agitation.  Not unlike the FAT credit union, the Rochdale pioneers started their cooperative after an unsuccessful weavers’ strike.

In fact, the principles of cooperation, as an alternative vision to capitalism, animated the vision of the first large-scale labor movement in the US, the Knights of Labor.  The Knights, along with many other radicals in the late nineteenth century, expressed their goal of an exploitation-free society as “The Cooperative Commonwealth.”  The fact that they used this term rather than being explicitly socialist, as most European labor movements were, combined with the fact that some leader of the Knights expressed distaste for strikes (stating that workers should instead form cooperatives), has not done wonders for their reputation among labor historians, who tend to be a rather left-wing and pro-strike bunch.

I don’t think cooperatives are the answer to everything (my UE brothers and sisters currently fighting a GE plant closure in Ft. Edward, NY are not going to be able to take over and run that capacitor plant as a worker coop — but I think they do have a shot at convincing GE to keep the plant open).  Nonetheless, I think the idea of the cooperative commonwealth, and of various forms of cooperative organization of social life, bears reexamining in a couple of ways:

1. I think we need more historical investigation of the Knights’ practical experience with cooperatives.  Did they actually try to form cooperatives, and if so what kinds (worker, consumer, producer)?  What challenges did they face, and how did they try to overcome them?  What was the organizational role of cooperatives within the Knights’ assemblies (their form of local organization), and what relationship (if any) did they have to groups of workers who engaged in more traditional collective bargaining?

2. The labor movement, and the left more generally, has been on the defensive about the public sector.  Partly this reflects ruling class strength, partly this reflects strategic weaknesses and mistakes on our part, but partly this also reflects the reality that for many people (especially, though not exclusively, poor and working-class people), dealing with the actually-existing public sector can be extremely frustrating.  Racist teachers, unhelpful bureaucrats and condescending social-service providers are not the rule, but they are not uncommon either.  While I think we absolutely need to close ranks to defend the public sector, and public-sector workers, we also need to think more creatively about ways to make the delivery of social goods more participatory and accountable to the people who are being served.

3. Finally, I think most people who care about such things realize that our currently-existing institutional labor movement (i.e., the trade unions) are at the very least not sufficient to defend the working class from the assaults of capital, let alone improve the condition of the working class and the people as a whole.  In order to “join the labor movement” in America right now, a group of workers needs to win legal collective bargaining rights.  This involves, at a minimum, overcoming a significant set of legal hurdles.  In almost all cases, the boss will hire professional union busters, a whole industry of people who are highly skilled at “persuading” vulnerable workers.  And there is a large and increasing sector of the working class who don’t even have access to these minimal legal avenues, because they are prohibited by state law, classified as independent contractors, working off the books or unemployed.

Yet there are no obvious answers to this problem.  “Alt-labor” groups are almost exclusively dependent on foundation funding.  “Non-majority” or “pre-majority” unions, while no doubt a crucial strategy, are extremely difficult to build and sustain, and so far few of them have either won majority status or become financially self-sustaining.  And it is hard to imagine how “associate membership” programs like Working America — where the “members” share little more than a general support for working-class political issues and the experience of being door-knocked — can do much more than build mailing lists and recruit a small handful of activists.

The FAT structure, bringing worker coops and other forms of coops into a democratic structure with unions, seems to offer a useful model to explore (as I understand it, in the FAT the coops affiliate with the FAT as coops — it’s not like the more transactional United Steelworkers-Mondragon agreement, where workers at coops are simply enrolled as members in the union).  It allows a way for working-class people who cannot otherwise “join” the labor movement to join together with others in a collective effort to improve their own material conditions.

Coops, like unions, at their best require their members to be accountable to each other, and have a direct, positive influence on their members’ day-to-day lives.  That is what creates the kind of loyalty, to each other and to the institution, that is necessary for sustained struggle.  And in this moment, the labor movement, the working class, and everyone who cares about social justice is clearly in for a sustained struggle.

This blog was also posted at the Labor Online blog.

Why Our Worker Co-op Is a Union Shop: Democracy

Democracy. A little over ten years ago, I had come to New York City with a van-full of my fellow union members, to join tens or hundreds of thousands of people who had come to protest the impending war against Iraq. A young white man on a subway car, berating us, explained how democracy works: “People voted for Bush, now he gets to do what he wants. That’s democracy.”

