Vermont Workers Center at the fore of health care advocacy nationally

Vermont Workers’ Center at the fore of health care advocacy

Protesters, some of whom are with the Vermont Workers Center, stage a sit-in on the floor of the Vermont House chamber. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Protesters, some of whom are with the Vermont Workers’ Center, stage a sit-in on the floor of the Vermont House chamber. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Last week’s pro-universal health care demonstration during Gov. Peter Shumlin’s inaugural address drew attention locally and nationally, and left many wanting to know more about its organizers — the Vermont Workers’ Center, which has grown substantially in the past five years.

Founded nearly two decades ago as Central Vermonters for a Livable Wage, the nonprofit labor and human rights group has evolved into a substantial grassroots organization.

In 2001, as the Vermont Workers’ Center, the group affiliated with Jobs With Justice, a national pro-labor group, and is essentially that organization’s Vermont chapter. VWC founded the Health Care Is a Human Right campaign in 2008 because the cost of medical care and health insurance was creating crises for its members that “transcended” the workplace, according to the group’s website.

The campaign is viewed by some as a model for health care advocacy in other states.

Since launching the Health Care Is a Human Right Campaign, VWC’s annual budget has grown from $154,500 in 2008 to $638,700 in 2012, the latest publicly available tax filing from the group.

James Haslam, VWC’s director, said its current budget is close to $800,000, a more than fivefold increase since the campaign began. The money comes from donations and foundation grants in roughly equal parts, Haslam said.

James Haslam, executive director of the Vermont Workers Center, pushed for universal health care at a news conference Monday in Burlington. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

James Haslam, executive director of the Vermont Workers’ Center. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation is its largest grantor, providing $50,000 this year, Haslam said. It has given the group $160,000 since 2010, including $35,000 to offer guidance to similar groups across the U.S. Grantees are voted on by a committee of Ben & Jerry’s workers, according to a statement.

“The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation supports grassroots organizations throughout the U.S. that are working for progressive social change and a more equitable society,” according to the foundation’s statement.

VWC also chose to start collecting dues from its members in 2014, Haslam added. The dues follow a sliding scale based on members’ ability to pay, he said.

The grassroots activists have strong affiliations with national labor and human rights groups including Health Care Now, Labor for Single Payer, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, The Center for Popular Democracy and the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, according to Haslam.

Kate Kanelstein, VWC’s lead organizer, is on Grassroots Global Justice Alliance’s national coordinating committee. Kanelstein was among those arrested during Thursday’s sit-in in the House chamber.

“We’re part of a broader people’s movement to turn things around for working people,” Haslam said.

Those connections have helped propel VWC to the forefront of national activism on universal public health care.

Anja Rudiger, director of programming for the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. Courtesy NESRI

Anja Rudiger, director of programming for the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. Courtesy NESRI

The National Economic and Social Rights Initiative provides strategic advice and training to VWC and similar groups throughout the U.S., said Anja Rudiger, director of programming for NESRI.

VWC has successfully, and appropriately, according to Rudiger, applied the principles of human rights advocacy to health policy by focusing on the hardship of individuals, rather than the “nitty-gritty” of policy debates.

By reframing access to health care as a human rights issue, VWC and others are able to highlight the injustices of the high cost of medical services and a for-profit health insurance system.

There are now Health Care Is a Human Right campaigns in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Maine. Groups in Oregon and Washington are also hoping to model health care advocacy work on the template created by VWC.

VWC is using the tactics and strategies of other human rights movements, including demonstrations and civil disobedience, which are well established, but have not previously been applied to health care, Rudiger said.

A ‘new environment’ and a national movement

Some have argued that last week’s demonstration hurt VWC’s credibility with the Legislature — one senator called the tactics “fascist” — but the demonstration has drawn increased attention from national groups and other advocates for universal health care.

The Vermont Workers Center founded the "Healthcare is a Human Right" campaign in 2008. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

The Vermont Workers’ Center founded the “Healthcare Is a Human Right” campaign in 2008. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Amnesty International, National Nurses United and more than 60 other labor and health care advocacy groups signed an open letter to the Vermont Legislature urging lawmakers to press on with Act 48, the state’s universal health care law. NESRI helped get many of the signatories to that letter, Rudiger said.

The Rev. William Barber, most famous for starting the Moral Monday movement, wrote a letter of solidarity, calling it immoral for people not to have access to medical care.

