In November 2009 a statewide labor conference convened at the Davis Center at the University of Vermont under the auspices of the Vermont Workers Center. The big news at the time was a contract that the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA) was considering, a contract which was cutting state employees compensation almost 7%. A group of us at the conference agreed to begin a statewide letter writing campaign to urge state employees to vote against ratification.
The letter writing campaign was not very successful. Even though a dozen of us were writing to literally every statewide and regional newspaper, only a couple the letters were published. It was an object lesson for me in the control exercised over the conventional media by conventional ideas. My letter ended up being published on the Socialist Worker website. I wrote:
As a teacher, I foresee reduction in services that will reduce the effectiveness of schools, as stressed families are less able to support their children's education. The negative effects of the proposed VSEA contract will be felt in schools in the form of behavior problems, hunger, abuse and neglect, with less backup from state agencies. The bad public policy represented by this contract will diminish the value of our communities' education investment.
Working people everywhere will be dragged down by this contract. Whether public sector or private sector, union or non-union, the task of achieving fair settlements and livable wages will be more difficult with the example of this bad contract hanging over us.
Fast forward two years. Yesterday a tentative agreement was reached between the state and VSEA. According to VT Digger
Shumlin administration officials and the state employees union announced on Friday afternoon that they have come to an agreement on a two-year contract that includes the restoration of the 3 percent pay cut that was instituted two and a half years ago and a 2 percent pay increase in July 2012 plus a 2 percent increase in July 2013.
This sounds promising, but I’m withholding judgment until I have a chance to talk today with other labor leaders. But here’s another important change of attitude:
Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Agency of Administration, said “I think it’s a fair deal for the taxpayer and a fair deal for state employees, and the fact we can do it without an acrimonious process … is a benefit for everyone, and I hope a morale booster for state employees.”
The agreement marks the first time the three bargaining units – Corrections, Supervisory and Non-Management Units — and the state have not had to resort to mediation or fact finding as part of the negotiation process.
Spaulding said the administration projected ahead of time what it would cost to go through the longer, more typical, adversarial process and determined that if they spent months of wrangling with fact finding and legislative lobbying the result would have been the same. “We spent quite a bit of time trying to project where we would be with the acrimonious route,” Spaulding said.
“We don’t have time for that kind of a game that ends up using state employees as pawns, and it’s not the most courageous or productive way to go,” Spaulding said.
This is the Jeb Spaulding of the infamous Spaulding Commission that two years ago tried to destroy public pensions in Vermont. How things have changed in two years.
I hope school boards everywhere are listening….
Today the Vermont Workers Center and Students Stand Up! is again convening a statewide conference entitled “Human Rights for the 99%” In a couple of hours I’ll again be climbing into my battered Corolla for the trek to the Davis Center, this time for a much larger conference which already boasts over 550 registrants.
How things have changed in two years…..
- A VSEA contract that on the surface appears to be reasonable
- An administration that appears to get some of the basics of labor-management collaboration
- A statewide online publication, VT Digger, which is dedicated to balanced journalism and understands that a dialogue of diverse voices is essential to great public policy
- A reinvigorated labor movement, energized by Occupy, rolling back the assaults in Ohio, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, now rallying not just dozens, but hundreds at a statewide Human Rights conference
I look forward to joining with my fellow workers in solidarity to celebrate progress and plan next steps. As a labor leader, I give up a lot of weekends for the cause. But without my union, and without the wider labor movement I would not have those weekends to do this work. It is a great privilege to be able to do so.