Working Class Democracy
What follows is an excerpt from the new book On Anarchism: Dispatches From The People’s Republic of Vermont. Dispatches contains works written by David Van Deusen, and in some cases with the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective. Jeff Jones of the Weather Underground wrote the forward. This excerpt is from the essay Montpelier Downtown Workers Union: Building Working Class Democracy One City At A Time. The essay, first published in The Northeastern Anarchist magazine, has never previously been made available on the web. Following the excerpt is the full table of contents for Dispatches.
On Anarchism: Dispatches From The People’s Republic of Vermont,
By David Van Deusen
Chapter V: Workers
MONTPELIER DOWNTOWN WORKERS UNION
Building Working Class Democracy One City At A Time
Montpelier VT, February 2005- Under the shadows of the Green Mountains workers in Vermont’s capital city (population 7900) have been building direct democracy and power on the job for more than a year and a half. The City of Montpelier, whose downtown shops are largely composed of independently owned businesses, is the site of a new innovative labor union known as the Montpelier Downtown Workers’ Union, UE Amalgamated Local 221 (MDWU). Unlike a traditional union, the Downtown Workers’ are organized geographically, effectively incorporating people employed in the service, retail, and nonprofit sectors in different shops all throughout the city. The union legally represents workers in a number of contracted shops as well as workers in minority shops. In addition, the union claims a number of majorities where they have not yet won legal recognition and a contract.
Through this union, all of these workers are brought together under one big tent where their collective voice can no longer be ignored by the bosses, and where their power is felt even by the elite and those that follow. With or without a contract, this union fights for the rights of all downtown employees and is building real working class power in this northern capital city, and all by practicing directly democratic means.
Origins, Necessities, and Eventualities
As Vermont’s once powerful manufacturing base (which formally included highly productive towns from Brattleboro to Springfield to Newport) has increasingly jumped ship for the super-exploited labor markets of Mexico and China, the economy in this small New England state (Pop. 621,115) has become increasingly reliant upon an expanding service and retail sector to offset massive job loss. Of course the vast majority of these jobs pay a fraction of what they are replacing and carry little to no benefits. In addition, 79% of Vermont businesses employ nine or less workers. Because of the separateness and sheer quantity of these jobs, and because of the small number of employees who labor in each individual shop, most of the traditional unions have not been interested in expending their limited resources in order to organize these workers. This stands true throughout the nation. For many unions such endeavors represent an untried gamble that they are currently not willing to take, even if that is where the majority of the labor force is increasingly situated.
Finding themselves isolated from the organizational power of the more established labor movement, it is extremely difficult for such employees to win a collective voice at work, much less effect positive long-lasting change in their working conditions and create local democracy. Ironically, as this mode of labor becomes more and more of a numerical majority of Vermont’s (and elsewhere’s) workforce, and as the traditional unions refrain from organizing these workers, the overall union base has become more tenuous. With that, organized labor has risked becoming outpaced by capitalist interests and losing what political clout they maintained for the last century. In a word, it is becoming increasingly clear to all who pay attention that if the class struggle in the Green Mountains (and the rest of the developed world) is not to lose ground and instead is to move forward, something has to be done. And again, as long as the larger more conservative unions sit on the sideline, it is possible that those unions and workers who do step forward will be in a better position to create locals devoid of arbitrary hierarchies and bureaucracies. In other words, in the near virgin territory of small service and retail shops opens the possibility of organizing workers through a truly democratic and self-empowering means.
Enter The Vermont Workers Center
In the spring of 2003, James Haslam, the Director of the Montpelier based Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC), began to float the idea of establishing an “all-workers’ union” in the capital city in order to empower those who work in small shops and as a way to begin organizing those in the fastest growing (and lowest paying) sector. This idea sprang out of numerous conversations with area employees about working conditions, as well as the many negative calls the center received in the previous five years on their workers’ rights hotline relating to shops in that city.
By the summer of 2003 the independent and rank & file oriented United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) became interested in the project, and before long these two organizations (VWC & UE) agreed to split the cost of the project and move forward towards concrete organizing. It was not by chance that this project was being launched by these two organizations. The Vermont Workers’ Center is a coalition of unions (including the UE, Vermont State Employees’ Association, and the entire Vermont AFL-CIO), rank and file workers, and allied organizations representing a staggering 25,000 Vermont workers (out of a total labor force of just over 330,000). It was founded six years ago, in a large part by anarchists formerly in the Love & Rage #10 Collective. Today the center remains committed to building real working class democracy and the fulfillment of basic social needs. Internally the center operates through a democratic means.
