Solidarity saved my job

June 9, 2014

When John Howe, a veteran social worker for the state of Vermont, blew the whistle on the outsourcing of social service jobs to a Walmart-style private contractor, his employer put him on leave and opened up an investigation. But thanks to a revitalized state employees' union and the inspiration of a strike by the region's bus drivers, Howe and his union launched--and won--a fighting campaign to defend state employees who speak out.

On June 5, the Vermont Department of Human Resources issued a press release announcing that it was ending the investigation into John Howe, and that there had been no basis for disciplinary action against him. Shortly before news of the victory spread, Nancy Welch sat down with Howe to talk about the Justice for John Howe campaign to fight workplace retaliation and defend public-sector jobs and social services.

CAN YOU explain what you do as a vocational rehabilitation counselor?

I DO a special kind of voc rehab for single adults who have doctors' notes that say they can't work, but who don't have Social Security. We have a couple missions. One is to help people get Social Security because they often don't have the skills to navigate the system and get those benefits they need. I was immediately drawn to it as a kind of social work because it's for the most vulnerable people.

General assistance is really inadequate. It's really a broken system. The usual person who goes into the system feels oppressed, abused, mistreated. They are casualties of a restructured society. The jobs have either gone overseas or the people I see have been working in the low-wage service economy. They can't sustain rent. They don't have housing because there isn't enough Section 8 housing. The housing crisis has pushed them off.

Pressure is put on them to work--including now, if you're on general assistance, you have to put in volunteer work to get food stamps in this state. We are struggling as social workers to put some kind of system in place for them. It's a losing game, but we can still do something at an individual level to create change for these people.

John Howe (left) marches with supporters in a protest defending his job
John Howe (left) marches with supporters in a protest defending his job (VSEA/Justice for John Howe)

YOU HAVE been praised by your employer for heading voc rehab's top team in the state for helping clients to navigate the system to meet their basic needs. How did you become subject to investigation by your employer?

I'M A leader in my union, the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA), and as a union, we decided that a priority was anti-privatization. The biggest threat to decent wages overall is privatization. The last sector of decent wages is the public sector because over 30 or 40 years, we have collectively bargained and won decent contracts. But the way that Democrats and Republicans get around paying those wages is by hiring private contractors for public-sector jobs.

For example, my voc rehab team was formed with two contract workers from the Vermont Association of Business, Industry and Rehabilitation (VABIR). They were two people I had recruited as college interns, but they weren't paid a livable wage. They were making less than $13 an hour. Some VABIR employees have wages so low that they are themselves on government assistance. So it's very much the "Walmartization" of government work.

VABIR will give an incremental raise of 25 cents an hour--if you behave, if you don't speak up. The VABIR employees, unlike myself, are at will. If they speak out at meetings and question the work process, they are called out and summarily fired. So they tend not to stay long. Particularly the best employees find work elsewhere. The ones who stay are the most compliant, less ambitious and most interested in maintaining the system how it is. That is not how you build a good social service system.

The traditional move might have been to fight having these contract workers, but we had been losing that fight, so our new strategy was that we should support these contract workers. We said, "Let's create a law that says if you employ people in public-sector workplaces, you have to pay them the same as the public sector's collectively bargained wages."

In a sense, it almost unionizes these contract workers. So what I did was testify at a state Senate hearing for a bill--we called it the "anti-privatization bill"--to do just that. After that, things began to shift in my work situation. Those VABIR contractors on my team were fired, and I was put on leave and summonsed to a series of investigatory hearings.

VABIR HAS been around for many years. What has happened more recently in terms with their relationship with the state?

FOR A long time, VABIR was a $400,000 organization with about 10 employees throughout the whole state. It has now gone from $400,000 to $9 million in about eight years. Instead of creating state jobs that pay decent wages, the strategy has been to hire low-wage VABIR workers, and this has meant a sacrifice in client services.

