The state employees union has expanded its lobbying team and has selected two former lawmakers as the point players. The expansion is part of a ramp-up of the union’s political agenda this legislative session.
Steve Howard, a former House representative, will be the Vermont State Employees Association’s legislative director, and former Sen. Vince Illuzzi will push key union initiatives during the four-month session.
Howard and Illuzzi, who are both well-known political players, will be pushing an aggressive agenda for the VSEA this legislative session. The union will press for passage of the “fair share” act, an extension of collective bargaining rights to all state employees and a safe patient handling bill that would restrict mandatory overtime policies for workers at the Bennington Vermont Veterans Home and the future Vermont State Hospital.
Howard is a former chair of the Vermont Democratic Party and was a representative of Rutland city from 1993 to 1999 and from 2005 to 2010. He lost a bid for lieutenant governor to Republican Sen. Phil Scott in 2010.
Howard takes the place of Conor Casey, the longtime legislative director, who recently took a job with the National Education Association in Hartford, Conn. Casey’s departure came in the middle of a wholesale change in staff at VSEA. Paul Heintz, the political columnist for Seven Days, reported in October that six of the union’s 19-member staff have left since Mark Mitchell was hired about a year ago.
The VSEA board expanded its lobbying team because unlike Annie Noonan, the longtime head of the union who was a presence at the Statehouse, Mitchell said “I’m not a lobbyist.”
Illuzzi will work as a lobbying consultant for the VSEA. The Derby Republican served in the Senate for 32 years before retiring this year. He made an unsuccessful bid for state auditor in the last election. Illuzzi was chair of the Institutions and the Economic and Development, Housing and General Affairs Committees. He is the Essex County state’s attorney.
John Reese, president of VSEA said: “The transition for Steve and Vince should be pretty easy, as each spent much of their legislative career championing issues and causes important to VSEA members and all working Vermonters.”
The two new lobbyists for the union come from different ends of the political spectrum. Howard, who was a key proponent of the state’s gay marriage law during his time in the Legislature, was one of the most liberal members of the House. In his race against Scott, he castigated the former Washington County senator for his more conservative views on social issues. The approach backfired: Scott roundly beat Howard in the open race for lieutenant governor.
Illuzzi, who is often portrayed as a maverick member of the GOP, often pushed conservative fiscal measures, but when it came to workers rights, the Derby resident had no parallel champion under the Golden Dome, according to union officials who twice gave Illuzzi the “outstanding legislator” award.
The lobbying team also includes Cassandra Magliozzi and Adam Norton.
VSEA’s legislative priorities
Illuzzi was the legislative architect of the doomed “fair share” act last year, which was opposed by the Shumlin administration. The legislation, which will be re-introduced this session, would require public sector employees who benefit from collective bargaining but have opted out of union dues to pay an “agency” fee.
The Dean administration signed off on a law that imposed an agency fee on state workers hired after 1998. Non-union state workers hired before that year were allowed to continue to opt-out of the fee.
“What has happened is that group has stayed stable at 542 people that don’t pay anything,” Mitchell said. The union has about 5,200 members; the non-union rank-and-file state employees represent more than 10 percent of the total number of employees who benefit from the union’s collective bargaining efforts.
“The 90 percent who are paying don’t feel that’s fair,” Mitchell said. “That’s one of reasons members voted for a dues increase of 28 percent in September because not enough people are sharing the burden of running the union.” Agency fees are $13.58 each pay period (every two weeks), while union dues are $16.98. Mitchell says VSEA’s dues are the lowest in the state.
The Senate bill, which covered the Vermont NEA and municipal and state workers, passed in the last session, but died in the House. This time, Mitchell says, the bill will include the American Federation of Teachers, the Teamsters and the VSEA.
“We are going back and trying to get a bill representing all public sector workers in Vermont and see if we can’t get that passed,” Mitchell said.
The VSEA also wants to extend collective bargainig rights to all state employees. The union is currently in a legal battle before the Vermont Labor Relations Board over collective bargaining for state’s attorneys and sheriffs.
The administration is arguing that county employees can’t be part of a state bargaining unit.
Mitchell says because Vermont has no county government, the state’s attorneys and sheriffs have no boss to bargain with.
“Other groups that are not in VSEA bargaining unit now are looking at ways to bring to more state workers in through the legislative process,” Mitchell said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6 a.m. Jan. 3.
CORRECTION: Agency fees are $13.58 each pay period (every two weeks), while union dues are $16.98. We originally reported dues were $13. The Senate bill, which covered the Vermont NEA and municipal and state workers, passed in the last session, but died in the House. We reported the bill died in the Senate.