Written by Steve Early (originally published on www.SocialPolicy.org)
“We will stand by our friends and administer a stinging rebuke to men or parties who are either indifferent, negligent, or hostile, and, wherever opportunityaffords, to secure the election of intelligent, honest, earnest trade unionists, with clear, unblemished, paid-up union cards in their possession.” —Samuel Gompers2
Like much labor rhetoric, past and present, Samuel Gompers’s warning to the Democrats and Republicans contained more bark than bite. When progressive labor activists tried to break with the two-party system in the early 1900s, the American Federation of Labor president rarely backed them, no matter how “unblemished” their union record, if they campaigned under the banner of the Socialist Party. He preferred, instead, to stick with mainstream politicians, often in need of “a stinging rebuke,” but rarely receiving one because of labor’s still strong tendency to embrace the “lesser evil” on any ballot.
In 2012–14, deepening labor disillusionment with the performance of Democratic office holders led “intelligent, honest, earnest trade unionists” around the country toenter the political arena themselves, as candidates for municipal office.2 Rather than being ignored as the work of marginal “spoilers,” some of these insurgent campaignsby shop stewards, local union officers, and rank-and-file activists actually won substantial union backing, while generating valuable publicity for key labor causes.
In Seattle, city council candidate Kshama Sawant, a community college professor who belongs to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), won support from a majority of central labor council delegates. Sawant used her campaign to promote the “Fight for Fifteen” in fast food, affordable housing for Seattle workers, and the anti-corporate agenda popularized by Occupy Wall Street. By defeating a well-connected centrist Democrat, who was a longtime incumbent, she became the first socialist elected to a Seattle municipal body in more than a century.3
In Minneapolis, union member Ty Moore stressed similar issues and drew support from the state council of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for his first-time bid for a city council seat there. For Moore’s Democratic opponent to win, she needed the support of U.S. Senator Al Franken and local Congressman Keith Ellison, both influential liberal Democrats, “as well as corporate interests such as the National Association of Realtors.”4
Meanwhile, in blue-collar Lorain County, Ohio, two-dozen incumbent Democrats who had lost touch with their working class base were ousted from city council jobs by union activists running on an independent labor ticket.5 In New Haven, Connecticut, candidates recruited by the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) at Yale and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have swept aldermanic races, creating “a new grassroots group, called New Haven Rising, aligned with the city’s new labor-backed lawmaking majority.”6
In the black-majority city of Jackson, Mississippi, local union activists helped African-American radical Chokwe Lumumba get elected mayor, after he campaigned as an independent in the Democratic primary (only to lose control of city hall after the new mayor’s sudden death in February of this year).7 In the northern California cities of Richmond and Oakland, two white radicals, both longtime supporters of union reformcauses, launched their own 2014 mayoral campaigns.
Retired auto worker Mike Parker, one of the founders of Labor Notes and a key organizer of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, is campaigning against twocorporate-backed Democrats, in his race to succeed Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party member and fellow leader of the RPA. In a parallel race, also to be decided inNovember, labor attorney and National Lawyers Guild member Dan Siegel is challenging incumbent Mayor Jean Quan, a Democrat who unleashed the Oakland police department on Occupy Wall Street protestors three years ago. Both Parker and Siegel have been endorsed by the National Union of Healthcare Workers and localbranches of the SEIU; Parker and his four-member RPA slate have also won backing from the California Nurses Association and local affiliates of the Amalgamated Transit Union and Communications Workers of America.8
As labor-backed independent electoral efforts proliferate, more activists in other stateare looking to the example of the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP). More than any other third-party formation in the country, the VPP has campaigned successfully for state legislative seats and municipal office, “while building support for reform andnudging the Democrats left.”9
Over the last three decades, Vermont Progressives have also been able to woo locallabor organizations away from their previous knee-jerk support for local Democrats or moderate Republicans. These efforts have produced an influx of younger laboractivists into the leadership of the VPP, who are now recruiting more union members to run against Vermont politicians who prove “indifferent, negligent, or hostile” to working class concerns.
While the VPP model of third-party organization may not be viewed as viable in much larger, more diverse states, the idea of recruiting union members to run for office themselves has been embraced and promoted by the national AFL-CIO. So the example of labor organizers and local union officers becoming candidates and, when successful, elected public officials is one worthy of emulation, either in its third party or more frequent mainstream political form.10
What distinguishes the VPP from almost all state and local Democratic Party organizations, backed by labor elsewhere, is its year-round engagement withgrassroots labor causes and campaigns, as well as legislative/ political issues like single-payer health insurance. These non-electoral activities, plus the emergence of homegrown VPP leaders and candidates who have been workplace organizers andlocal union officers, haves greatly strengthened VPP’s ties with the local labor movement.
Progressive Electoral Success
Vermont Progressives now have a track record of electoral success spanning thirty-five years. In 1990, Vermonters sent the first “Prog” to Montpelier, where seventeen have since served a total of fifty-six legislative terms in the state capitol. Despite the VPP’s loss of Burlington City Hall in 2012—when a non-Progressive was elected mayor for only the second time since 1981— the party retains five city council seats (out of fourteen) in Vermont’s largest municipality, as of municipal elections in March, 2014. More than thirty Progressives have been Burlington city councilors over the past four decades.
Progressives have also been elected in nonpartisan races in smaller towns, where they have served on local school committees, select boards, and community planning bodies. On Town Meeting Day, when citizen meetings are held in every Vermont community, VPP members have helped pass resolutions in favor of tax reform, single-payer health care, and Congressional reversal of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for corporate political spending of the sort that Vermont Progressives will not accept.
