VSEA taps Howard, Illuzzi for lobbying team

Steve Howard speaks in the well of the House during the 2009 gay marriage debate. Photo by Karen Pike.
Steve Howard speaks in the well of the House during the 2009 gay marriage debate. Photo by Karen Pike.

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.

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Anne Galloway

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  • The agency fee should be a matter of contract negotiations and not an imposition of law.

    • Karl Riemer

      It’s true we usually hear of legislation forbidding or allowing union shops rather than mandating one, but this proposes to cover only public employees. Think of the legislation as instructions to the management contract negotiation team from the top boss, which in government is the legislature. It is odd to have one side go over the negotiator’s head and lobby management directly to, in effect, concede a point of negotiation a priori, but democracy is odd in that all state employees are also indirectly (as citizens) state employers. And there’s certainly precedent for legislated contract limitations, even outside state agency labor contracts.
      Union shops should be a matter of contract negotiation, but contract negotiation isn’t a spectator sport played on a defined court during a defined time by defined rules. Negotiation rules are themselves negotiable. The proposed legislation can be considered creative negotiating.

      • Sheila Manchester Coniff

        nicely said!

  • J. Scott Cameron, Esq.

    How can Vince Illuzzi, the elected State’s Attorney from Essex County, work as a lobbyist and/or consultant for VSEA or anyone else? In my opinion it is a blatant conflict of interest for a State’s Attorney, the highest ranking law enforcement agent in any Vermont county, to lobby for any organization. However, when a State’s Attorney goes to work for a Union which is trying to organize employees who work for State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs in each Vermont county the conflict is so obvious that even he should be able to see it. Neither VSEA nor Illuzzi have demonstrated good judgment in this matter. I guess money talks. Quite the assignment for a public servant.

  • John Scott Cameron, Esq.

    Karl Reimer: Union Shops are illegal in the public sector. A union shop is one where every employee is required to become a member of the Union; that poses problems with the First Amendment (freedom to associate – or not – with whom you choose). A mandatory agency fee law does not require an employee to become a member of the Union NOR does it give the employee any of the rights of Union membership, such as the right to have a say in the negotiation or approval of the contract. Agency fee laws merely give an employee the obligation to pay money to the Union. Apparently when you sponsor legislation like this (or sneak it into a bill at the last minute, which is what happened last year), you get rewarded with stuff like political endorsements and jobs. Not too shabby!

  • Lisa Kessler

    So wait … Annie Noonan was able to lobby AND serve as executive director while the membership was paying 28% less in dues (and I’m assuming there were more than 540 non-dues paying state workers)? With less staff and fewer resources, she did an outstanding job advocating for her members.

    Everything I’ve read about Mark Mitchell suggests he’s overpaid and terrible to work with. Why do all the union’s legislative priorities concern making money for the union – both through agency fee and organizing states attorneys? VSEU should focus on the members they currently have, the ones working their tails off in our understaffed agencies.

    • Tammy Sutton

      That’s not fair, Lisa. I mean really how many non-profit organizations in Vermont have their director over lobbying at the Statehouse?

      Oh that’s right: all of them.

    • Dave Bellini

      Well Lisa, if you are a VSEA member you have the right to show up at meetings, discuss things and vote on the direction of the union. If you are not a member why would you concern yourself with organizing efforts, dues and who the director is? Are you a member? Are you a state worker? Would you like to be more involved?

      • Lisa Kessler

        Dave, we must have met about 2 or 3 times. I’m not a member but have been to several union rallies when Governor Douglas laid off all those workers.

        Even though I’m not a state employee I’m very concerned with the direction the union has been going. Unions represent more than just their members, they’re the only thing holding the middle class together. A weak labor movement hurts us all.