Scott’s anti-teacher agenda in Vermont

June 21, 2017

Vermont's Republican governor is taking a first step toward implementing a right-wing agenda for schools with an attack on teachers' health benefits, writes Nolan Rampy.

VERMONT TEACHERS have found themselves in the crosshairs as first-term Republican Gov. Phil Scott rolls out his anti-worker agenda.

With appeals to fiscal responsibility that have become all too familiar, Scott is attempting to restructure how teachers negotiate for health care to deal a substantial blow to one of the state's most powerful unions, the Vermont National Educators Association (VTNEA). Scott's plan appears to be rushed and sloppy, but the goal is nothing less than destroying collective bargaining and hitting teachers with a backdoor pay cut, shifting more health care costs onto workers.

Scott's plan, dropped into the middle of budget negotiations late in the legislative session, shifts teachers' bargaining over health care from the local level, where teachers in a school district bargain with their school board over health benefits as part of their contract negotiations, to the state level.

The proposal threw Vermont's political establishment into a frenzy, and Scott vetoed the budget passed by the legislature that did not include his plan. The legislature convenes this week for a special two-day, closed-door session to try to forge an agreement in order to avoid a government shutdown.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott

Scott claims that his proposal for a single statewide health care plan for teachers will save taxpayer money. Though Scott leaves unstated how these savings will be generated, his aim is clear enough--to find a more effective means of shifting responsibility for health care costs from the state to teachers.

A report by the legislature's legal council claims that the proposal would likely make it illegal for teachers to strike over health care, but also states that the details of how the proposed changes to bargaining would function in practice is still vague--in fact, the legality of the entire plan is questionable.

The projected savings for taxpayers, claimed by the governor to total $26 million per year, will have little impact on the wallets of most ordinary Vermonters.

Scott's motivation is essentially twofold.

First, his proposal works as a union-busting Trojan horse, wreaking havoc on the collective bargaining of the teachers' union, one of the strongest sectors of organized labor. Bargaining over salaries and benefits go hand in hand, and the integrity of district-level contract negotiations will be seriously undermined if health care and wages are bargained separately.

Secondly, it is intended to make up for shortfalls in the state's general fund by hacking away at teachers' health care instead of generating additional revenue by taxing the rich. In short, it is an attack on workers from the top, carried out through a convoluted legislative process.

THE ORIGINS of the current controversy can be traced back, at least indirectly, to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), often referred to as Obamacare. The ACA mandates penalties on so-called "Cadillac" health plans (translation: high-quality health insurance) that are slated to go into effect in 2018.

As a result, Vermont teachers, who have enjoyed these quality insurance plans, are in the unusual situation in which every school district in the state is simultaneously bargaining over health insurance in order to comply with the terms of the ACA. Scott seized on the statewide synchronization of health care bargaining as a unique opportunity to push his plan.

The Democrats in the legislature have, for their part, agreed with Scott's premise that education spending is too high--an unsurprising but nevertheless disappointing position.

The counterproposals initially put forth by the Democratic leadership preserve local bargaining over health care, but they mandate that savings be extracted at the local level and issue penalties for a failure to do so. The effect of this option is potentially equally heinous--while it preserves the veneer of local bargaining, it mandates in advance that the outcome of the bargaining must be cuts in education spending.

The legislature's upcoming closed-door session to resolve the budget impasse and avert a government shutdown will bar any press coverage of the proceedings in a move that is clearly designed to stifle public involvement. The legislature hopes that Vermonters will passively accept whatever deals are handed out when they are announced with the closure of the special session.

Even before the start of this session, closed-door negotiations have been taking place between party leaders, without the opportunity for public testimony or press coverage. This model of governing is so obviously undemocratic that even state Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, a leading figure in the process, acknowledged, "It should not be the way we do business."

The VTNEA denounced Scott's plan from the start, and called on members to rally at the Capitol and around the state as the fight heated up. Hundreds rallied in the middle of May in Montpelier, calling Scott's proposal a bid to take power away from working people. Unfortunately, the VTNEA also supported the Democrats' problematic counterproposal, seeing it as a means of preserving collective bargaining.

Missing from the response of both the Democrats and the union is an unapologetic defense of spending on public education.

While both state Democrats and Republicans point out that education spending is a large portion of the state budget, unions and Vermonters should state enthusiastically that this is, in fact, a good thing. States should be devoting their resources to education, health care, and other social services, not police and prisons.

SCOTT HAS a long-term, right-wing vision for public education and teacher unionism. While his larger plan is unknown, some speculate that this proposal is an initial step toward pushing for all public school bargaining to move to the state level, culminating in a single statewide teacher contract.

Considering the difficulty of divorcing bargaining over health care from the rest of the contract, if Scott is successful in his current proposal it seems likely that the logical next step would be to push for ending local collective bargaining altogether.

Close by to Vermont, Maine's ultra-reactionary governor Paul LePage is in the midst of pushing for a single statewide teacher contract. This effort is being billed by Maine Republicans as an issue of equity, because, like in Vermont, large pay discrepancies between teachers in different districts help to perpetuate inequalities in education between poorer and wealthier communities.

With LePage's and Scott's right-wing, anti-worker track record, though, we can safely assume that their motives in pushing for bargaining at the state level are really about austerity, not addressing inequality.

While the totality of Scott's plans for public education remains shielded from view, it is obvious that his administration is targeting teachers, schools and unions. It will be up to the left in Vermont--in unions and political organizations--to chart a path forward to resist Scott's right-wing attacks and present an alternative vision for a better education system.

Our vision should reject austerity altogether and instead call for full funding of education from pre-K to the university level, paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. With trillions of dollars devoted to war, the notion of scarcity in public resources is entirely manufactured.

But shifting the priorities of government spending won't happen without a massive campaign to challenge the political leadership of both parties, which agree with one another about imposing austerity on public education.

A mass movement of workers and community members is necessary--both to defend the wages and benefits of Vermont's educators, but also to make advances in creating a more just, equitable and accessible public education system for all.

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