Since its 1999 founding as a statewide entity, the VPP has become the most viable third party in the U.S. In 2012, all of its incumbent legislators who stood for reelection—four House members and two state Senators—held onto their seats. Their Progressive Caucus was joined by new Vermont House member Cindy Weed, who defeated an incumbent Republican. Former state rep David Zuckerman, a farmer fromChittenden County, became the third Progressive in the Senate, where he now serves as vice-chair of that body’s agriculture committee. Running as a D/P, Doug Hoffer was elected state auditor, the first VPP-backed candidate to succeed in a statewide race. Cassandra Gekas, who put her Progressive backing first, but also campaigned with nominal Democratic Party support, received forty one percent of the vote in her losing race for lieutenant governor.11
While VPP candidates were doing well in various state races, the godfather of the progressive movement in Vermont—Bernie Sanders—was reelected to the U.S. Senate in 2012 with 71.2 percent of the vote. While never running as a VPP candidatehimself, Vermont’s independent U.S. senator, socialist Bernie Sanders, has backed other Progressive candidates for state and local office, while VPP activists have, in turn, ardently supported his statewide races. Since his own initial campaign for mayor of Burlington in 1980-81, Sanders has succeeded in defeating Democrats and, more recently, primarily Republican foes by reaching out to union members and unorganized workers ill served by our national political duopoly (and Vermont’s local version of this before it was challenged by the VPP). In 2014, Sanders even began putting out feelers about running for president, either as a Nader-style independent or, more likely, a 2016 primary opponent of Hillary Clinton, the centrist Democrat likely to dominate the field.12
Sanders’s first electoral break-through occurred in 1981 when he became mayor of Vermont’s biggest city by a fourteen-vote margin in a four-way race. Prior to that upset victory, he had campaigned for state or federal office multiple times in the 1970s as an articulate but marginalized standard-bearer for the fledgling Liberty Union Party (LUP).13 In 1976, when Sanders ran for governor, neither the Vermont AFL-CIO nor the more left-leaning Vermont Labor Forum (composed of the Teamsters, United Electrical Workers, and Granite Cutters Union) gave serious consideration to backing his pro-labor Liberty Union slate. During this entire decade, today’s much-respected U.S. Senator never gained any official labor support or more than five percent of thetotal statewide vote.
The Sanders Example
In 1981, however, Sanders’ first bid for local office was backed by the Burlington Patrolman’s Association, which provided a key endorsement and funding after a contract-related beef with the incumbent mayor, a five-term Democrat. As mayor, Sanders immediately hired a new Human Resources director for Burlington. This union-friendly lawyer worked to improve relations between city hall and local cops, firefighters, and other municipal workers represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). During his four terms in city hall, Sanders continued to champion the cause of workers, tenants, the poor, and unemployed.
“I was fighting for working families,” he recalled in a 2014 interview. “We were payingattention to low and moderate income neighborhoods rather than just downtown or thebig-money interests. In fact, I went to war with virtually every part of the ruling class in Burlington during my years as mayor. People understood that; they said, ‘You know what? Bernie is standing with us. We’re going to stand with him.’ The result is thatlarge numbers of people who previously had not participated in the political process got involved. And that’s what we have to do for the whole country.”14
Despite Sanders’ record of working class voter mobilization in Burlington, national labor organizations were still reluctant to support a left-wing independent, when he sought election to Congress in 1988, losing that year but winning in 1990. However, some local unions began to break with the centrist Democratic and moderate Republican candidates who were his early opponents for Vermont’s sole U.S. House seat.
Once on Capitol Hill, Sanders blazed a trail not followed in fifty years, since Vito Marcantonio served in the House as the lonely tribune of the American Labor Party. In the 1990s, Sanders became a rare progressive voice, not just for “ordinary Vermonters but all Americans—especially poor and working class people.” He quickly helped create a left pole for mainstream labor’s soon-to-be-thwarted campaign to reform theNational Labor Relations Act during the Clinton Administration. He introduced a “’Workplace Democracy Act’ to comprehensively reform and strengthen workers’rights…to improve living standards for American workers, which have fallen precipitously.” Taking up a crucial labor and peace movement cause (soon to beabandoned by major industrial unions), Sanders also “fashioned a comprehensive plan for conversion from a military to a civilian economy.”15
Back in Vermont, Sanders used his Congressional office, in highly unusual fashion, to help working class constituents get better organized. In the Green Mountain State, some leading Democrats—like former Governor Howard Dean—have been known to assist a high-profile union organizing drive—when they felt sufficient labor pressure to do so. Sanders not only urged Vermont workers to “Vote Yes” in representation elections at firms like NYNEX (later known as Verizon), he actually convened annual meetings of labor activists to help them develop more successful organizing and bargaining strategies. To stimulate new thinking at the local union level, Sanders and his staff invited out-of-state labor speakers who were part of national efforts to revive the labor movement.
VPP candidates have taken a leaf from Sanders’ four decades of labor engagement and advocacy—first, as Burlington mayor, then Vermont’s lone congressman, and now junior U.S. senator. They have distinguished themselves from their mainstream partyopponents by focusing, in Sanders-like fashion, on economic justice issues, ratherthan potentially divisive social questions.16 In areas of the state where working-class voters might otherwise be swayed by cultural conservatism or residual rural Republicanism, the VPP has, like Sanders, won elections by campaigning for workers’ rights, fair taxes, a living wage, and single-payer health care. The Party also pledges to “promote cooperative, worker-owned and publicly owned enterprises.”
Unlike many Democrats, VPP office-holders provide active strike support, as they did during this year’s Burlington bus drivers’ walkout. Progressive Party members initiate or join community-based campaigns to defend union jobs, while freely criticizing the labor relations record of Democrats involved in negotiations with teachers, state workers, and other public employees. According to Traven Leyshon, former secretary-treasurer of the Vermont state labor council, “Local labor leaders are now willing to support Progressive candidates over Democrats—when they’re credible—because of such pro labor stances.”
