Time to up the pressure on Shumlin

April 6, 2015

Paul Fleckenstein reports from Vermont on plans for protests as the state's Democratic governor proposes to inflict cuts on workers and the most vulnerable residents.

VERMONT'S DEMOCRATIC Gov. Peter Shumlin is going on the offensive to impose deeper austerity in 2015. After breaking years of campaign promises by dropping the state's move toward universal publicly funded health care, Shumlin announced big budget cuts to close a $113 million budget shortfall.

But union members and people concerned with social justice are preparing to send a message to Shumlin at an April 11 "Fight Back Rally" at the state Capitol building in Montpelier, starting at noon. The rally is backed by the state AFL-CIO and a growing list of unions, led by the Vermont State Employees' Association (VSEA), the state workers' union that will face the brunt of the cuts.

Shumlin's plan will cut funds for 300 state worker jobs. In an especially galling affront to his union supporters, Shumlin demanded that VSEA reopen its contract to agree to wage cuts under the threat of layoffs if the union refused.

The budget also proposes to slash low-income heating fuel assistance, send prisoners to out-of-state prisons while eliminating education and job training programs, trim support for state colleges, weaken environmental regulation and enforcement, and cut funding for disability services. A 20 percent cut to the Department of Libraries will result in a long-term "spiraling loss of federal funds and staffing," according to a statement by the Vermont Library Association--threatening summer reading programs, librarian training, early literacy initiatives, the state's online library and more.

VSEA members protest Gov. Peter Shumlin's drastic budget cuts

The budget has passed the Vermont House and is on its way to the Senate--but only after the Democratic leadership rejected two modest tax increases on the wealthy that would have offset a portion of the proposed cuts and layoffs.

SHUMLIN'S ASSAULT on the very unions who were prominent supporters in the last election comes after a promising year of labor struggle in Vermont last year.

In March, bus drivers for the Chittenden County Transportation Authority walked off the job for the first time ever against punitive management, long hours and part-time work. The 18-day strike generated tremendous public support from regular riders, students, other unions and the working class of Burlington. Management was forced to concede to union demands on virtually all points.

Several months later, South Burlington teachers won a five-day strike that forced school officials to settle a contract providing for step pay increases and protecting health care benefits.

At the end of the year, 1,700 Vermont and other northern New England workers at FairPoint Communications struck against management plans to expand subcontracting, impose two-tier wages and eliminate pensions. After 18 weeks and $120 million in expenses, the telecommunications company settled with far less than it wanted, with workers protecting a unionized workforce and wages. Only 10 workers crossed the picket line across New England. The strike demonstrated strong solidarity among FairPoint unions and, again, overwhelming public support for workers fighting back.

Yet these popular and successful strikes faced hostility from the Vermont Democratic Party, which dominates state politics. The three-term governor Shumlin admonished bus drivers to act like "adults" and settle. In Burlington, the state's largest city, Mayor Miro Weinberger and the Democratic-led City Council pulled out all the stops in a failed attempt to bully the drivers to return to work and submit to binding arbitration.

From the speaker's podium at a union rally at the Capitol building during the FairPoint strike, Shumlin offered no support for the strikers' demands--and instead urged them to negotiate and end the walkout.

During the teachers' strike, Shumlin pronounced his support for banning walkouts by educators--drawing a public rebuke from the Vermont National Education Association (NEA), which backed his election campaigns. And now, in addition to his austerity budget, Shumlin is working in alliance with Republicans like state Rep. Kurt Wright from Burlington, who has never pretended to support unions, to push a ban on teachers' strikes.

While its fate is uncertain, the anti-teacher legislation is clearly in reaction to the successful strikes of 2014. Sadly, Vermont-NEA Executive Director Joel Cook actually helped pave the way for this legislation with his own advocacy for outlawing strikes--as long as both unions and school boards are forced to submit to binding arbitration.

AS WITH other states, Vermont faces structural budget deficits that are the result of policies designed to benefit business and the wealthy at the expense of workers, unions, communities and the environment. The result has been low-wage jobs in nonunionized sectors, tax cuts for the wealthy, growing inequality, stagnant and declining wages, tourism development policies, and unconditional support for all Pentagon spending in the state. This is the face of the crisis felt by a growing number of workers in Vermont.

According to the Public Assets Institute, Vermont has the troubling distinction of being the New England state with the highest rate of economic growth and the lowest rate of job growth since 2009--indeed, there has been a net job loss during this period! This is the predictable outcome of past policies and shows the irrationality of further public-sector jobs cuts--which will only worsen the employment picture, especially in rural areas.

While legislative leaders rejected tax increases to fill the budget gap, there were many alternatives put forward in hearings on the budget. Vermont's tax rate on the wealthy has declined for decades. The highest-earning 20 percent of Vermont households pay the lowest percentage share of their income in taxes. The Public Assets Institute concluded:

Vermont's income tax is among the lowest in the country: 2.7 percent of the state's total personal income. Eliminating tax breaks and lowering income tax rates would balance the fiscal 2016 budget without cuts and still leave Vermont's effective income tax rate lower than those of 24 other states.