The backlash from lawmakers was anticipated, Haslam said, and he doesn’t think it hurts VWC’s ultimate goal of achieving universal access to health services.

“No one that truly supports universal health care is not going to support it because of a protest,” he said.

The visceral reaction from legislators may be partly because the Statehouse hasn’t been the venue for Occupy-esque demonstrations previously, said longtime State Curator David Schutz, though they’ve become increasingly common elsewhere in Vermont and nationally.

“It’s a new environment,” Schutz said, one ushered in by the October occupation of the governor’s offices in the nearby Pavilion Building.

That action was primarily the work of Rising Tide Vermont, the local affiliate of a national climate advocacy group, to protest the expansion of a Vermont Gas pipeline. The Workers’ Center helped organize that demonstration, which resulted in 64 arrests, though charges were later dropped.

Keith Brunner, the communication coordinator for the center, was among those arrested at the pipeline demonstration. Though he was present at the Statehouse last week, he was not arrested.

The only comparable event to Thursday’s demonstrations that took place in the Statehouse during the past 30 years was during the debate over civil unions in 2000, Schutz said.

It was necessary to rile official Vermont, Rudiger said, because it appears Shumlin has unilaterally stalled the state’s movement toward universal health care.

“It’s not about being disrespectful to lawmakers, it’s about highlighting the conditions in people’s lives that bring about those actions and that’s always what civil disobedience has been about,” she said.

Nationally, advocates for public universal health care were aware of the movement in Vermont, but few had received the news of Shumlin’s “wavering,” Haslam said.

Last week’s demonstration was an opportunity to get that message out and put Vermont back in the national spotlight in order to keep the momentum behind a universal health care program for the state, Haslam said.

VWC workers among those arrested last week

Many in Vermont’s political Twittersphere expressed surprise — or consternation — that several of Thursday’s demonstrators, including some who were arrested, are paid employees for the Workers’ Center.

In addition to Kanelstein, field organizers Shela Linton, Elizabeth Beatty-Owens, Avery Pittman and campaign coordinator Matt McGrath were among the 29 arrested.

Members, volunteers and staff were told at a planning meeting that the sit-in carried the risk of arrest, Haslam said. Those who participated in the sit-in chose to take that risk in order to push for legislative hearings on the governor’s single payer report.

The Workers’ Center employees who were arrested had “personal experiences with health care crises,” Haslam said. Many got involved because of that experience, and started out as members or volunteers before being hired.

Lobbying only a small part of what VWC does

The Workers’ Center is limited in its ability to lobby elected officials because it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The organization is aware of that line, and takes steps to make sure it’s not crossed, according to Haslam.

Its field organizers are registered lobbyists, Haslam said, which is corroborated by the Secretary of State’s database.

The IRS threshold for tax-exempt nonprofits is whether lobbying activities constitute “a substantial part of its overall activities,” with expenditures on lobbying capped at 20 percent for a group the size of VWC.

The Vermont Workers’ Center keeps time sheets and records expenditures to ensure they meet the expense limits, Haslam said. Its 2012 990 tax filing, the most recent available, says those expenditures are available on request and does not list them.

Lobbying as part of the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign is not a substantial portion of the center’s overall operation, Haslam added.

The group is involved in community organizing and leadership development, and helps build grassroots networks and coalitions on a broad array of issues, primarily labor-related, he said.

The Workers’ Center has supported striking FairPoint workers, recently unionized home care workers and workers at the University of Vermont who are trying to form a union.

They operate a workers’ hotline to field workplace complaints and employ an accountability monitor to help enforce Burlington’s livable wage ordinance.

The Workers’ Center also runs the People’s University for Learning and Liberation with a staffer dedicated to preparing workshops, skill building, continuing education for its members and affiliated groups.

Morgan True

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  • Alex Prolman

    FYI, Morgan, Kate’s last name is spelled Kanelstein.