Third Partyism Elsewhere
In other states, there have been few Sanders-like figures able to legitimize greater political independence by labor, much less create space for building progressive party infrastructure. Most unions have shied away from traditional third-party activity because they do not want to back “spoilers” or, short of that, mount losing campaigns with no perceptible impact on major party behavior. Elsewhere in the Northeast, labor-financed Working Families Parties (WFP) have been launched so “fusion voting” can be used, where permitted under state law, to reward the friends of union causes by giving cross-endorsed candidates an additional ballot line. A century ago, fusion was banned in most of the nation (but not New York) as part of the corporate counterattack against Populism. It allows major party candidates in states to garner additional votes on the ballot line of any cross-endorsing minor party.
In theory, if not always in practice, this system gives small parties on the left or right greater leverage because they can punish unresponsive mainstream candidates by withholding their support and running their own competing candidates. New York’s union-dominated WFP has, in the past, proved generally reluctant to do this. In 2010, for example, WFP leaders backed Andrew Cuomo for governor—even after he proclaimed he would seek public employee benefit cuts and curtailment of labor’s clout in Albany. Cuomo later received 154,835 votes on the WFP’s general election ballot line.
Four years later, the relationship between Cuomo and activists within the WPP had become much more adversarial, prior to the party’s June, 2014 convention. As The New York Times reported, the governor faced “a revolt by the Working Families Party, which threatened to complicate his re-election by running a candidate to his left.”17More than forty percent of the convention delegates favored doing just that. “He got his four years….no more,” declared community organizer Bertha Lewis, as she nominated Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout to be WFP’s gubernatorial candidate instead.18
Behind the scenes negotiations with Cuomo were conducted by major WFP unions and its longtime ally Bill de Blasio. De Blasio became mayor of New York City in 2014 with WFP help in a municipal election that also put its endorsed candidates into two other citywide offices and many city council seats.xix For his 2014 statewide race, Governor Cuomo raised a huge campaign war chest from his friends in the business community and faced weak Republican opposition. So, even if any rival WFP candidacy was unlikely to cost him the election, the possibility of it certainly got his attention. To secure WFP convention support, Cuomo grudgingly pledged to boost the minimum wage, support public financing of elections, and help the VPP and New York Democrats oust Republican members of the state senate.
WFP vs VPP
The New York-based Working Families Party has also helped create counterpart organizations in four other states and the District of Columbia. As part of this expansion effort, its organizers made an abortive attempt to establish a foothold in Vermont. That unwelcome intervention failed after much pushback from local labor activists who had spent years helping to build the VPP.
“Our strategy of both challenging and working with Democrats in a different way makes us somewhat unique,” insists Martha Abbott, a tax accountant from Underhill who is past chairperson of the VPP. “The difference between the VPP and WFP is that the latter only supports Democrats. We run our own candidates, and this makes us more effective at challenging them because they know we can and have cost them elections.”
In 2010, however, the Progressives “decided not to play spoiler if the Democratic candidate for governor supported single payer health.”20 Peter Shumlin’s subsequent narrow victory over Republican lieutenant governor Brian Dubie also received crucial assistance from Sanders. Within seven months of his election, Shumlin reciprocated by signing legislation committing Vermont to the creation of a state-level, single-payerhealth care plan, or something close to it.21
To maintain its “major party” status under Vermont election law, the Progressives must field at least one statewide candidate every two years who garners five percent or more of the vote. Its campaign coffers are limited because the party lacks wealthy donors like those the Democrats and Republicans attract. As noted above, the Party also rejects corporate contributions, few of which would be forthcoming to most Progressive candidates anyway. In Vermont House and Senate races, winning margins are more achievable on a limited budget than in many other states.
With a population of just 626,000 people, Vermont has electoral constituencies small enough for people with progressive ideas to canvass door-to-door. Candidates canmeet nearly every voter and drum up enough campaign donations to be competitive even in the absence of any system of public financing of elections. When ChrisPearson from Burlington first ran for a House seat, “it was expected that I’d knock on every door in my district,” he recalls. “Progressives are dedicated to that style ofcampaigning. It’s also affordable. You can run a House race for $5,000.”22
In recent years, the VPP has focused on finding more viable candidates, like Pearson, who specializes in tax and budget issues in Montpelier. One group being targeted for candidate recruitment and training is union members alienated from the state’s two larger parties, because of their bipartisan neglect of worker/consumer concerns. Labor activists have the potential advantage of being able to use union resources as well as the Party’s own for electoral campaigns. Given the shift in the composition of the state’s unionized workforce away from traditional blue-collar employment intrucking, manufacturing, and extractive industries, it’s not surprising that VPP labor supporters can now be found in customer service jobs, health care, or public sectoremployment, as illustrated in the profiles below.
A Bipartisan Telecom Fiasco
Mike O’Day is a fifth generation Vermont, a graduate of St. Michaels College in Winooski, and a customer service rep for FairPoint Communications (formerly Verizon) in Burlington. As the elected vice-president of Communications Workers of America Local 1400, he has dealt with workers’ problems at AT&T, Verizon, and now FairPoint in four New England states.
Although his union was a longtime supporter of Bernie Sanders, O’Day has not always been a fan of every Progressive initiative. In 2004, for example, Peter Clavelle—who took over from Sanders as mayor of Burlington and served seven terms—sought CWA’s endorsement for his ill-fated gubernatorial campaign. At a meeting with the candidate, O’Day strongly objected to Clavelle’s attempt to create a tax-supported municipal broadband network, with non-union staffing. O’Day felt that this undertaking—which later proved to be a huge political liability for Burlington Progressives—wouldunfairly siphon customers away from the local phone company, with its higher-cost, private sector workforce of IBEW and CWA members.
