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.


Taking on the Right over Healthcare Reform: Lessons from Vermont

On Saturday, August 15, hundreds of people converged on a U.S. Senator’s Town Hall meeting in Rutland, Vermont, with healthcare reform on their minds.  Despite the fact that Rutland had seen a 200-person-strong “Tea Party” rally less than two months before, and that various right-wing radio stations has been ceaselessly promoting the event for weeks, this event turned out very differently from town hall meetings held elsewhere in the country in recent weeks, where Democratic representatives and senators were largely cowed by large, well-organized and disruptive crowds.  Instead, the audience, physical space, and media coverage of this town meeting, and a similar one held later in the day in the town of Arlington, were dominated by the red placards and t-shirts of the “Healthcare Is a Human Right” campaign of the Vermont Workers’ Center/Jobs with Justice.

Anti-reform speakers got their share of time at the microphone but were unable to be disruptive because of the large Workers’ Center mobilization, and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders — a long-time supporter of a single-payer, national healthcare plan — remained in control of the room, challenging the lies, disinformation, and contradictions that came from some of the right-wing speakers.

Media reports attributed the lack of disruption to Vermont’s tradition of civility during debates at annual town meetings.  While this, along with the relative weakness of Vermont’s right wing, no doubt was a contributing factor, the real reason was good old-fashioned grassroots organizing: dozens of volunteers making hundreds of calls to a base built over more than a year of the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign.

The Vermont Workers’ Center/JwJ believes that there are important lessons to be learned from our success in turning back the right wing.

Putting Policy Reforms in the Context of a Values-based Campaign

Since the Workers’ Center launched the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign in April of 2008, we have begun our organizing with each new person with the question: “Do you believe healthcare is a human right?”  Over 95% of the thousands of Vermonters we have spoken with agreed, and this is the basic point of unity on which our campaign is built.  While we have promoted single-payer bills in the state legislature as the best option to achieve recognition of this right, basing the campaign on a commitment to this basic value has allowed us to build a larger and more engaged base than a policy-based campaign could have.  Furthermore, it provided a certain amount of inoculation against the disinformation and scare-mongering of the right.  While many, if not most, of the people we turned out to the town hall meetings may not have understood the ins and outs of “public options” and other policy issues, they were committed to the notion that healthcare is a human right and understood the talk of “death panels” and such as a right-wing campaign against that right.

Understanding That This Is a Struggle over Power, Not a Debate over Policy

Throughout our campaign, we have been clear with our base that winning real healthcare reform will require serious struggle from the grassroots, regardless of how many Democrats get elected.  While our campaign is focused on state legislation, we mobilized our base for these town hall meetings with the message that this was a critical battle with an opposition that has access to friendly media and unlimited resources from the insurance companies.

Placing the Voices of People Most Affected Front and Center

A central part of the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign has been raising the voices of those most affected by the healthcare crisis.  At Human Rights Hearings held around the state in the fall and winter, a wide spectrum of Vermonters — from union members with “good” health insurance who had been denied care, to uninsured loggers who live with daily fear of accidents, to women who stayed with abusive husbands out of fear of losing health insurance — shared their stories about the broken healthcare system.  We collected this testimony, as well as results from our survey of over 1,400 Vermonters, in a report and video “Voices of the Vermont Healthcare Crisis.”  In the town hall meetings, this kind of powerful personal testimony stood in sharp contrast to the shrill rhetoric of the right wing.

Leadership Development

Too often, campaigns are so focused on winning policy goals that we neglect to develop the skills and leadership potential of the people who we are organizing.  During the course of the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign, the VWC held daylong organizer trainings around the state, and also brought campaign leaders to our 3-day intensive leadership development program, “Solidarity School,” held every winter.  Both the workshops and the Solidarity School are based on the participatory principles of popular education that build from people’s own experience.  As a result, at the town hall meetings campaign leaders were prepared to speak up, explain the goals of our campaign and why they got involved, especially the powerful voices from people who have suffered under the current system and nurses who see needless suffering everyday.

Taking on Right-wing Beliefs about Government

Finally, it was important that the senator who had called this town meeting — Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist” — was willing to defend not only Obama’s proposed reforms, but also the role of government itself.  Instead of defensively trying to clarify that the Obama reforms are neither the single-payer system nor government-run healthcare that the right wing calls them, Sanders challenged the audience on these points, asking how many people would want to get rid of Medicare, “a single-payer system” or the Veterans’ Administration, a system of “government-run healthcare” (only a few people raised their hands).

The Vermont Workers’ Center/JwJ chose healthcare as our major campaign not only because it is an issue that affects all sectors of the working class, but also because it offered an opportunity to engage people in a discussion about social values and a vision for a different society.  We don’t believe that progressive forces can win policy debates if we accept the values framework of neoliberal capitalism that markets are inherently more efficient than government and that individuals are on their own to provide for their own welfare.  By challenging these values with a vision of a caring society, in which communities take collective responsibility for the general welfare, we hope to contribute to building a movement than can win universal healthcare and a just society.

Originally published at MRzine and the Jobs with Justice blog.  A shorter version also appeared on Organizing Upgrade.