Several hundred Vermonters descended on the Statehouse steps on Thursday for the Vermont Workers’ Center’s annual May Day event.
The center, and a coalition of unions and advocacy groups for poor and disabled Vermonters, had a lot to celebrate.
Migrant Justice, a group that advocates for migrant dairy workers from Mexico and central America, marked the passage of a new law that requires all law enforcement agencies in Vermont to adopt bias-free policing policies.
Several unions scored major victories in the last several days, thanks to grassroots organizing and lobbying efforts in the Statehouse.
The Vermont Legislature gave home care workers the right to organize and bargain with the state for higher wages last year. On the day of the rally, the Shumlin administration and workers were finalizing a deal that will raise the base pay to $11 an hour. Many home care workers earn the federal minimum wage.
James Haslam the executive director of the center, said these are the fastest growing positions in the economy and many of the 7,500 workers who provide home care services are earning less than $10 per hour.
The American Federation of Teachers succeeded in passing the child care unionization bill out of the House Appropriations Committee. The legislation gives proprietors of home daycares the right to negotiate with the state over child care subsidies. Only child care providers who accept the subsidy can become members of the union. The bill is expected to go to the House floor on Monday.
Haslam said before the child care workers, the majority of whom are women, “came together to form a union they were effectively ‘voiceless’ about the decisions that affected their lives.”
“We’re the underdogs in all this stuff, but we’re seeing momentum,” Haslam said.
People who gathered at the rally punctuated the announcements of these victories with chants, one of which was “union power is on the rise, now’s the time to organize.”
The Workers’ Center and a coalition of other organizations also used the May Day rally to launch a petition drive to reaffirm support for the principles laid out in Act 48, the law that creates a framework for a government-funded, universal health care system.
The group plans to gather tens of thousands of signatures in the next year, which they will present to the governor and lawmakers to demonstrate public support for universal publicly financed health care.
Ellen Schwartz, 65, of Brattleboro has been involved with the Workers’ Center and the Health Care as a Human Right campaign for almost a decade.
“We have to think about the delivery of health care in a different way; not as a commodity, not as something that has to do with getting insurance or the profits of an insurance company,” Schwartz said. “We need to think of it in the same way we think of things like fire services, public education or road maintenance.”
“We need to remind lawmakers that this is something that’s really important to people in Vermont, and carving people out, backtracking or removing services is not what people wanted when Act 48 was passed,” she said.
In 2010, the Vermont Workers’ Center launched the Health Care is Human Right campaign and pressured lawmakers to pass a single-payer health care law. A year later, their efforts paid off with Act 48. The center is primarily supported financially by the AFL-CIO.
Controversy over the Shumlin administration’s financing plans for universal health care have galvanized activists who “want Plan A, not Plan B,” Haslam said.
The activists will recommit themselves to the cause of universal health care this year and make the issue the focus of their organizing, he said. The Legislature must vote next year on whether to move ahead with the Shumlin administration’s proposal for financing the plan through taxes and a “public premium.”
Haslam said he expects a well-funded opposition to single payer to fill the airwaves. The center, he said, will focus on mobilizing small groups people around the state. “This is about people talking to each other and making sure democracy is not derailed,” he said.
Other state groups are starting to emulate the Vermont Workers’ Center’s Health Care is a Human Right campaign. Representatives from similar groups in Maine, Baltimore and Philadelphia came to the May Day rally. Nijimie DZurinko came to Montpelier from Philadelphia where she is part of Put People First Pennsylvania, a grassroots organization that has 250 members. DZurinko’s group has rallied around universal health care because “it’s an issue everyone cares about, it unites people across party lines” and because “Vermont showed it could win.”
Sergio Espana, of Baltimore, belongs to Health Care is a Human Right Maryland. The group, launched a year ago, has about 200 “core members” in chapters in eight counties. Thousands, he said, participate in events.
Espana said his group is reaching out to people who have fallen through the cracks of the Affordable Care Act and who have been burdened by health care debt. Health Care is a Human Right Maryland has brought together people around the issue because he said “there is a real need.”
“We have failed to treat health care as a public good,” Espana said.