Nevertheless, eight years later, O’Day ran as a newly-minted Progressive himself—for an open House seat in the area around Fairfax, a rural bedroom community for white-collar commuters to Burlington. A total newcomer to local politics in conservative Franklin County, he got nearly a quarter of the vote in a race where the Republican winner, a prominent local businessman, was endorsed by his Democratic predecessor.
O’Day entered electoral politics, in part, because of his dismay over the bipartisan response of Vermont regulators and politicians when Verizon sold its northern New England landline holdings to FairPoint in 2008. That disastrous $2.4 billion deal was strongly opposed by members of CWA and IBEW in the three states affected. As predicted by labor and consumer critics of the sale, the over-leveraged FairPoint soon ended up in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Problems with customer servicewere widespread and workers’ jobs, benefits, and contract rights were threatened.23
The three governors whose public utility boards approved the transaction included two Democrats and, in Vermont, a Republican. When liberal Democrat Peter Shumlin took over as Vermont governor in 2010, his administration quickly filled key telecom policy positions with former industry officials. “I never wanted to be a Democrat after what Shumlin did with telecom issues,” said O’Day, who believes the current governor is also “in the pocket of Green Mountain Power,” the state’s largest electrical utility.
When VPP activists approached O’Day about running for the state legislature in 2012, he was initially wary because of his union responsibilities and lack of previous involvement in community affairs in Fairfax. “With a union election, there’s a finite number of issues and you know your stuff,” he observes. “Until you throw your hat in the ring, you have no idea how much work is involved in a political race. When I started out, I knew maybe six people in town.”
On the stump in the late summer and fall of 2012, O’Day made 500 house visits, knocking on the doors of complete strangers, with help from family, friends, and fellow union members. He had to become conversant with issues ranging from school financing to the state budget, plus fend off right-wing attacks. These came from a Burlington heiress, whose political action committee Vermonters First spent $682,000 in 2012 on mailings that denounced non-Republicans in the state as “tax-and-spend”liberals. (Voters in O’Day’s district received two mass mailers that sought to discredit him for his VPP backing.)24
O’Day learned much from his doorstep conversations with neighbors, more than 100of whom he signed up as new voters. Despite the conservative nature of the electorate around Fairfax, O’Day found that “eighty percent of the people like Bernie” because of the constituent service work he has done for farmers, veterans, and retirees. Sanderspublicly endorsed O’Day’s campaign and personally donated money to it. “Bernie got me a ton of votes,” the former candidate believes. “The Bernie factor was really huge in a place where unions aren’t that popular and the Progressives did not have that many active members.”
O’Day’s sole regret was the lack of more systematic labor-based GOTV activity on his behalf. He never got a list from the state AFL-CIO of union members living in the district he sought to represent. When he made a pitch for donations at a state fed COPE conference, few were forthcoming other than his $500 share of a $10,000 infusion of money from the national AFL-CIO for pro labor candidates in Vermont. O’Day’s major fundraiser was organized by friends in the VPP and fellow members of CWA. His total campaign budget for yard signs, T-shirts, a website, and campaign literature was about $4,000. “I didn’t want union checks so much as outreach by unions to their own members who were among the 3,000 eligible voters,” he says. “If labor’s going to win, we’ve got to stick together and do this better.”
Union Voices on City Council
Like Mike O’Day, Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, the thirty-three year old state chair of the VPP, is a native Vermonter. Her father, Ed Stanak, is a now retired state worker and past president of the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA); in 2012, he ranunsuccessfully as the Progressive Party candidate for state attorney general against a popular incumbent Democrat.
After graduating from Smith College in 2002, Mulvaney-Stanek returned to Vermont where she become a living wage campaign organizer and the state field director for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who was defeated in 2006. She now serves as a staff member of Vermont’s largest union—the local affiliate of the National Education Association (Vermont-NEA), which represents 12,000 teachers and school support staff members in the state.
While juggling a demanding schedule of contract campaigns and organizing, Mulvaney-Stanak became increasingly active in the VPP. She served on its Burlington and Winooski Town committees and then as secretary for the state organization. “I’ve grown up in Vermont so I’ve seen the Progressives grow as a party, and I’ve also see the challenges of being a Democrat in Vermont. I really feel the [Democratic] party is not as progressive as it needs to be.”25 In 2009, she became a VPP candidate herself, getting elected to the Burlington City Council, a three-year stint that ended when she moved to nearby Winooski to live with and then marry her now spouse.
As a city council member, in the modern-day cradle of progressive politics in Vermont,Mulvaney-Stanak became an outspoken advocate for “livable wage” jobs in Burlington and for project labor agreements covering its publicly funded construction projects. “I was very interested in running on our core economic issues and bringing the perspective of working people to the council,” she explained.
As an ally of Vermont building trades unions, she encountered “tremendous resistance from Democrats” when she and other Progressives sought to defend laborstandards. This dispute, and others on the council, illustrated why “it’s so critically important for people with a labor orientation to be involved in the decision-makingprocess on major development projects.”
In 2012, VPP candidate Max Tracy became Ward 2 City Councilor just three years after graduating from the University of Vermont, where he supported labor organizing on campus, first as a student and then as a university employee. Progressives on the council, like Mulvaney-Stanak and Tracy, tried to uphold the old Bernie Sanders tradition of maintaining good relations with unionized city workers, which include the police, firefighters, and three bargaining units represented by AFSCME or IBEW.
