In 2017, they told us, “we can’t do right by working Vermonters because we don’t have the votes to override the governor’s veto.” Then we gave them enough votes to do just that. On Friday, the Vermont speaker of the house sought to adjourn without achieving a livable wage.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Vermonters continue to labor 40 to 60 hours a week at poverty wages, many thousands without health care. But this should not come as a surprise.
The rolling disappointments suffered under the leadership of Vermont’s dominant political party goes back many years, approaching a generation. Recall that it was the same party in power that, during the height of the Iraq War, failed to pass a binding motion calling for the impeachment of George W. Bush. Recall that it was this same party, which controlled the House, Senate and governorship, that slammed the door shut on single-payer health care, even after campaigning and winning in three election cycles on the very issue.
And now, do not act shocked when they have yet again demonstrated their lack of will when it comes to guaranteeing working-class Vermonters be paid a basic, dignified income.
After so many failures, after so many election cycles when expectations are raised only to suffer betrayal when the power to make real change is actually in hand, why would a rational person continue to believe a different outcome was possible? How could a rational person assert that the ruling party is willing, let alone capable, of making meaningful change?
At what point is one compelled to dismiss the myth that this party is actually interested in change?
This is not to say that there aren’t champions of Vermont’s working class in the ruling party; There are. But there are not enough of them. In fact, they constitute a small minority — and always have.
The truth is this party is not a party of the working class. As an institution, they persistently are pulled toward the unimaginative status quo and as such, their uneasiness with meaningful change plays into the interests of the entrenched elite. They will continue to tell us that they “just need a few more seats,” or “a governor from their party” to move a people’s agenda.
When they said they just needed a “veto-proof majority,” the rational, working-class Vermonter should be weary of the continually moving goal posts.
But what is the real opposition? The Republican Party is not our friend. Unlike the ruling party, they do not even bother with the campaign rhetoric that seeks to make us believe. They would gut social programs, cut taxes for the wealthy (not us), eliminate public sector jobs and advance a rollback of our core union rights. It is no mistake that the Vermont GOP has invited the extremist union-buster, Scott Walker, to a party function.
Who is consistently with us? The Vermont Progressive Party has been a reliable ally. They have supported a real livable wage and full paid FMLA. They have supported card check, and they have not been afraid to stake out pro-labor positions even when they run counter to the powerful who own the factories, the construction outfits and the businesses. They are too few. So what is to be done?
The Vermont AFL-CIO has been too forgiving for too long.
Unless there’s a rapid change in Montpelier, labor should take a big step back from the party that has done too little too late for working people. At minimum, labor should only consider endorsing candidates who sign a pledge stating their unequivocal support for: livable wage of $15 an hour plus inflation by 2022; universal single-payer health care by 2022; 12 weeks of full paid family medical leave by 2022; free in-state college and technical education by 2022; guaranteed affordable (dignified) housing for all by 2026; no new regressive taxes; increased funding for existing social programs through a new wealth tax; card check union recognition process; implementation of a binding, town meeting-based, statewide referendum system by 2026 (therefore giving the people a means to override the Legislature and to advance our own agenda without them).
Perhaps labor should call for a moratorium on endorsing any candidate who is affiliated with any party who has not demonstrated a consistent and reliable solidarity with unions and working Vermonters.
And perhaps our time is best spent unionizing new shops and new industries. In whole, or in part, this is our path to the social and economic power that the majority requires.
One thing is certain: Between now and the 2020 general election, labor needs to engage in an intense internal debate regarding the future of our political engagement. This debate cannot be limited as a pastime between union presidents and the top leadership; this must be discussed and debated among the rank and file.
As we formulate our platform, our vision, we will need to move forward with a unity of purpose that only such a deep and far reaching collective process can deliver. At the end of the day, something must change.
David Van Deusen is district vice president of the Vermont AFL-CIO.