Sending a message to Shumlin

April 16, 2015

Steve Ramey and Paul Fleckenstein report from Vermont on a march against the governor's budget cuts plans--and look at the next steps in the fight against austerity.

HUNDREDS OF members of the Vermont State Employees' Association (VSEA) marched on the Vermont State House along with activists and members of a dozen other unions to protest Gov. Peter Shumlin's proposed budget cuts.

VSEA called the rally and march because its members are facing the brunt of Shumlin's attacks, which would broadly cut services and force VSEA to reopen its contract and agree to wage cuts, under the threat of hundreds of layoffs.

The cuts are drawing harsh criticism, especially since they are combined with Shumlin's betrayal of promises to implement universal health care and his support for banning teachers' strikes.

"Our unions are under attack, just like in Wisconsin," said VSEA member and rally emcee Michelle Salvador, echoing the feeling of many protesters who felt Shumlin's campaign rhetoric was out of sync with his actual policies--which increasingly resemble those of Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

In addition to attacking state workers, Shumlin's budget calls for cuts to programs for the state's neediest families and individuals, while rejecting proposals for modest tax increase on the wealthiest taxpayers.

Vermont state workers protest Gov. Shumlin's proposed budget cuts
Vermont state workers protest Gov. Shumlin's proposed budget cuts (VSEA)

"We've heard the governor say over and over that he will not tax hardworking Vermonters," said Salvador. "Excuse me, governor, but what are we? VSEA's own revenue plan proposes to increase taxes on the wealthiest Vermonters who have seen some pretty good economic growth while ours had declined."

In addition to increasing taxes on the wealthiest Vermonters, the union's revenue plan proposes to cap mortgage interest deductions and impose a $3 hotel occupancy fee.

Vermont Agency of Transportation worker Ed Olsen expressed the anger and growing militancy of many VSEA members. "[T]hey always want to balance the budget on the backs of the hardworking, middle-class citizens of Vermont," he said. "Meanwhile, Vermont's wealthiest have actually done very well in this economy, and they haven't been asked to give up anything. I know this is a peaceful rally today, but if push comes to shove, I think it's time to take a page from history like the Green Mountain Boys and start a revolution."

The injustice of the unnecessary programs cuts was a sentiment shared by many speakers. Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center of Independent Living, talked about the impact of Shumlin's proposed cuts to disability services like assistive technologies (such as wheelchairs and accessible van modifications), housing support and funding for home modifications.

"We do not suffer from scarcity in this country or in this state," said Launderville. "We suffer from an unwillingness to share our resources in a fair and equitable way. We must close the gap between the 1 Percent who are benefitting from the way things are and the rest of us."

As one placard read, "Funny How the Top 1% Don't Need to Rally!"

THE RALLY marked a new direction for VSEA, one based on rank-and-file organizing and the politics of solidarity versus traditional business unionism.

The business unionism strategy that focused on lobbying Democrats to protect the union and state services failed to make headway. As a result, VSEA members who believe in more public protests, wider public solidarity and stronger workplace organizing won the union to organizing the statewide protest. The turnout exceeded expectations, which will certainly give a boost to continuing in this direction.

Shumlin's budget passed the Vermont House and is on its way to the Senate, but Vermont's fight against austerity isn't over. "Today's rally marked a turning point for Vermont labor," said John Howe, a longtime VSEA activist and thorn in the side of the Shumlin administration. "This was not just the usual crew of activists but real rank-and-file Vermont workers demanding their rights."

The rally is a promising beginning and confirms that there are plenty of workers prepared to do more to stand up against austerity. The challenges ahead not withstanding, Howe concluded, "The VSEA rank and file know when they are being deceived and lied to, and feel the time to 'make nice' with the boss has long since passed."

Numerous state workers expressed a clear call for booting the Democratic governor from office. One banner showed Gov. Shumlin with a 6-foot Pinocchio nose--grown out of backtracking on promises to stand with the union against unjustified state program cuts. Other signs referred simply to "Ex-Governor Shumlin."

But who will be the candidate for our side? The state Democratic Party is solidly behind austerity for workers and protecting the wealth of the 1 Percent. If the Progressive Party nixed its fusion/collaboration strategy with the Democrats and stood independent candidates next election, then there would be a clear electoral alternative that unions and workers could rally around.

While the legislature moves toward finalizing the budget, the next campaign event is a April 20 solidarity panel in Burlington sponsored by the Vermont Labor Solidarity Committee. Titled "The Truth About the Budget Cuts: Defend Jobs, Services and the Environment," the panel will bring together VSEA workers, leaders of recent strikes in Vermont and those especially impacted by the cuts to services.

The panel is a chance to hear some of the many stories from state workers about the backwards priorities of the Shumlin administration, including concerns about private contractors, expensive consultants and cavalier disregard for the effects of service cuts.

While some state workers and labor activists have already initiated plans for bird-dogging Shumlin during his hyper-active public appearance schedule, there are also important discussions needed about building power and organization in the workplace and establishing capacity for workplace actions.

With the annual May 1 rally at the State House a few weeks away as well, it's time to more seriously consider strategies beyond inside lobbying and seeking out the next round of promise-bearing Democrats. Strengthening workplace opposition to the cuts and building solidarity with other unions and the public hold the potential to lead the fight against further cuts and austerity.

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