“On the council, the DINOs—Democrats in Name Only—wanted to do regressive bargaining under the guise of fixing an under-funded pension system,” Mulvaney-Stanak said. “They were willing to abandon the goal of creating good-paying jobs for our city workforce. It’s amazing how ignorant people are about collective bargaining, how much they defer to hired lawyers for the city.”
“I felt my council role was an extension of my union work,” she said. “Organizers think differently than the average politician. Within the Vermont labor movement, there’s a growing sense among rank-and-file and staff that we have to re-think how we engage with politics and politicians.” While serving on the council in Burlington, the Vermont-NEA organizer also found time to coordinate two teachers’ strikes and several near strikes around the state. A former striker employed as a teacher in Poultney later ran for and won a seat on the school board in Castleton, which had similar rocky relations with Vermont-NEA members.
Mulvaney-Stanak believes that VPP recruitment of political candidates who are younger, female, and pro-labor parallels Vermont- NEA’s new “focus on gettingyounger folks to take ownership of their union, as an activist organization, not just aninsurance policy at work.” In addition, the kind of experience that teacher union activists can acquire in the public arena, at the local level, makes them well prepared to engage with statewide political issues, as candidates for the legislature. “The beauty of Vermont,” she says, “is that we don’t have to rely on doctors, lawyers, and wealthy retirees to run things in Montpelier.”
Shaking Up The VSEA
Among the staff and rank-and-file activists of the 5,400-member Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA)—headquartered in Montpelier, the state capital— are several leading VPP members. They include twenty-four year old Adam Norton, described on the Party’s website as “a class conscious young Vermonter.” The son of a union member employed by the University of Vermont, Norton became active in the VPP even before he graduated from Lyndon State College.
He interned for Progressive legislator Chris Pearson and worked on Doug Hoffer’s Progressive and Democratic Party backed campaign for State Auditor. Within the VPP,he served on two town committees before becoming a member of the state committee. Meanwhile, Norton landed a staff position with the VSEA as a Strategic Analyst, a job that includes legislative lobbying, research, and bargaining support for VSEA members employed in state government, including the state college system that he graduated from.
During Norton’s tenure, VSEA members have had multiple reasons to regard Peter Shumlin, the new Democratic governor elected in 2010, as something less than a strong ally of public employees and those they serve. Shumlin’s administration has continued widespread privatization of state services, expanded use of temps, andreclassification of some dozens of VSEA members’ jobs so they no longer have contract protection or collective bargaining rights.
In a late 2013 interview, Norton described the efforts by new VSEA director Mark Mitchell and sympathetic board members to move their independent union in the direction of more membership mobilization and less reliance on traditional “inside-game” lobbying in Montpelier. “The old philosophy was, if the Democrats are in power, just do nothing,” Norton said. “Maintaining good relations with the Democrats wasprioritized over protecting the members.” Efforts to change the VSEA’s organizational culture by recruiting more activists and engaging rank and file members, triggered some internal tensions and disagreements, including, at one point, a failed effort to oust Mitchell. Among his foes were long-time staffers used to referring to members astheir “clients.”
Because the VSEA lacks any affiliation to a national union with close ties to theDemocrats (like AFSCME or SEIU), it does enjoy greater autonomy in the area ofpolitics. “As an independent,” Norton notes, “we don’t have any national union legislative or political director in Washington telling us that a third party is crazy. Wecan make our own decisions right here in Montpelier.”
One major political education and organizing challenge facing the VSEA is how to deal with Shumlin and the Democrats over financing of Green Mountain Care.
Due to Obamacare, Vermont’s new system of universal coverage has been delayed for three years, until 2017. Until then, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires the state to operate a private insurance exchange, even though state legislators voted in 2011 to create a system of tax-financed coverage that would replace private insurers and job- based benefits.
Like the ACA rollout elsewhere, Vermont’s federally mandated transition to a local insurance marketplace was costly and riddled with technical glitches. Vermonters previously insured through other state programs ended up paying more in premiums.Single-payer advocates worried that their longer-term goal might be discredited and undermined, as a result.26
That’s why state employee Leslie Matthews, chair of the VSEA’s Legislative Committee and another VPP supporter, has been heavily involved in efforts to insurethat the level of care and coverage in VSEA’s own negotiated health plan will become “the baseline of any new system created for all Vermonters.” In early 2014, the Vermont-NEA joined this critical effort, pledging $100,000 to insure “that advocacy for Green Mountain Care is dogged, effective, and, ultimately, successful” in creating a “publicly funded health care package that would serve all of us better than the private insurance system we have now.”27 Without the Vermont Workers Center, the VPP, and pro-single payer unions birddogging “every step of that process, there will be a realpossibility of it falling apart,” Rob Millar predicts.
Organizing in Healthcare and Childcare
While Progressive activists help rejuvenate the Vermont State Employees Association, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) benefits from the workplace organizing roles of two other VPP state committee members—Mari Cordes and Corey Decker.
Cordes is a former organic farmer and University of Michigan graduate, who became a registered nurse in 1988. Fourteen years later, she helped her co-workers at Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington win bargaining rights at the state’s largest medical center in 2002. She is now president of AFT’s Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (VFNHP), which numbers more than 2,000. After his election in 2010, Governor Shumlin named Cordes to his Commission on the Future of Nursing and made her an advisor to the board developing Green Mountain Care.
Burlington-born Corey Decker graduated from Johnson State College in Vermont in 2003 and, like Cordes, got her first union experience working at Fletcher Allen. Decker was a sleep therapist, who became a shop steward and participant in VFNHP contract negotiations. A disagreement with the hospital administration led her to leave her Fletcher Allen job so she could work full-time for the AFT on a statewide campaign to organize 1,500 home day care providers (or “early childhood educators,” as the unionbetter describes their important, if low-paid, social role).