I think most of us like to think we have a deeper understanding of “democracy” than this young man did. But the reality is that, in our governments and, truth be told, in most of the organizations we’re part of, we accept that logic. As long as we’re allowed to protest the decisions of those we elect, we don’t really think that deeply about the process of democratic decision-making, about making decisions together.

This may be, in part, because the organizations where most of us spend most of our time and energy are, like it or not, the places where we work. Our workplaces may be better or worse, but very few of them are democratic. Worker coops, of course, are one of the few exceptions – in a worker co-op everyone who works for the enterprise gets to have an equal say in decisions.

Last weekend I attended the Owning the New Economy Summit at the University of Vermont. At the “Envisioning the Cooperative Economy” workshop in the morning, Keith Taylor, Director of the Coop Research Project, reminded us about the importance of learning, and practicing, democracy, pointing out that the highly centralized government and corporate structures that govern most of our lives neither teach nor encourage democratic practices.

Which got me thinking — where did I learn democracy? And the reality is that I didn’t learn it from school, I didn’t learn it from voting, and unfortunately, I didn’t learn it from the food and financial co-ops (credit unions) that I’ve been a part of. I learned it from my union.

To be fair, I’ve been a member of one of the most democratic unions in America, UE, for most of my adult life. The experiences of other union members are almost certainly different than mine. But here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned from UE democracy, lessons that have helped Webskillet thrive, and lessons that all institutions that strive to be democratic – and most co-ops – could learn from:

1. Be Inclusive. Actively. If you’re a union and the only way you engage your members is to encourage them to come for meetings or run for the board (and then complain about them when they don’t), or if you don’t pay attention to how certain demographics within your membership are alienated from the union, you’re going to be in a pretty weak position going up against the boss. Democracy isn’t just offering people the opportunity to participate – it’s actively encouraging (and organizing) them to participate, and asking (honestly) why they aren’t, and being willing to listen and change.

2. Own the Big Picture. I’ve been in a lot of meetings where the “ground rules” — either explicitly or implicitly — prevent us from talking about the broader social problems that underlie the specific issues we’re trying to address. I’ve never experienced this in the UE — and, in fact, a willingness to talk about broader issues (even if we can’t solve them immediately) has often helped us come to a better, and stronger, consensus. A contentious discussion of gay marriage at a UE regional meeting in 2004 was aided immeasurably by our collective willingness to address deeper philosophical questions about whether the government should be in the business of regulating private relationships at all.

3. Democratic culture and practice is at least as important as democratic rules. UE, formally, uses Robert’s Rules of Order for all of our meetings. But 70-plus years of collective experience trying to make democratic decisions — and having to live with the consequences when decisions made through formally democratic processes divide the membership — have created a culture in UE that encourages collective and consensus-seeking leadership, far more so than in many organizations that formally use consensus processes, but often develop invisible (and therefore unaccountable) hierarchies.

4. Democracy is hard. And that’s ok. Democracy is a lot of work. It takes time, it takes intellectual and emotional energy, and sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we’re on the losing side. Sometimes — even worse — we’re on the winning side, and later realize that we were wrong. But the beautiful thing about (truly) democratic institutions is that nothing’s written in stone, that we get the opportunity to go back and fix it. Together.

Dollars & Sense Article: “The Vermont Workers’ Center Leads Breakthrough on Healthcare”

This was published in Dollars and Sense‘s 2011 Labor Day issue (print only).  I’m only now getting around to posting it here.  The Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project has sinced changed their name to Migrant Justice/Justicia Migrante.

On Sunday, May 1st, thousands of Vermonters gathered in the state capital of Montpelier under the banner of the Healthcare Is a Human Right (HCHR) Campaign. This was the third year in a row the Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC), which coordinates the HCHR campaign, had organized a mass rally for healthcare on this traditional workers’ holiday, but this year was especially significant in two ways. The first was that after years of grassroots organizing by the HCHR campaign and others, the state legislature was on the verge of passing a bill, supported by the governor, that would commit the state to a universal, single-payer healthcare system by 2017. The second, however, was more troubling. The week before this May Day rally, the state senate had added an amendment to the healthcare bill that would have specifically excluded undocumented people from coverage – an amendment that, according to the governor’s office, had “zero percent” chance of being removed from the final bill.

