Why Is The AFL-CIO So Worried About Its Vermont Affiliate?

Above photo: Mattpopovich – CC BY 4.0.

For as long as Richard Trumka has been a national AFL-CIO leader—more than a quarter of a century—his labor federation has been encouraging its local affiliates to revitalize themselves to help reverse union decline.

Now nearing retirement as AFL-CIO president, Trumka was part of a “New Voice” slate that challenged old guard officials for control of the organization in 1995, via its first contested election in a century. New Voice candidates promised to work with state and local AFL-CIO councils to make labor’s political action and workplace solidarity more effective. Among the reforms they implemented was hiring more staff to promote picketing and protests by union members under attack by hostile employers. At the national level, New Voice also pledged to get tough on Democrats who received labor backing but then failed to support worker’s struggles.

Two years ago, a group of local union activists launched a similar reform campaign, called “Vermont AFL-CIO United!.” They were frustrated with their own labor council’s lack of militancy and creativity, plus its inability to aid new organizing, contract campaigns, or strikes. In a rare contested election, the Vermont reformers called for greater rank-and-file activism, within AFL-CIO affiliated unions and other Vermont labor organizations which represent state employees and teachers. In the fall of 2019, fourteen United slate candidates were elected to the Vermont AFL-CIO executive board, including all the top officer jobs (which are volunteer positions). Since then, the labor council has pursued a new agenda, which stresses internal democracy and transparency, social and environmental justice, and ending rubber-stamp endorsements of unreliable Democrats.

For example, the new Vermont AFL-CIO has expressed strong support for the Green New Deal, urged its parent organization to back Senator Bernie Sander’s presidential candidacy, and endorsed Vermont Progressive Party (VPP) candidates, rather than Democrats, in municipal elections in the state’s largest city. Five months ago, in response to Donald Trump’s possible refusal to accept the 2020 election results, labor council delegates called for “a general strike of all working people in our state” in the event of any Republican coup. While that political threat has passed, many local ones remain. On April 3, the Vermont AFL-CIO helped rally hundreds of rank-and-file teachers and state workers against a public employee pension cut favored by top Democrats in the state legislature and Republican governor Phil Scott. An even larger crowd is expected at Vermont labor’s annual May Day rally, where one major focus this year will be solidarity with migrant workers on the state’s dairy farms.

No Letter of Commendation?

Amid this commendable burst of new organizational energy, one would think that national AFL-CIO would be showering praise on its 10,000-member Green Mountain State affiliate. Instead, 71-year old Trumka has been hassling Vermont labor reformers, rather than hailing them as the new voices that labor still needs. When United slate organizer and AFSCME representative David Van Deusen became president of the state fed, Trumka responded by appointing a “monitor” over its operations and ordering a partial re-run of the contested 2019 election.

Then, last November, Trumka tried, unsuccessfully, to block any state convention discussion of a general strike contingency plan in the event of a constitutional crisis (of the sort which did occur on January 6). When Vermont delegates debated the issue anyway and passed a related resolution, Trumka deemed this to be a violation of national AFL-CIO rules applying to local affiliates. In addition, Trumka claims that “internal divisions within the State Labor Council” pose a threat to the “strong unity” needed during “a critical moment of opportunity” for the labor movement. In a March 5 letter, he informed Van Deusen that the AFL-CIO is investigating the council’s “recent conduct” and warned of “further action,” which local activists fear may include removing their elected leaders from office and putting their council under trusteeship.

When contacted for an explanation, none of the four national AFL-CIO field staffers involved in either past monitoring the Vermont labor council or currently investigating it answered any questions about the situation. One did note that AFL-CIO headquarters has yet to withhold a $30,000 a year “solidarity grant” to the council, which helps pay for its single full-time staffer, Liz Medina.

Nevertheless, Traven Leyshon, a four-time delegate to national AFL-CIO conventions and former state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, worries that “they’re really looking for a way to create conditions to put us in receivership” even though “we used to have a hell of a time just getting a quorum for meetings.” Now, he notes, executive board sessions are open to all union members, not just elected officials, and state AFL-CIO conventions have had their biggest turnout in many years. According to Leyshon, “the broader progressive community in Vermont is very aware of this transformation” because of the new leadership’s savvy use of social media, radio, and local TV appearances to reach non-labor audiences

Misconduct or Model Behavior?

In response to Trumka’s investigation of “alleged misconduct,” Van Deusen urged AFL-CIO headquarters to investigate “how the example we are setting in the Green Mountain State could serve as a model for what a more engaged, more member-driven, more democratic, more anti-racist, more pro-immigrant and more organizing centered labor movement…could actually look like in other parts of the country.” His feeling of organizational pride is shared by fellow reformers, like Trisin Adie, an AFGE member and VA clinic nurse, who is the new state fed vice-president and Danielle Bombardier, a working electrician, who serves as secretary-treasurer of the Vermont AFL-CIO.

As past organizer and training director for IBEW Local 300, Bombardier has been on the front-lines of fighting for increased union market share in new construction in Vermont, where the building trades are weak and pay rates lower than in neighboring states. Part of Bombardier’s labor-community coalition work is with Burlington-based Rights & Democracy (RAD), headed by longtime Vermont political organizer James Haslam.  As Haslam explains, RAD is campaigning for public funding of green housing retrofits, including rooftop solar installation that would be done by local building trades members and help low-income Vermonters reduce their energy costs.  The Vermont AFL-CIO is the only state labor federation involved in a broader “Renew New England Alliance,” which wants to create thousands of new union jobs “building affordable, green homes, installing rooftop solar panels, cleaning up pollution, and slashing the carbon emissions that are causing the climate crisis.” According to Haslam, its new  leaders, like Bombardier, are “really active in this work—not just signing on as an organizational sponsor.”

Like Haslam, Ellen David-Friedman helped start the Vermont Workers Center two decades ago, as an alternative voice for labor, because “nothing interesting was ever happening at the state AFL-CIO.” A labor educator now retired from the Vermont-NEA, David-Friedman applauds the new council leadership for “breaking with the old business union model” and recognizing that Vermont’s left-leaning third party, the VPP, is often labor’s only reliable ally in the state legislature.

Progressive Party executive director Josh Wronski welcomes what he calls “a more explicit partnership” with the state AFL-CIO. A former organizer for AFSCME and AFT, Wronski has personally faced the difficulty of injecting new energy and ideas into labor organizations clinging to their old ways. “It’s been really great to see new leaders challenging the status quo in Vermont labor,” he says. “We need to see more unions refusing to back Democrats, who take their endorsements and donations, but then don’t deliver.”

As someone relatively new to the labor movement, state fed secretary-treasurer Danielle Bombardier says she’s “surprised by the lack of support” from top AFL-CIO officials in Washington. In her view, “it doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything wrong. We’re headed in the direction we should have been going long ago.”

Any national headquarters take-over of the Vermont AFL-CIO would reprise a truly disgraceful episode in U.S. labor history. In 1972, then-AFL-CIO President George Meany cracked down on several state councils that balked at remaining neutral in a presidential race between incumbent Republican Richard Nixon and Senator George McGovern, an anti-war Democrat despised by Meany. Just two years after AFL-CIO neutrality helped Nixon woo labor voters with Trump-like appeals to racism and resentment, Nixon was impeached and forced to resign. It would not add luster to Trumka’s own legacy if he bullies a small AFL-CIO affiliate which dared to take the rhetorical lead in challenging what its leaders feared might be a “fascist coup,” designed to give Donald Trump, like Nixon before him, another destructive term in office.

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at [email protected]


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