The AFT nationally encourages its members and staff to become politically active, butgenerally on behalf of Democratic candidates. Decker checked out both the Democratic Party in Vermont and her VP town committee in Fletcher. “It wasn’t so much the Democrats stance on particular issues” that she found off-putting. “In their very presentation, they seemed to be trying to play the GOP game.”
“I don’t have faith in the Democratic Party to be a real voice of working class people, “she concluded. “They espouse a lot of good things but don’t live up to them. I felt the Progressive Party message was more honest and true to basic human rights principles.”
At Progressive party events, Decker finds it easy to incorporate her day-to-day union work, such as signing up more Vermonters to support the early child care educators’ right to organize and bargain. When she informed her campaign director and state president of the AFT about her new role on the VPP’s state committee, their reaction, she says, was “Oh, that’s good for you!” According to Decker, AFT leaders “realize that the union has gotten a lot of support from Progressives for all our struggles.”
“This is a people-run party, which encourages grassroots participation, but it needs more involvement by everyone who supports workers’ rights,” she believes. “Things are on a path to get worse because of all the attacks on unions all around the country. I see the Progressive Party growing because the political climate is deteriorating. Sometimes, you have to hit rock-bottom before you come up again.”
“A lot of people don’t identify with party politics in Vermont,” observes Rob Millar,executive director of the VPP. “With us, they see something different.” Millar believes that more labor voters in Vermont are “getting tired of being taken for granted” and will continue to reach the conclusion that “this is the party that will better represent labor’s interests” because “the Democrats are not a consistent ally.”
In the city of Winooski, next door to Burlington, Millar himself has been a successfulcandidate for the local school board, defeating a vocal right-winger. Now, he encourages union shop stewards and others with contract bargaining experience to run for local elected boards themselves. “They have the skill set,” he says. “All it takes is building up their confidence that they can be candidates too.” Says Mulvaney-Stanak: “Our challenge is to figure out more ways to create on-ramps for the party. How can we get rank-and-file union members to pick Progressives over Democrats in open seat races?”
2014 Political Challenges
“We benefit when the Democrats are in power,” Rob Millar contends. When Peter Shumlin’s Republican predecessor Jim Douglas ran, “everyone wanted to get a Democrat back in as governor,” he recalls. “Now, the Democrats have a super-majority in both houses of the legislature but Shumlin has consistently put forward state budgets as bad or worse than Douglas.” In his dealings with the VSEA, the liberal hero of health care reform has, according to Millar, “been, for all intents and purposes, a Republican.” For example, in 2013, as the VPP noted, with disapproval, the Shumlin Administration “introduced a budget that slashed the Earned Income Tax Credit, Reach Up, and other low-income support programs.” As Progressive state rep Chris Pearson asked: “As a populist party, how could we not challenge someone who is putting forth those ideas?”
When the Vermont legislature reconvened in 2014, the Progressive caucus got busy again, prodding Shumlin from the left—on issues including single payer implementation, bargaining rights for child care workers, creation of a state bank, and passage of new protective labor legislation. At a January 28 press conference, the VPP pulled together a “multi-partisan coalition of legislators” to unveil a proposed “Economic Bill of Rights” for Vermont workers. This ambitious legislative package sought to “raise the minimum wage, require employers to provide paid sick time and family leave, create a rental housing registry, and ensure that employers cannot fire employees without just cause.” As Millar explained, “many of these provisions may be a long way from becoming law, but, as always, Progressives are leading the way and changing the conversation in Montpelier.”
Thanks to coordinated grassroots lobbying by the Burlington-based Vermont Workers Center (VWC) and individual unions, state legislators ended up with a mixed scorecard five months later. They boosted the minimum wage and, after a multi-year struggle, finally enabled 1,500 home-based childcare providers to unionize if they choose, with assistance from Corey Decker and other AFT organizers. (5,000 Vermont home care workers, recognized as a bargaining unit and organized by AFSCME in 2013, were able to win a first contract by May of this year.) But the paid sick days bill championed by the VWC died in a House committee, and the VWC had to rally its supporters to defeat attempts to water down Act 48, the enabling legislation for Green Mountain Care. “There was a tremendous amount of pressure from insurance and pharmaceutical companies, big business employers, and their lobbyists,” reported VWC director James Haslam, who warns of further struggles ahead when GMC financing decisions are made in 2015.
In the meantime, Progressives remain uneasily tethered to Shumlin because, as Millar notes, despite his many shortcomings, the governor has “moved us closer tosingle-payer, universal healthcare than ever before.” The difficult, multi-year GMC implementation process would be quickly derailed if any GOP candidate defeated himin November. One prominent single-payer foe, Darcie Johnston, spokesperson for Vermonters for Healthcare Freedom, even holds out the hope that, “if the GOP justpicks up 10 to 15 legislative seats, it could potentially block passage of a financing plan—the next hurdle for single payer.”28 For its part, the VPP is campaigning hard to prevent that from occurring by defending and expanding its electoral base. “In order to continue to be the voice of opposition to the corporate duopoly’s economic agenda, which puts profits before people, we must grow our legislative caucus in Montpelier, as well as our grassroots networks across the state,” the VPP state committee declared.29
Still Walking The Line
While state legislators were meeting in Montpelier, Teamster bus drivers in Burlington braved a brutally cold Vermont winter on picket-lines at the Chittenden County Transit Authority (CCTA). Their high-profile eighteen day strike, in March, 2014, affected nearly10,000 riders. The VWC-organized strike support campaign not only became a model for labor-community solidarity, it also gave local Progressives the chance todemonstrate once again which side they’re on.xxx Democratic Mayor Miro Weinbergerand his council majority had already earned labor enmity by weakening the city’s livable wage ordinance. When the drivers walked out over unfair treatment, unsafe working conditions, and scheduling problems, eight members of the council endorsed Weinberger’s plan for binding arbitration of the dispute, an approach that would have led to union concessions.