It's not that VABIR employees don't try hard; it's structurally designed for workers to not stay long. When you're an effective social worker, you know your clients, you are known in the community, you have community relations, you can help your clients move forward with their lives. But if someone is only there for 10 to 30 months, they don't establish those relationships, and they aren't very effective at moving people through the complex human services networks that we have involving homeless coalitions and various kinds of health care packages.

IN YOUR testimony to the state legislature, you were in a sense calling on the legislature to investigate VABIR. Instead, the state Department of Human Resources put you on leave and launched an investigation into you. What's been happening?

FROM VERY early on, because VABIR knew that I was on the union board of trustees, I have had a target on my back. Management will come in and say, "Look out for John." But we were a high-performing team. We were doing very well. So they try to make up stuff. In my case, I had allowed my VABIR team members to sign authorizations for me--for bus and phone minutes vouchers so homeless clients could actually get to jobs.

The other issue was allowing non-state workers, my two VABIR team members, to use my state-issued cell phones to call clients and remind them of their appointments. I was investigated for that, even though there is no policy that no one else can use the cell phone I was issued by the state, and even though we had no landline in our office.

Those were the first two charges, and then they added "treating staff in an unprofessional manner." I'm not sure what that charge is or where it came from, but I assume that means that I spoke in a way they didn't like. Usually with union activists, they go after "tone" or "manner" or some nebulous personality characteristic.

VSEA UNTIL recently wasn't a union that most of us in the state heard very much from or saw very much of--except in reports that state workers had taken another beating in contract negotiations. What has happened recently to change VSEA and how have these changes brought about the "Justice for John Howe" campaign?

A NUMBER of us saw the union was concessionary and not winning at the bargaining table. It wasn't winning because the structure of the organization. We were insular, and we didn't have members involved at any level, except a couple hundred people--out of a 5,000-member organization--who vote in elections. The leadership was a small club.

Then the recession came, and there were some job cuts, and we became educated about what it is to be a real union. That means to have a workplace organization and be able to create workplace relationships where you can take actions against the boss.

So we put a slate of officers in who are also reform-minded and have replaced the old guard, and we've hired a director who also shares our perspective about social justice. VSEA has moved toward a social justice model and an organizing model, as opposed to a service model.

IN THE service model, grievance proceedings happen behind the scenes. But what VSEA is doing is actually fighting for you and your case out in public. Can you tell me about what it means to be taking your fight against retaliation public, and what's been happening with the Justice for John Howe campaign?

PART OF the reform in VSEA has been a commitment to fight. Traditionally when workers get into trouble, they are so scared about their jobs they get quiet, and the Department of Human Resources sends these letters out saying in essence, "Shut up: If you talk to anybody you'll get in further trouble; we'll fire you immediately." So no one steps out.

Workers will settle with the state, they'll sign documents, they sign away all their rights--and they hide. When you settle, you don't go to the labor board and get a determination of unfair labor practices and rulings on contracts violations. So we haven't defined and defended our contract, and we've lost our voices completely.

But in my case, because it's such a clear retaliation for protected acts, which is speaking to a Senate, we're trying to expose the state around that practice. We put up a Justice for John Howe Facebook page. There have been public demonstrations, and there was enough pressure to get me, when I was put on leave, back to work.

When I came back, I got walked to work by VSEA supporters and community activists carrying "We Are All John Howe" signs. There are lawn signs particularly in Montpelier, in the capital where the legislature is meeting, that are gaining attention. People see these signs and ask "Who is John Howe?" Then they see a subtitle: "Stop Retaliation against Whistle-Blowers." It's very embarrassing for an administration that says, "We are against retaliation" when in fact they are participating in it.

WHAT IS the role of the governor, Pete Shumlin, a Democrat, and other top officials in perpetuating the transfer of public dollars into VABIR's coffers and other forms of privatization that you and the VSEA are blowing the whistle on?