This challenge gave this year’s May Day rally more of the flavor of the other major May Day rallies the country has seen in recent years, with signs supporting immigrants’ rights seen throughout the crowd. Working together with the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, the VWC mobilized Vermonters to demand that universal means everyone, that Healthcare Is a Human Right means that we all have a right to healthcare by virture of being human, regardless of immigration status or any other category.

One of the featured speakers, a farmworker, spoke of the struggles both he and the farmer who employs him have had with the healthcare system. He explained that three years ago, after the barn roof caved in, “We worked in the damp cold all winter and that’s when I got this cough.” He finally went to the hospital and has since paid over $1000 in monthly installments out of his meager wages. But he does not blame his employer. “The farmer pays us what he can. I know he can’t pay more. His wife is paralyzed. His son is incapacitated. His bills keep piling up. I couldn’t do what he does.”

While some healthcare advocacy organizations had been reluctant to fight the amendment, urging a “pragmatic” approach in order to make sure the overall healthcare bill passed, the VWC and VTMFSP held firm and continued to mobilize grassroots pressure. By the time the bill passed out of conference committee on May 2nd, the amendment had been removed.

The Workers’ Center Movement

The Vermont Workers’ Center and the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project are both part of a wave of new worker-based grassroots organizations which have emerged around the country in the past two decades, often referred to as the “workers’ center” movement. Mostly, though not entirely, based in working-class communities of color and/or sectors of the economy with little or no union representation, these organizations have emerged in part because the traditional “workers’ movement” – the trade unions – has been either unable or unwilling to organize these workers, or to be a vehicle for their political aspirations.

The political and organizational vacuum that workers’ centers have emerged to fill has its roots in the economic changes of the last several decades, in the legal framework of collective bargaining in the United States, and in the political and organizational conservatism of the US trade union movement.

The economic agenda of the corporate elite since the 1970s, commonly referred to as “neoliberalism,” has fundamentally restructured the workplace. Production has been shifted from the vertically-integrated national corporations of the mid-twentieth century to flexible, global supply chains, while services have been increasingly privatized. The large factories and government workplaces that were bastions of union strength have been replaced with myriads of sub-contractors and private service agencies, and this period has also seen a tremendous growth in casual or precarious work, part-time jobs, low-wage “independent contractors,” day labor and other forms of temporary work.

These changes have posed organizing challenges for all of the world’s labor movements, but the legal framework for collective bargaining in the United States, which requires unions to win representation elections on a shop-by-shop basis, exacerbates those challenges even further. Furthermore, certain categories of workers – domestic workers, taxi drivers or port drivers classified as “independent contrators,” public-sector workers in many Southern states, and others – are excluded from any collective bargaining rights at all.

Finally, the organizational and political conservatism of US trade unions has made it difficult for the labor movement to rise to these challenges. Decades of reliance on the government labor boards rather than direct worker action has left many unions unable to even conceive of workers in these new and growing areas of the economy as “organizable.” Unions that have brought in workers as dues-paying members have often then buried them in bureaucratic local unions which do little to engage their new members as leaders. And the hostility towards radicalism that has been endemic in the labor movement since the anti-communist purges of the 1950s has left few unions with a political vision which could appeal to this new and growing sector of the working class, whose issues are not merely the bread and butter of wages and benefits on the job, but also racial and gender justice; social rights to healthcare, education, and transportation; and immigrants’ rights to live and work in dignity and without fear.

Locked out of or uninterested in joining the formal “labor movement,” workers have created their own organizations, and in recent years these organizations have formed or joined a variety of networks, including the National Day Labor Organizing Network, Jobs with Justice, Right to the City, the Pushback Network, Grassroots Global Justice, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Excluded Workers Congress. These networks have begun to have a serious organizational impact on progressive movements in the United States, and have won significant victories. GGJ was crucial in organizing the first and second US Social Forums. The NDWA recently helped secure passage of a convention on domestic work at the International Labor Organization. The Excluded Workers Congress, who slogan is “Building a Labor Movement for the 21st Century,” has begun to redefine what the “labor movement” is.