The city’s largest union—the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals, headed by VPP state committee member Mari Cordes—quickly objected to arbitration because it would put “all decision-making in the hands of a third party, someone with no relationship to the workplace or community directly affected by his or her decision.” The Progressive caucus on the city council— Rachel Siegel, Max Tracy, Vince Brennan, and Selene Colburn—weighed in with a strong defense of the drivers’ fight for a fair contract and better working conditions.
On March 26, 150 drivers and supporters marched on the city council to oppose the mayor’s plan. They held a boisterous rally and speak-out that succeeded inpersuading several council members to withdraw their support for binding arbitration. By the conclusion of the meeting, “the focus had shifted to a discussion led byprogressive councilors about whether or not to sanction CCTA management.”xxxi A week later, after further negotiations, the CCTA capitulated, agreeing to a new contract that was ratified by a fifty-three to six margin. “We won this fair contract because of our unity and the tremendous support from our community,” said Rob Slingerland, a Teamster member and spokesperson for the strikers.
While Democrats are part of that community too, VPP-style expressions of labor solidarity remain a rarity in their ranks, in Burlington and statewide. “I’ve been on manypicket-lines in Vermont,” says Phil Fiermonte, a former city councilor who now works for Bernie Sanders. “Rarely, if ever, do I remember any Democratic office holders showing up. The Progressives do show up.”
By showing up—and doing a lot more than that— Vermont Progressives have demonstrated how a party can be genuinely pro-working class—between elections, when it campaigns for office, and after its candidates get elected. The resulting contrast with the state Democratic Party, albeit one of the most liberal in the nation, is not lost on Vermont workers. As a result, more union members have begun to realize how fortunate they are to have electoral choices unavailable elsewhere, in states where “defeating duopoly” has yet to become such a promising labor movement project.xxxii
Steve Early is a graduate of Middlebury College who has been writing about political activism in Vermont since 1968. Between 1980 and 2007, he was a union representative and organizer for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in New England. During that time, CWA actively supported Progressive candidates in Vermont, including Bernie Sanders, and aided the Working Families Party in NewYork, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Early is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress from Monthly Review Press. He can now lives in Richmond, California, where he supports the Richmond Progressive Alliance. Early can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com .
1. Samuel Gompers, “Men of Labor! Be Up and Doing,” American Federationist, May,1906.
2. Similar disillusion with Democrats, at the local, state, and federal level in the mid- 1990s, led labor activists around the country to form a union-backed Labor Party, which never reached the stage of running candidates before it went into a period ofsteady decline. For more on its history, see: Derek Seidman, “Looking Back at the Labor Party: An Interview with Mark Dudzic,” New Labor Forum, Vol. 23, 2014, pp.60-64 and response by Adolph Reed, Jr., pp.65-67.
3. For further details on Sawant’s victory and issue oriented campaigning, see Paul Bigman, “How Did Seattle Do It?” Labor Notes, December 16, 2013; John Nichols, “Socialist in Seattle,” The Progressive, March , 2014, pp.13-15; or Sasha Abramsky,“Fearless in Seattle,” The Nation, April 28, 2014, pp. 22-24.
4. Bhaskar Sunkara and Micah Uetricht, “Socialist in Seattle,” In These Times, January, 2014, page 11,
5. Bruce Bostick, “Ohians Elect Two Dozen City Councilors on Independent Labor Ticket,” Labor Notes, December 4, 2013.
6. Allan Appel, “’New Haven Rising’ Rises,” New Haven Independent, July 19, 2012.http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/new_grassroots_citywide_advocacy_group_launched/ In Chicago, an “independent political organization” similar to New Haven Rising has been formed by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and its labor and community allies; this “IPO” has yet to run candidates.
7. For a history of Chokwe Lumumba’s mayoral victory and continuing efforts to create an electoral alternative to neo-liberal Democrats in Jackson, see Carl Davidson, “Jackson Rising: An Electoral Battle Unleashes a Merger of Black Power, the SolidarityEconomy, and Wider Democracy, Portside, May 15, 2014.
8. For more on Parker’s mayoral candidacy, see Steve Early, “Can Big Oil Retake Richmond?” The Nation, May 23, 2014 and Parker’s own Social Policy account of the RPA’s organizational history and past campaigning: http://www.richmondprogressivealliance.net/docs/RPA%20in%20Social%20Policy%20magaziine%20 summer%2013.pdf
9. Molly Worthen, “As Vermont Goes, So Goes The Nation?,” The New York Times, April 6, 2014.
10. Some prominent trade union officials who became state or local office holders, as Democrats– while retaining their union positions–have been politically conservative or corrupt. See, for example, the benighted career of New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney, a multiple-salaried Ironworkers official who has been a frequent ally of Republican Governor Chris Christie, or the spectacular flame-out of NYC Central Council president Brian McLaughlin, a member of the IBEW. Before being jailed for embezzling more than $3 million from private and public sector purses, McLaughlin also served in the state assembly in Albany. See Steve Early, Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013) pp. 203-4. The jury is still out on the performance of former building trades leader Marty Walsh, elected mayor of Boston in 2013. See Amy B. Dean, “Can We Make Progressive Mayors Work for The People? Truthout, March 13, 2014.
