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The Vermont General Assembly is dominated by the Democrats. And now it is the Democrats and the House Leadership (with Republican support) which are seemingly hell bent on radically diminishing the retirement pensions relied upon by unionized state workers and teachers. The Democratic Party leadership, in order to address underfunding issues that were willfully created under both Democratic and Republican administrations alike, is pushing for people to work years longer, pay more, and get less return in their old age. This is the exact opposite direction we need to go as a society, and clearly illustrates the divergence of interests between workers and the Democratic Party. It should further not be lost on folks that not so long ago, it was these same essential state workers and educators who were deemed heroes during the darkest hours of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while big businesses are being bailed out, it is once again workers who are getting the shaft.

The Vermont State Employees Association (who represents state workers) and the National Education Association (who represents teachers) have instead asserted that their members did their part by paying their fair share into the pension throughout the years, and that the present underfunding is a result of politicians choosing to NOT live up to their end of the bargain by properly allocating resources to the pensions for some decades. And here the VSEA and NEA are right.

In order to address the pension shortfalls, the VSEA and NEA are reasonably calling for the creation of a new wealth tax to cover shortfalls (with no significant reduction of retirement benefits to workers). This wealth tax (which would compel the richest 1.45 percent of Vermonters making more than half a million dollars a year to pay a modest 3 percent more in taxes), was put forward in the House as an amendment to the budget by the Progressive Party and a small number of pro-union Democrats from the Workers’ Caucus. It failed on the floor with only 21 in favor and 125 against.

Let that sink in ... Only 21 Vermont legislators backed workers over the wealthiest among us ... Consider what that says about our Statehouse and the Democratic Party that dominates it …

So where do we go from here?

The truth is both the VSEA and NEA, ironically, have endorsed and supported the majority of Democratic Party politicians who are now looking to sell them down the river (and of course, for the most part, the Republicans are even worse). Both these unions have continuously provided them political cover as they again and again failed to adequately advance a pro-worker, pro-union agenda. And now those same politicians believe there is little to no price to be paid for screwing the very workers whose unions have time and again supported them. And until and unless there is change within VSEA and NEA, they may be right.

In 2019 the Vermont AFL-CIO, under the new United! leadership, changed its endorsement policy for this very reason. And in 2020, because of the failure of the Democrats to advance card check legislation, our Labor Federation instead chose to back the Progressive Party slate statewide (with only nine Democrats from the Workers’ Caucus getting our backing). And in both the 2019 and 2020 Burlington City elections, the Vermont AFL-CIO again backed the full Progressive slate (winning six of the seven Progressive city council races we engaged in). As a result, in Burlington today the AFL-CIO is secure in knowing that we can count on a critical mass of city council support when we need it, and when it is to the benefit of workers.

From a union point of view, it should be abundantly clear that polite Statehouse lobbying and support for the liberal status quo is failing to deliver for workers and for unions. As a start, the VSEA and NEA should make clear that any PARTY which has a hand in radically diminishing their retirement benefits (or not advancing a sufficiently pro-union agenda) will NOT receive their support in the 2022 General Election. And conversely, any party (such as the Vermont Progressive Party) which does get labor’s back will receive unprecedented support by unions across the Green Mountains. And here, instead of suffering year-to-year disappointments and attacks from the political establishment, labor, together, must take the long view and seek to change the political environment in which we struggle.

Second, the VSEA and NEA would be wise to immediately coordinate a plan of mass public action aimed at tipping the scales in favor of workers on the pension issue. And when and if such a plan is implemented, the Vermont AFL-CIO will be prepared to lend our full support and cooperation (as an attack on one is an attack on all).

But does mass action work?

In 2015 the VSEA faced another potential crisis. Then-Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin demanded that the union for state workers either open the contracts to give back modest raises, or face up to 450 layoffs. Six years ago the VSEA did not rely on lobbying alone. Then, the union mobilized its members and put 500 workers on the Statehouse lawn as a show of strength. Following this, the governor backed down, the contracts remained closed, and mass layoffs were averted.

Likewise, the Vermont NEA has not been a stranger to effective direct action to secure fair treatment. Let’s not forget the 2017 Burlington teachers’ strike, or the many other strikes NEA members have successfully engaged in over the years to win fair contracts in the face of anti-union opposition from reactionary school boards.

Within the VT AFL-CIO, just this past summer the mayor of Burlington was telling city unions that they too had to agree to open up their contracts to give back their recent gains, or suffer job cuts. And here, AFSCME Local 1343 called for picket lines. The result? The mayor backed down.

Beyond Vermont’s borders, recall the 2018 West Virginia wildcat strike of teachers which resulted in meaningful upward pay adjustments (along with the Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado strikes that followed). And more recently the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) used the threat of another wild cat strike to secure safe-return-to-work policies and procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the United States, workers in France and other countries have often used the strike as an effective tool to combat proposed cuts in social benefits on the national level. The point being, strikes and direct action work.

VSEA and NEA would be wise to learn from their own history (and the history of the labor movement throughout the world). They cannot rely on polite lobbying alone to effectively fight back against attacks on core rights and benefits. VSEA and NEA would therefore be right to call for mass rank and file actions to show that unionized workers will not accept attacks on their pensions without real resistance.

But as we have learned from the success of strikes such as seen with the Chicago Teachers Union (2019), if we are to galvanize not only dues-paying union members but also the great mass of working people throughout Vermont, we should not just be looking to defend the more narrow rights and benefits of our members, but also to go on the offensive on behalf of working people as a whole. And just as CTU fought not only for fair wage increases for their members but also for nurses in every school (and other advances for the common social good), VSEA, NEA, and the Vermont labor movement as such should be calling for ALL Vermont workers to universally have a right to take part in a progressively financed defined benefit pension plan along the same lines as the VSEA, NEA, and municipal plans that are presently in effect.

Perhaps there is already internal discussion taking place within VSEA and NEA leadership about adopting a more militant and more effective approach in defense of their members’ benefits (and in order to stand up for the common good of all working Vermonters). If so, the Vermont AFL-CIO applauds these leaderships and looks forward to standing with them in these efforts. If not, we still take solace in knowing that aspects of VSEA’s and NEA’s rank and file have already begun to organize towards such a broader view of labor and our potential power.

In VSEA the Vermont State Workers United Caucus, which shares in this more progressive vision of the labor movement, won 30 percent of the vote for president in its 2020 internal elections. Within the NEA, the forward thinking Schools Workers Action Committee Caucus is presently running a candidate for president, Tev Kelman, in its internal election. In 2019 and in 2020, the Vermont AFL-CIO saw its United! Caucus (which I am a member of) sweep internal elections and with it brought its more member driven leftist agenda to their 10,000 member Labor Council.

The genesis of all three of these allied caucuses can be found in the recognition that the status quo has failed unions and workers. And all three caucuses understand that union power and working class power is something to be seized, and not something that grows out of the ties of high paid lobbyists. But for today, for now, the struggle that VSEA and NEA are engaged in to defend their members’ pensions is a just cause, and must be supported by all those who claim to be a friend of organized labor.

Solidarity with VSEA and NEA members!

No cuts to the pensions!

David Van Deusen is president of the Vermont AFL-CIO. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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