  • John Cisar

    It’s time to move away from the myth that there needs to be a state-based political solution out there for every common, but personal problem. The Workers Center means well, but they use people as a means to achieve a policy end by tapping the coercive, tax power of the state to involuntarily rob workers of their hard earned savings and values in order to fund government programs. Many workers are opposed to the values of coercive state based solutions (yes, worker values do matter on an individual basis. Many don’t want a state healthcare monopoly!). Precisely why involuntary collectivism is dangerous – it tricks good people into divorcing themselves from thier morals and conscience, so they may excuse their mistreatment of peron’s property rights in the name of achieving a collectivist policy end. This results in a person becoming disrespected, neglected or abused. No matter how much of an uncharitable scrooge a person may be because they hold unpopular values, nobody should be forced to fund government programs which violate their own morals, conscience and values. Instead of single payer, look for member-owned cooperative healthcare plans which Vermonters may voluntary pay-to-participate in, much like what was being developed before single payer advocates in government killed it before anyone really knew it existed.

    • “No matter how much of an uncharitable scrooge a person may be because they hold unpopular values, nobody should be forced to fund government programs which violate their own morals, conscience and values. ”

      Does that include taxes for Social Security or Medicare? Or taxes for maintaining an huge nuclear arsenal that can destroy the world many times over, etc?

      • Walter Carpenter

        “Does that include taxes for Social Security or Medicare? Or taxes for maintaining an huge nuclear arsenal that can destroy the world many times over, etc”

        Or being forced to fund tax loopholes for big corporations so they can stockpile the money we give them in overseas accounts, or to fund the wealth disparity between the 1% and the rest of us, and so on? Few of those against health care reform seem to mind this.

    • martha ramsey

      this must be why so many people in countries that have socialized medicine are so unhappy with it, and wish they could live here and insead pay insurance companies to sort of cover their health care costs, gladly assuming the rest of the burden themselves! because hey–“responsibility” feels so good.

      especially when you don’t have in the bank the thousands needed to pay the bills for a major procedure but thank god you can still at least walk, so you have the opportunity to work to pay that bill off by the time you are 70!

      and yes, when the obamacare tax paybacks come due in april, everyone here will be delighted to assume the “shared responsibility” of paying big pharma and big insurance to give them the best health care available in the world–which of course america has, right?

      and besides, people only get really sick or disabled because they are already losers, right? the type who are always looking for a free ride–they’re the ones who have serious health problems and scream they can’t afford to pay for them. or maybe it’s because in a former life they did something bad… there’s always a reason.

  • Johann Kulsic

    Also FYI, Mr. True:
    Shela Linton’s first name has no ‘I’ in it.

  • victor ialeggio

    “… nobody should be forced to fund government programs which violate their own morals, conscience and values. ”

    skating on interesting ice there, friend. how deeply felt is that conviction and how universally should it be applied, do you think?

    • J. Scott Cameron

      Perhaps it is equally fair to ask you, Victor, how far it should be extended?

      • victor ialeggio

        I firmly believe that we should adopt a pick-and-choose approach to taxes, local, state and federal, based on what we are interested in or agree with. Doesn’t everyone?

        Foreign policy, education & job training, high-speed rail, vaccinations, bank bail-outs, birth control, repair and maintenance of federal & state infrastructure, surveillance, income security, universal broadband internet, war on terror, social security, abortion services, industrial wind, fracked gas, universal health care, farm subsidy, medicare, law enforcement & immigration, NASA, NIH, veterans benefits, studies to legalize schedule 1 drugs, sales taxes, taxes on tobacco and alcohol and on sugary drinks, funding for the arts and for public broadcasting…goes on and on, doesn’t it?

  • J. Scott Cameron

    It is easy to be “at the fore” of healthcare advocacy when your plan is to force someone else to pay all the bills. This is their plan, so clearly expressed by protester Chad McGinnis and reported by Vermont Digger on January 8:

    “I’m here to support single payer health care financed equitably with no premiums and no deductibles, no copays, paid for by corporations and the rich,” said Chad McGinnis, 32, of Burlington, also with United Electrical.

    See “Demonstrators Removed From House Chamber”, Vermont Digger, January 8, 2015.

    The Vermont Workers’ Center is all about rights. Unfortunately, the Center and its members never address the issue of responsibility, except to say that the “rich” and the “corporations” are responsible for their care and feeding.

    • Glenn Thompson

      BINGO! Well stated J. Scott.

      • Craig Powers

        Hear, hear!

        • David Dempsey

          Great comment J. Scott. Who doesn’t want health insurance without copays and deductibles. VWC needs to give some details about how to pay for it. We need to start by addressing the main issue, the high cost of health care. If we can get the costs under control, then we can discuss the issue of universal health care.