11. Under Vermont law, candidates can only collect votes on a single ballot line, but with multiple party endorsements listed after their name. VPP state senatorial hopefuls campaign with the “P/D” or “D/P” label, since no one, running solely as aProgressive, has ever won a senate seat, even in Chittenden County, which includes Burlington. For more on who runs as a “P/D,” as opposed to a “D/P,” and why, see Kevin J. Kelly, “Pragmatism or Purity: Is ‘Fusion’ Good for the Progressive Party?”Seven Days, October 26, 2012. Archived at http://www.7dvt.com/2012pragmatism-or-purity-fusiongood-progressive-party. Martha Abbott, former chairperson of the VPP, told Kelly that, in her view, only ten of the current Democratic members of the Vermont legislature could qualify for a Prog endorsement. “It’s not as though we’re going to besupporting lots and lots of Democrats,” she assured him.
12. See John Nichols, interview with Bernie Sanders entitled, “I Am Prepared to Run for President of the United States” The Nation, March 6, 2014.
13. Long marginalized, in the usual U.S. third party fashion, Liberty Union continues to run candidates for state and local office who will give “voters the choice to stand firmly against war, militarism, and nuclear power, while defending our civil and politicalrights.” For more information on its platform and leading figures, see http://www.libertyunionparty.org/ In 2012, the forty-five year old LUP did succeed in re-qualifying for “major party” status as a result of a surprising 13.1% showing by its candidate for Vermont Secretary of State.
14. As quoted by Nichols, The Nation, March 6, 2014.
15. William F. Grover, “In The Belly of the Beast: Bernie Sanders, Congress, and Political Change,” New Political Science, Winter-Spring, 1994, No. 28/29, pp. 31-52. For more on Sander’s singular career as the longest serving independent inCongress, see also Grover’s “Congress and Movement-Building: Bernie Sanders and the Congressional Progressive Caucus,” in William F. Grover and Joseph G. Peschek, Eds.,Voices of Dissent: Critical Readings in American Government,” (NewYork: Pearson Longman, 2006) pp. 200-203.
16. For VPP’s “statement of principles” and platform on social justice and economic equality issues, see: http://www.progressiveparty.org/issues/platform
17. Frank Bruni, “The Theatre Beyond the Clintons,” New York Times, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, p. 28.
18. As quoted by Glenn Blain, “Blaz Life of Gov’s Party,” The N.Y. Daily News, June 1, 2014, p.2. On the left in New York, the end of Teachout’s short-lived campaign left the third-party field open to Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, a rank-and- file Teamster from Syracuse, who is making his second gubernatorial run against Cuomo.
19. For informative accounts of the Working Families Party, see Sarah Jaffe, “The Third Party That’s Winning,” In These Times, March 3, 2014, or Harold Meyerson, “Dan Cantor’s Machine,” The American Prospect, June 6, 2014. As Meyerson reported, the2013 municipal election in NYC “marks a high point for the Working Families Party…twelve of the thirteeen candidates the WFP who ran for city council also swept to victory. In January , when the new council convenes, twenty of the city’s fifty-one councilmen and –women will be dues-paying members of the Progressive ii
20. Molly Worthen, New York Times, April 6, 2014.
21. For more on the VPP’s “spoiler” role earlier in Shumlin’s career and how Progressives helped make him a winner in 2010, see Early, Save Our Unions, pp. 259-263.
22. As quoted by Worthen, New York Times, April 6, 2014. Pearson, who specializes in tax and budget issues for the VPP, represents one of the state’s larger multi-seat districts. In 2010, he only had to raise $12,000 for his re-election–campaign spendingthat wouldn’t pay for your bumper stickers in a California or New York state assembly race.
23. See Steve Early, “FairPoint mess puts three states in jeopardy,” The Rutland Herald, April 9, 2009.
24. For more on Mike O’Day’s millionaire Republican detractor, see Andy Bromage, “Who is Lenore Broughton? Meet the Vermont GOP’s sugar mama,” Seven Days, October 17, 2012. Archived at: http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/who-is-lenorebroughton/Content?oid=2241912
25. As quoted by Alicia Freese, “Abbott Prefers Mulvaney-Stanak as New Progressive Party Leader,” Vermont Digger blog, October 23, 2013. (http://vtdigger.org/2013/10/23/abbott-prefers-mulvaneystanak-new-progressive-party-leader/)
26. See James Haslam, “Let’s Keep Our Eyes on the Prize,” Bennington Banner, November 22, 2013. Haslam is director of the Vermont Workers Center and key organizer of its “Healthcare as a Human Right Campaign.”
27. Quotation is from pro-single payer op-ed piece by the school librarian who serves as president of the Vermont-NEA. See Martha Allen, “Why We Support Green Mountain Care,” The Caledonian-Record, February 26, 2014.
28. See Morgan True, “Single-payer Advocacy Group Gets Boost From NEA, Poll Shows Support For Health Reform,” Vermont Digger blog, February 21, 2014. For more on past and present potholes in the single-payer road in Vermont, see Early, Save Our Unions, pp. 270-278
29. Report on Vermont Progressive Party state committee meeting in Bethel, VT., emailed to VPP supporters on August 26, 2013. (Copy in the possession of the author.)
30. For a good post-mortem on the CCTA strike, see Ellen David-Friedman, “ Why Passengers Cheered A Bus Strike in Vermont,” Labor Notes, May, 2014.
31. Jonathan Leavitt, “Vermont Bus Drivers’ 18-Day Strike Results in Big Win,” Working In These Times, April 11, 2014.
32. For more on third party progress elsewhere, see Defeating Duopoly, Advancing Democracy: The Future Empowerment of Progressive Third Parties in the UnitedStates, edited by Jonathan Martin (Routledge, 2015).