Despite the high rates that filers see on their state income tax returns, Vermonters pay less than taxpayers in most states. That's because Vermont provides so many tax breaks. As a percentage of total personal income, Vermont's income tax is the 13th lowest among the 44 states that impose an income tax.

VSEA presented a revenue plan to the legislature that would prevent layoffs and program cuts. It was ignored.

Weeks earlier, before Shumlin announced the current austerity plan, Democrats dropped their efforts to implement universally funded public health care on the grounds that it could not be financed. In order to gain any type of public support, financing for the program needed to be equitable, with business and the wealthy shouldering their share. For Democratic leaders, that was simply out of the question--so Shumlin dumped the health care reform plan he had signed into law in 2011.

For the same reason, any significant new taxes on the wealthy--taxes that would actually confront the structural problem of low tax revenues--are beyond consideration.

Shumlin is also taking a lead from right-wing Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who pushed through anti-union legislation in 2011. Part of implementing austerity means eliminating or weakening the class forces most able to resist it and mobilize broad working-class opposition--as, for example, Wisconsin teachers did through their sick-out that catalyzed the mass takeover of the Wisconsin Capitol building in early 2011.

In Vermont's case, the target is the National Education Association (NEA). Unionized teachers have the power to resist pay cuts and diminished health care--thus, standing in the way of plans to substantially cut education funding.

IN LIGHT of the legislature's failure to respond to VSEA's intense lobbying efforts, the union called the Fight Back Rally for April 11. The union is mobilizing and educating its members for a large turnout to protest the cuts.

VSEA is in a process of transition toward a union driven by a more active membership, centered on workplace organizing. Some union militants have already taken direct action to protest Shumlin at a news conference. Such rank-and-file activity, including job actions, will be necessary to protect public services and union jobs in the face of growing austerity pressures.

Like in other states, the collaborative approach to relations with employers, known as business unionism, can't hope to turn back budget cuts and other attacks carried out by a unified business class. It is a collective begging strategy rather than one recognizing that our real power to confront bosses, whether in the public or private sector, comes through job actions, as the 2014 strikes show.

In the 2011 Wisconsin uprising, it was teachers staging a job action (the sickout) that catalyzed the mass protest movement against Scott Walker's anti-union program. Thousands of other union members and workers, from around the state and the country, joined in the Capitol occupation.

Vermont unions have backed Democrats year after year, often as the lesser evil compared to the Republicans. But now, as Shumlin and the party that often claims to stand for unions is explicitly betraying them--with even worse likely on the horizon--this is a less convincing direction than ever.

Organizing against the current round of budget cuts and union layoffs has no doubt been slowed due to the hope of winning some concessions from Democrats by appealing to political loyalty. But this encourages people to believe that since the Democrats are the best we can do in elections, accepting more concessions and austerity is the best we can hope for in state budgets. It may be death by a thousands cuts, rather than one decisive blow, but it still ends up in the same place, and without a real fight.

The rejection of business unionism would be bolstered by a third party break from the Democrats. Remember that in Wisconsin, union officials redirected the uprising into an electoral strategy, promising to boot Walker from office. Not only did this demobilize protesters and pull the focus away from strike action, but the Democratic challenger offered only Walker-lite politics, and went down to a singularly uninspiring defeat anyway.

Can the Vermont Progressive Party be a political alternative to austerity? In the last decade, the Progressives have drifted from being a left break from the Democrats ("Vote your hopes, not your fears") to backing Shumlin in the past three elections. This has left the movement for universal health care and now the fight against austerity with little to represent our side in the Capitol.

Reliance on a Democratic Party, dedicated to the interests of the business class, but backed by unions in elections, has been a brake on struggle from below. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who strongly influences progressive politics in the state, has been condemning class inequality and Republican budget cuts on the presidential campaign trail--but he has been silent on Democrats carrying out austerity in his own state.

We need an independent political alternative, organized to represent the class interests of workers fighting back against austerity, regardless of which party is carrying it out. This will significantly bolster existing struggles against budget cuts, and give us a chance of winning reforms like universal health care.

From Wisconsin to Vermont, unions taking strike action and standing up to business interests have generated a large outpouring of public solidarity. The strikes of 2014 here in Vermont show the potential for rallying workers and our communities around resistance to austerity, led by unions fighting for the interests of the entire working class.

At this point, it is all out for a large April 11 march and rally to stop the unjustifiable budget cuts and anti-union attacks. And we have to mobilize now to organize later as well--because we know that the austerity program of the business parties will continue.

The current cuts are happening against a backdrop of record profits and wealth accumulation, and modest economic growth. If they win further austerity now, what will they expect during a recession? Our fight needs to be on all fronts--from the workplace to the streets to the ballot box.

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