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Vermont Delegates Must Keep Voting Until Results Please AFL Headquarters?

Above photo: Vermont State Labor Council AFL-CIO Facebook Page.

Democracy thwarted.

In some unions, the traditional way of winning approval for a proposed contract with management, that’s not popular with the members, is to hold a series of votes on essentially the same “tentative agreement.”  Rank-and-file militants urging a “No” vote get worn down and demoralized by the prolonged ratification process. By a narrow margin, their less engaged co-workers end up accepting a deal with few noticeable improvements.

In the past, “making them vote until they get it right” often replaced rank-and-file mobilization, strike preparation, and collective action in too many unions. That’s why union reformers today try to build organizational capacity in all those areas—and use contract rejection votes to pressure employers for a better settlement, rather than help them “sell it” to the membership.

Unfortunately, the old guard strategy of dividing, demoralizing, and conquering is currently being employed in a different context–by the national AFL-CIO in response to grassroots unrest within a state labor federation. This bureaucratic intervention threatens to undo five years of impressive work by advocates of union democracy and reform in the Vermont State Labor Council (VSLC), which represents 20,000 workers in the Green Mountain state.

Another Do Over

Later this month–for the second time since 2019–delegates from unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO in Vermont will be forced to participate in a re-run of a contested election between candidates seeking to shake up the labor movement and those preferring the status quo.

Vermont labor activists strongly favor such competition between rival slates with differing political programs, which is a rarity elsewhere in the AFL-CIO. But top AFL-CIO officials have reacted negatively to the repeated electoral success of a reform caucus called United!

Its supporters—from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal employees (AFSCME) and other unions—favor more aggressive workplace organizing and better strike solidarity. They have also forged closer ties with the Vermont Progressive Party, which just helped a former teacher union rep become mayor of Burlington, the state’s largest city.

Despite winning regularly scheduled leadership votes in 2019, 2021 and 2023, the United caucus also had to prevail in a re-run of the delegate vote which first put its supporters in control of the Vermont State Labor Council (VSLC). The reformers then faced a trusteeship threat issued by national AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka, before his death in 2021, and periodic withholding of a $30,000 a year “solidarity grant” from headquarters.

Now, Trumka’s successor, Liz Shuler, has ordered the VSLC to conduct a partial do-over of the election last fall that produced another United slate majority and elected a young DSA member to the state fed presidency, rather than a candidate backed by the building trades.

Roll Call Voting By Zoom?

In a May 7 letter to Labor Council President Katie Maurice, her Executive Vice President Ellen Kaye, and their fellow executive board members, Shuler upheld an election complaint filed by the candidates who lost to Maurice and Kaye at a statewide convention last September. As even Shuler noted, this gathering “had record attendance, with many new delegates who had never participated in a VSLC election before.” But, according to the AFL-CIO leader, the meeting chair failed to provide a proper and timely “explanation of voting rules, particular around proxy voting.”

Labor council delegates, new or old, will not be meeting again in person before participating in the June 26-27 re-run ordered by Shuler. It will be overseen by appointed national staff members, with no scheduled opportunity for candidate debate or discussion. According to two of those staffers, the national AFL-CIO will conduct “the election process remotely by electronic means.”

On June 25, Maurice, Kaye, and any new or old opponents will have to get themselves re-nominated as candidates “remotely via Zoom.” The election overseers from Washington will determine the “voting strength and delegate participation” of affiliated unions participating in the “roll-call vote” that follows over the next two days. Already, those arrangements are being challenged because of AFL-CIO headquarters favoritism towards a key affiliate opposed to the United! slate.

This is the long independent Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA), which joined the VSLC just two weeks before its 2023 leadership election. The VSEA’s “direct affiliation” with the national AFL-CIO was negotiated, in private, between Schuler’s representatives and VSEA Director Steve Howard. The latter is a former state rep and Vermont Democratic Party chair who brooks little dissent within his own top-down organization. The VSEA’s always compliant Board of Trustees approved the deal in secret, but have yet to let members vote on affiliation (which, under their union rules, requires a two-thirds vote).

State worker delegates were able attend their first VSLC convention last September. There, they voted for VSEA president, Aimee Bertrand, who ran against Kaye, unsuccessfully, on the conservative “New Wave” slate headed by Larry Moquin, regional organizer for Laborers Local 668. As a result of ending 79-years of independence, VSEA now has five vice-presidents on the 24-member VSLC board.

But last minute affiliation did not prevent United! slate leaders from winning the two top positions by a 53 to 47 percent margin. Thus, the need for a re-run, in which the state workers group will have far more electoral clout, after paying per capita dues on a larger portion of its membership of 6,000 for a longer period of time.

A Counter Complaint to Shuler

On June 4, more than fifty delegates to last year’s convention sent AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond and the Appeals Committee of its Executive Council a 15-page challenge to Shuler’s re-run election order. The signers include rank-and-file members of the UAW, UFCW, Workers United, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, and multiple AFSCME and AFT locals.