SO THE governor's perspective publicly is that he does not support privatization. But the state still supports the Correctional Services of America. That's one of the most egregious forms of privatization. They send long-term offenders to Kentucky and Arizona. The waste in transporting people there and the way they're treated in those private, for-profit institutions is horrible.

They come back traumatized, demoralized. They get no services while they're in jail, other than minimal health care. The governor says he's against that, but yet has done nothing to stop that, to lower the incarceration rates and to bring our prisoners at least back home so they can be near their families, where they can be near their communities, where we can help rehabilitate them and rebuild their lives. So that's the most egregious example of privatization.

But the governor likes the VABIR contract. He thinks state workers cost too much. There's plenty of money in the wealthy Vermonters and wealthy corporations to provide the proper tax base to support social services, but he's unwilling to make that stand and support progressive taxation.

Because the truth is, Gov. Shumlin is about the status quo, not just in terms of the economy but also in terms of the environment: He supports a gas pipeline that's going through my neighborhood here to help supply cheap fracked gas to the Ticonderoga paper mill across the lake in New York state. So VABIR and the transfer of public dollars into their coffers is emblematic of an overall structural problem with this governor.

Privatization is about defunding public services, not allowing public services to work--and then blaming the poor people. You make everyone low wage, everyone poor, and then you say it's because poor people are unskilled, it's their fault. And then you allow cuts in government funding and spending and you don't tax enough to run programs. It's a vicious, vicious cycle.

In some ways I'm the privatizers' worst enemy. The more I stand up to it, the stronger the retaliation becomes, but at some point, I think the state has got to come to the table as more workers say, "I know I'm John Howe, and I've got something to say." I just got this call from a colleague who said, "John, I'm in the same situation." He's down in Bennington. How would I have known? He never would have called me unless I had stood up.

WE JUST saw a very successful and inspiring bus drivers' strike in Vermont--a rare victory for the public sector and public services and a strike that was about taking a stand against what the drivers called "predatory management." Is there a relationship between that strike and your decision with VSEA to pursue the Justice for John Howe campaign?

I WORK right next to the bus station, and I was out there for the bus drivers' strike. There are about 70 bus drivers here in Burlington, and they organized this strike at a local level because their local transit authority was refusing to honor their requests for safety and decency in the workplace, particularly around lengthy hours that they had to work. And so they stood up.

They stood up against the powers--all the elected powers, including the Democratic leadership in Burlington and the state, and said no. And they organized not just with themselves but also with the broader labor community. And that meant being public, it meant being visible. It meant being strong and taking risks. And they took a risk, and they won. It was inspiring. They had voice. Now, we're forcing the transit authority to listen to the drivers about the best way to run an agency, how to meet their passengers--because they know the passengers better than the people that are running the organization! It's about time!

The lessons from that are endless for state workers. We run the programs, and we can make the kind of changes that make them more efficient, that make them safer, that make our highways better, that make our forests and our environment cleaner--everything that state government does. So when the campaign says, "We are all John Howe," part of that statement is "State workers can help make Vermont a better place, can make our government programs work."

I think in the larger context public-sector unionism is at a crossroads. It is my belief that what happened in Wisconsin is happening in Vermont. And that the role of union activists is to point that out to our members, to begin to engage in direct action, and to point to recent successes--like that of the Chicago Teachers Union, for example--as ways of fighting that.

If the public sector fails, we're never going to be able to bring in the private sector. We're not going to be able to unionize the service sector workers who are all low-wage workers. And it's not through legislation of minimum wage that's going to really win the day for those workers. The real strategy is to get into those workplaces, organize them, and strike or threaten to strike to bargain for better wages.

That means that the real legislative battle is to protect the right to organize, collective bargaining rights against "right to work" legislation. Vermont is a battleground state because we have pretty good rights, and we could do some organizing in those private sector--service sector--but it hasn't happened yet. We have a lot of work to do. We've got to stand strong so the broader labor movement can succeed.

Transcribed by R. Edvin Sunde and Andrea Hektor

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