The Vermont Workers’ Center

The Vermont Workers’ Center was founded in 1998 by a group of young, low-wage workers, who envisioned an organization that would fight for “an economically just and democratic Vermont in which all residents have living wages, decent health care, childcare, housing and transportation.” Early campaigns for livable wages and against privatization brought the group into contact with rank and file trade unionists, and in 2000 the group affiliated with the national labor-community coalition Jobs with Justice.

The core work of the VWC in its early years centered around building community support for workers who were engaged in organizing and contract struggles. The VWC articulated the issues that workers were fighting for, such as wages, preserving healthcare benefits, and fighting plant shutdowns, as part of a broader political agenda for livable wages, universal healthcare, or global justice. In doing this, the VWC was able to move other members of the broad working class into taking action in solidarity with particular workers’ struggles. However, even with many union organizing victories in the early part of the new century – many of them into progressive, democratic unions and some of them in large workplaces – leaders of the VWC realized that union organizing alone was not going to build the kind of working-class power needed to realize an “economically just and democratic Vermont.”

The VWC began experimenting with other approaches to organizing. In 2003, the VWC formed a partnership with the United Electrical Workers union (UE) in a campaign to organize all of the retail workers in the state capital of Montpelier. In the fall of 2005, the VWC helped organize a campaign with a group of parents in Burlington, the largest city in the state, when the school district tried to shut down the elementary school in their working-class neighborhood. And the VWC built relationships with other workers’ centers and independent working-class organizations around the country, joining Grassroots Global Justice in 2005 and bringing a delegation to the first US Social Forum in 2007.

In 2008 the VWC launched the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign. This campaign was chosen for several reasons:

  • The broken healthcare system was an issue in all of the VWC’s work. It was difficult if not impossible for workers to achieve livable wages when the cost of healthcare kept rising. Unionized workers were increasingly being forced to go on strike to defend their benefits, and non-unionized workers were afraid to organize for fear of being fired and losing their health coverage. Healthcare costs were squeezing public sector budgets, prompting public employers to cut services for the public and demand givebacks from workers.
  • It would be a campaign that could truly engage all Vermonters. Most of the VWC’s activity had been concentrated in the parts of the state with greatest union density: Burlington and Central Vermont. A statewide healthcare campaign would require becoming a truly statewide organization. Furthermore, the immediacy of healthcare as an issue would make the campaign much more accessible than union solidarity campaigns, which often require would-be supporters to master unfamiliar acronyms and jargon.
  • Most importantly, it would allow the VWC, and the state’s labor and progressive movements in general, to go on the offensive, after nearly a decade of fighting mostly defensive battles. It would be a campaign in which the VWC could put forward its vision of an economically just and democratic Vermont, not just as a mission statement, but as a goal that could be won, at least in part.

Health Care as a Working-Class Issue

The VWC sees healthcare as a crucial arena for working-class organizing. Much as workers around the country have felt and acted on the need to build worker organizations independent of the AFL-CIO, the VWC leadership believes that the working class needs organizations independent of political parties. “We need to build a powerful people’s movement around the basic moral values our communities share: values about taking care for one another and having everyone be able to lead a dignified life,” says VWC Director James Haslam.

The economic well-being of almost all parts of the broad working class – from the unemployed and disabled through to “middle-class” workers such as teachers and nurses – is deeply tied to the healthcare system. Healthcare costs eat up wages at the bargaining table. Rising healthcare costs are also drive up expenses in public sector budgets; this is then used to justify austerity measures which hit low-income communities the hardest. The employer-based system of healthcare ties workers who do have coverage to their jobs, giving employers more control and helping them to squeeze workers for higher productivity. The entire working class has an economic stake in universal healthcare.

The current healthcare system also divides the working class into separate groups, who perceive themselves as having different interests: “middle class” workers who still have coverage, those who have little or no coverage, and those who rely on Medicare and Medicaid. Striking teachers in Vermont, fighting to preserve their health coverage, face resentment, instead of class solidarity, from other sectors of the working class who do not have coverage. Conversely, the struggle for universal healthcare has great potential for uniting people across boundaries not only of coverage, but of race, gender, sexual orientation, and immigration status. As VWC leader Mary Gerish puts it, “The thing that’s so great about the human rights context is that it unifies everyone.”