    • Most of the people who would benefit from universal health care/single payer would also be paying taxes to help support it instead of paying premiums with large O.O.P expenses to support insurance companies under the various plans such as silver and bronze of the ACA. Or being forced to stay at a job just for the benefits.
      That’s the whole point universal health care that the rest of the advanced world seems to understand.

      • Jon Corrigan

        The rest of the advanced world seems to understand that ‘citizenship’ means more than crossing a border Jerry. Rather than cherry-picking your preferred foreign systems, let’s look at all of them. Perhaps we could emulate Switzerland – great health-care system that many progressives believe we should adopt.

        It’s not easy to become a citizen though. I’d favor their method – residence for 12 years and a local population vote. How about that?

    • Walter Carpenter

      “Unfortunately, the Center and its members never address the issue of responsibility, except to say that the “rich” and the “corporations” are responsible for their care and feeding.”

      This is not quite it, Scott, sad to say. What they are saying is that the 1% does bear “responsibility” for why so many people are struggling so hard for little or nothing, and why our health system excludes so many. This is what they are saying.

  • Ben Maddox

    I think someone said in a comment on VT Digger once that “VPIRG is the definition of money in politics.” VWC is the definition of money in politics. Private donors pay operatives to influence public policy. Letters to the editor, protests, and such are generated to look like populist input. In the case of this protest, private donors are paying operatives to actively disrupt legit democratic processes in order achieve a policy goal. The standard response to this is that big companies have lobbyists so VWC is good. As many point out, the VWC does not automatically legitimately represent the views of anyone. The VWC represents the views of its donors and paid officers. This comment isn’t about whether or not universal health care is a good idea. It’s about calling out “grass roots” efforts that are directed CIA style to disrupt democratic processes and cause the appearance of public demand or outrage. Mentioning that VWC has some volunteers doesn’t change much.

    • Rory Malone

      Well, if that’s your test then all advocacy groups are the definition of money in politics. Just because a group is funded by private donors does not automatically mean they are suspect and not worth listening to.

  • Steven Farnham

    Messrs. Cisar, Cameron, and Maddox,

    It may be… that stating, “I want (fill in the blank) need fulfilled, and I want some rich schmuck to pay for it,” is not the most compelling, or persuasive of arguments.

    However, I would not tar the entire group with a broad brush, based on the ill-thought-out comment of one member.

    People with money have long had their way in Montpelier and Washington – and they’re always too cowardly to show up in person to get it. They do everything in their power to cover up both their tactics and how much they spend on them. They pay someone else to represent their views through the corrupting influence of political contributions, PACs and lobbyists.

    They bully us in the workplace, they bully us in the marketplace, they bully us from Wall Street, and they bully us in the halls of government – all the while howling through bullhorns like Limbaugh that the opposite is true.

    Many of the protesters haven’t a single possession but the rags on their backs, and to pay for those rags, crappy jobs that I wouldn’t wish on Ted Bundy. And even if that clothing and job situation isn’t true of all 0f the protestors, it IS true for a burgeoning swath of the American population.

    Personally, I’m thankful that someone is willing to risk imprisonment for the cause, because that relieves a bit of the pressure on the rest of us in similar dire straits to take a similar risk.

    It’s not about giving the government more power – it’s about single payer being the most cost-effective way to deliver the goods. When all else amounts to tilting at windmills – what to hell else is the “other 99%” supposed to do? How much longer are we all supposed to wait for affordable healthcare? I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting any younger.

    Two hundred forty years ago, a bunch of ratty ragged rebels stood up to the aristocracy and fought a bloody war to secure a decent life for all Americans. Today, those rebels are our national heroes.

    But if someone stands up (or sits down) to fight for the same cause today, they receive some of the most venomous, vitriolic, contemptuous, and scornful attacks imaginable. This whole situation is so succinctly summarized by the bumper sticker which states, “It’s only class warfare when they fight back.”

    • Jon Corrigan

      The rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” are generally identified as “negative rights.” They protect us from others without forcing us to do anything for others, except to recognize that every other citizen possesses the same rights as we. These negative rights are both limited and reciprocal. No genuine “right,” is enforceable against only one party (‘the rich’, for example). When one is forced under threat to subsidize others, it constitutes nothing less than the erosion of the full exercise of one’s liberty, as one is coerced into contributing to the happiness of others while foregoing the pursuit of one’s own.