Their “Appeal and Counter-Complaint” accuses Shuler and her staff of trying to “subvert the lawful election held at the 2023 convention, “in coordination with allied unions in Vermont.” The signers ask their national organization to “cease and desist from further interference in the operations and democratic decision making of the VSLC” and declare its affiliation with the VSEA to be “unlawful until and unless it is approved by their own members as required by their by-laws.”

The United caucus is also appealing for support from any sympathetic AFL-CIO executive council members (a long shot there) and like-minded CLC reformers in other states. The latter had a well-attended networking session, chaired by Ellen Kaye, at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago. At that larger gathering two months ago, participants also learned about the struggle for change in Vermont at a “Meet the Author” featuring David Van Deusen, whose account of United! Caucus organizing has just been published by PM Press.

A founder of United! and Vermont state fed president for four years, Van Deusen stepped down last year. He urged convention delegates to elect 32-year old Katie Maurice, a mental health worker and fellow AFSCME member, as his successor. Van Deusen’s singular example of not clinging to AFL-CIO office for many years and instead stepping aside so a younger, female colleague could move up did not meet with applause from Liz Shuler.

Instead, in her letter directing a new election, the AFL-CIO president claimed that Deusen had unfairly tipped the scales in Maurice’s favor by writing a pre-election opinion piece in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, which “created a perception of bias toward the UNITED! slate.” However, looking at the subsequent convention vote, even Shuler’s own investigator “found no evidence of actual bias or disparate treatment in the election process itself.”

Months of Internal Meddling 

Post-convention interference by AFL-CIO operatives has been a troubling distraction for the past eight months, local activists report. “I don’t understand why they’re doing this,” says Jeremy Rathbum, a waste water operator for the town of Middlebury, a shop steward in AFSCME Local 1201, and a first-time VSLC delegate last year. “We’re trying to involve more people and make the council more democratic. Yet, it’s almost like they’re discouraging folks from wanting to be involved and just looking for ways to cut down our leadership.”

Nevertheless, the VSLC– with new executive board members like Rathbun–just convinced Vermont legislators to enact a state-level version of the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Action on the PRO Act itself remains stalled in Congress but workers in Vermont will gain organizing rights beyond those granted by federal law, because members of the Vermont house and senate passed labor law reform by veto-proof majorities, making it impossible for the state’s Republican governor to block the measure. So far, only one other state labor movement has won similar legislation.

On the collective bargaining front, VSLC executive-vice president Ellen Kaye, who is co-president of University of Vermont (UVM) Staff United is currently engaged in high profile negotiations involving her AFT Local 5754 and UVM faculty members. More than 2,200 workers are seeking contract improvements in two units that include professional, technical, and clerical support staff.

Federation Resources Wasted

Instead of aiding critical local struggles like this, Prairie Wells, the AFL-CIO official in charge of “political and field mobilization” in the northeast, has devoted countless hours to the internal affairs of the VSLC. Isaac Gorbern, who makes $177,000 a year as Shuler’s assistant in Washington, conducted nearly 30 interviews related to the contested election in Vermont last fall, plus studied video footage and several dozen documents.

Other AFL-CIO officials, like Lanita Hall and Maya Goines hassled VSLC Executive Director Liz Media, who resigned on June 1, about securing their prior approval for the time, place, and method of executive board meetings. Getting a quorum for in-person meetings became harder when new vice-presidents from the VSEA and their old guard allies didn’t show up, or left before a decision was made. According to one longtime council member, “this pattern of calculated disruption prevented us from taking votes on important issues like endorsements of political candidates.”

Now Meg Lewis, a senior field representative, and Andrew Waxman, who coordinates the AFL-CIO’s “common sense” economics research, are also being diverted from their presumably important Biden re-election campaign roles. Both will be arranging and overseeing the “electronic balloting” later this month that the VSLC’s own convention election committee and e-board deemed unnecessary, when it upheld the fairness of the original vote at a local appeal hearing last December.

Viewed together, this AFL-CIO staff meddling and hostility constitutes a full-blown counter-insurgency campaign aimed at making sure that the inspiring story told in Van Deusen’s Insurgent Labor: The Vermont AFL-CIO, 2017-2023 ends in 2024. As VSLC board member Traven Leyshon warns, a re-run election which turns the labor council back into a top-down, dysfunctional organization–like it was for decades–will be a setback for labor locally and nationally.

A four-time delegate to national AFL-CIO conventions and a past labor council officer, Leyshon remembers when “we used to have a hell of a time just getting a quorum for meetings.” If foes of reform in the VSLC make a Liz Shuler-assisted comeback later this month, no one at AFL-CIO headquarters will be worried about that problem, because, in their view, organizational in-action is better than the progressive dynamism on display in recent years.

Steve Early is a News Guild/CWA member who assisted workers in Vermont when he was an International Rep for the Communications Workers of America in New England. He is a longtime supporter of the Vermont Progressive Party and a co-founder of Labor for Bernie. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.)

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