Finally, healthcare is an ideal terrain to take on the ruling class ideologies that permeate our society. Healthcare is an issue that is deeply felt. It is, after all, an issue about our very bodies, and those of the ones we love and care about. Most people have an intense commitment to taking care of their families, and of their communities. In healthcare especially, that commitment is in contradiction with the ideologies of individualism, consumerism and market fundamentalism which are widely accepted, on a surface level, throughout US society. When a healthcare campaign stays grounded in human experience rather than being drawn into the dry realm of cost-benefit analyses, there is an opportunity to transform the way people think about the world.

A New Healthcare Law

On May 26th, Vermont’s governor signed the new universal healthcare bill into law. It had taken years of struggle, during which the Vermont Workers’ Center engaged tens of thousands of Vermonters through surveys, petitions, postcard campaigns, public hearings and mass rallies. Through human rights hearings, “people’s forums” and innovative video projects, the VWC had kept the experiences of regular people with the healthcare system at the front and center of the debate for three years. The VWC had grown from a small organization with a single staff person to a true statewide network, with organizing committees in every county, active volunteer committees for media, education and policy, and most importantly dozens of grassroots leaders with a sophisticated understanding of how political power works.

There are still many challenges ahead. The bill passed this year leaves much to future legislators to decide, including both the scope of coverage and the funding mechanism for the new healthcare system. But the Vermont Workers’ Center and its allies will face those challenges with the crucial understanding that politics is not about policy, it is about power, and that the economics of healthcare, like all economics, is fundmentally not about dollars and cents, but about people and their experiences.

May Day 2010 Report for Labor Notes

On May 1st, more than 1,500 people poured into the streets of Montpelier, the state capital, chanting, “The system, let’s stop it, our health is not for profit.”

The May Day march, called by the Vermont Workers’ Center’s “Healthcare Is a Human Right” Campaign, came just after both houses of Vermont’s legislature passed by wide margins a bill championed by the campaign.

The bill commits the state to design a new health care system based on the principles of universality, equity, transparency, accountability, and participation. It commissions a consultant to design three options, one of which must be a single-payer (that is, Medicare-for-All or Canadian-style) plan.

The marchers came from all over the state and included members of all Vermont’s major unions, along with young people, students, people with disabilities, members of the faith community, retirees, and lots of previously “unorganized” working people.

The march converged on the statehouse, where marchers gathered to celebrate the legislative victory, demand that the Republican governor refrain from vetoing the bill, and hear speeches and skits from leaders of local organizing committees across the state, nurse union leaders, and Senator Bernie Sanders, a long-time advocate for single-payer health care.

David Kreindler, a rank-and-file member of the Vermont State Employees Association and a leader of the Workers’ Center, noted that when the campaign began, few among the “political class” thought it would be possible to take action on health care at the state level during the federal health care reform debate.

But “we are winning because we’re organizing,” Kreindler said. “We are winning because we’re building a social movement!”

Mari Cordes, a member of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals Local 5221/AFT, was one of more than a hundred union nurses from Vermont who travelled to Haiti in the wake of January’s earthquake to provide emergency medical relief.

“We could not have succeeded [in Haiti] without the solidarity and strength of my union,” she said. “We succeeded because we worked together, just as you and I work together every day to ensure that each and every one of us never has to worry about whether they can afford to get medical help.”

While the mood was celebratory, Workers’ Center organizers are clear that there is still a long struggle ahead, to prevent or override a veto this year and to ensure implementation of a decent plan next year.

“We see ourselves as part of the labor movement,” says James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, “and the success of this campaign demonstrates what can be accomplished when the labor movement takes a principled stand on issues that resonate with working-class and low-income people, provides a way for everyone to be meaningfully involved, and maintains independence from political parties.”

This was published as part of the longer article, “May Day Protests Gain Urgency as Immigration, Health Care Fights Explode” at Labor Notes. Though credited as the main author for the article, I really only wrote the part here, about Vermont. —Jonathan