      • Steven Farnham

        The wealthy didn’t get that way by accident. They got that way by lobbying against minimum and livable wages, by lobbying against worker safety laws, by tort reform, by not paying benefits, by raising the prices of their products without raising their employees’ wages, by exporting jobs to chap labour markets, NAFTA, GATT… the list is endless.

        They bankrupt the economy, and send the repair bill back to the same people they’ve already screwed eighteen ways to Christmas. They charge insane interest rates on credit card debt. The whole credit industry lays our personal identities bare for corporate profit, and they lobby against any reforms to protect us, and that list goes on and on.

        It’s the SSDD, day after day. When does it stop? When are these crooks rich enough? When have they screwed the rest of us enough? If they dominate and monopolize control of the industry, and drive up the cost of healthcare, and refuse to pay wages so people can afford health care – it’s economic taxation without representation.

        It was the unions and the labour movement that pushed these oligarchical crooks back where they belong eighty years ago. And it took a couple decade’s worth of protests and fighting to gain some ground.

        I asked once – I’ll ask again: if not protest, what else are people supposed to do? NOTHING ELSE WORKS!

        • Steve McKenzie

          Mr. Farnham:
          In reference to the VWC, you state “However, I would not tar the entire group with a broad brush, based on the ill-thought-out comment of one member.”

          However, you are doing just that, as your post above puts all “wealthy” people into one category, all bearing equal responsibility for the woes of the ‘non-wealthy’ due to a wide range of alleged common misbehavior.

          In lieu of responding to each of your broad-based assertions, I would strongly recommend you seek out some of the offensive ‘wealthy’ in your area, and have a discussion on how they achieved their wealth.

          While you are correct in that the vast majority will not have got “that way by accident”, I believe you will hear reasons for their success other than those you list.

        • Jon Corrigan

          ‘The wealthy didn’t get that way by accident’ – You’re right, most of them didn’t. As a student in grade school, high school and college right here in Vermont, all our teachers told us constantly if we worked hard, studied and constantly sought to improve ourselves, we’d be successful. Now that some have, in fact, become successful, we have those who apparently didn’t study and didn’t have much incentive to improve their lot in life clamoring for ‘the rich’ (as-yet to be defined) to pay for something they have decided is a ‘right’. It’ll be a really cold day in he!! before I sign the check for that.

    • J. Scott Cameron

      “However, I would not tar the entire group with a broad brush, based on the ill-thought-out comment of one member.”

      I do not believe that the comment originated with the member. This was the mantra of VWC, well taught and well learned. VWC and other advocates did not want a single payer system which paid a reasonable share of the costs. The goal is and was free health coverage. YWC’s criticism of the ACA Plans offered by Green Mountain Care made it clear that co-payments and deductibles were unacceptable.

      • Steven Farnham

        Perhaps I did paint with a broad brush, but commenting on your doing so was far from my main point.

        This whole conversation started by your criticism of the protesters’ behaviour. I’ll ask the question for the third time since you still haven’t answered it yet: What are the protesters supposed to do?

  • Somehow this plan of single payer seems like a plan to enslave doctors.

    It really does.

    Somehow it seems like a plan to enslave the taxpayers.

    It really does.

    Accept the life you were dealt.

    Why declare on Dr’s or Taxpayers?


    • Walter Carpenter

      “Accept the life you were dealt.”

      Why? If Martin Luther King, the rest of the civil rights leaders, and those who dared to sit in all white sections at lunch counters had just accepted “the life you were dealt” we would still have legalized apartheid in this country.

  • john c. halasz

    ” one senator called the tactics “fascist” ”

    I’d surely like to know the name of said representative of the people. It sounds like the typically paranoid reaction of those who are jealous of their own power and prerogatives and don’t wish to be bothered by the voices and distress of those less privileged. Perhaps, if we knew his/her name, we could disabuse him/her of the office, come next election, and the presumption that the office is serving any representation of the interests of people.

    • Jon Corrigan

      It certainly sounds as though you’re describing Senator Baruth – deaf to the will of the people of the State.

  • Jennifer Roberts

    60 Minutes had a good segment related to Obamacare and the lack of a plan to reduce costs through medical malpractice law reform and pharma cost regs. According to the show, the Feds (and I have to assume the State) plan(s) do(es) nothing to address these costs. So, how will any of it be affordable under any plan if there is no reform?

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