The UE, for its part, is a democratically run leftwing union traditionally based in the industrial sector. Presently UE officially reports have 30,000 total members across the United States. Known to include many members of the old Communist Party-USA, the UE has recognized the new reality of the consumer based economy for some time, and has been experimenting in finding ways of getting a foothold in the growing service and retail sectors. In the months prior to agreeing to this new project, they successfully organized the two largest downtown supermarkets in the Vermont cities of Burlington and Montpelier (both co-ops).
Eventually the VWC and UE decided to pare down the target population to focus on the estimated 800 service, retail, and (later) nonprofit workers employed throughout the Montpelier city limits. Here it deserves mention that although the UE is a democratically run union, such democracy does not formally take effect until after a shop or a group of workers are constituted as their own local or are merged into an existing local. Until that time, the lead organizer, who in this case was Kim Lawson, has final say in regards to tactics and strategy. It would not be until the spring of 2004 that the Downtown Workers’ Union, who at that time became part of local 221, would gain absolute authority over their direction and policy. Even so, the workers exercised a considerable amount of democratic power during the early and middle phases of the campaign. This can be accredited to the commitment to internal democracy on the part of key organizers as well as the persistent voice of workers themselves.
What made the union drive different from others was the fact that the goal was not to target a single specific shop, but instead to attempt to bring together workers from dozens of small individual shops into one citywide local and seek, among other things, to implement one unified labor contract for all workers in these sectors: geographic unionism. Montpelier was picked as the location for three reasons: (1) as the capital, a successful organizing campaign would carry with it a higher degree of statewide media attention and symbolism. This could eventually lead to similar projects being launched in other Vermont towns and cities. (2) Months before the UE successfully organized the largest retail shop in the city (the Hunger Mountain Food Co-op-75 workers), and it was therefore hoped that those workers would voluntarily lend a hand in the early phases of the new drive. (3) The headquarters of both the Vermont Workers’ Center and the Vermont AFL-CIO [and the Vermont State Employees’ Association] are located in Montpelier, and therefore it would be easier to organize on-the-street support for the new union than in other locations.
The First Strategy
The initial strategy adopted by campaign organizers was to quietly sign up as many workers to the union as fast it could, and seek as many specific shop majorities in as short a time as possible. After majorities were reached in a significant number of shops the union would publicly announce itself and demand legal recognition from affected shop owners. In turn these shops would seek the implementation of a basic uniform contract. This basic contract would: (1) Require a fifty cent raise; (2) Require employers to work towards a livable wage; (3) Establish a formal grievance procedure on the shop floor whereby workers’ concerns could not be ignored by management; (4) and protect workers against unjust firings. Armed with one full time organizer (Tenaya Lafore), and financed jointly by the Workers’ Center and UE, the part-time efforts of Kim Lawson (the UE lead organizer), James Haslam (of the Workers’ Center), a small core of sympathetic workers and volunteers (including a small number of Vermont Progressive Party and NEFAC-VT members), and others from the community, the organizing drive took off with speed and promise.
Within the first few months of the drive, an Organizing Committee of fifteen workers from ten separate shops was formed. Soon after, pro-union majorities were reached at six different shops, which totaled seventy-five. Upon reaching these half dozen majorities, the Workers’ Center, UE, and rank & file union members held their first press conference announcing the existence of the union and demanding recognition and contracts at these shops. The mood among workers and organizers was optimistic. It was believed that the union could pressure the businesses into voluntary recognition, and quickly move to win at additional shops.
Here it should be noted that early on it was decided that the union would not pursue recognition through formal federally monitored elections. This decision was reached in light of the fact that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which monitors and regulates such elections, tends to work hand and glove with management, and in opposition to union/worker interests. The NLRB is run by appointees of President George W. Bush, is notorious for allowing bosses varying degrees of advantages, and has even gone so far as putting election results under wraps (in a kind of limbo) for years -thereby effectively tabling concerted union activity indefinitely. Therefore, it was instead decided to seek voluntary recognition, if need be, through public pressure.
In the wake of this early success came an immediate backlash from a large segment of the bosses. Within weeks of going public a significant number of business owners circled the proverbial wagons and began a sustained campaign of reactionary, anti-union propaganda through the capitalist media, and intimidations and scare tactics on the job. The worst of these shops was J. Morgan’s. Others included the Coffee Corner diner, Capital Grounds Coffee Shop, and M & M Beverage and Redemption Center. Of course, the activity of the owners was not uniform. A minority of the smaller shops (primarily those that could not afford to employ anyone, those that employed only occasional or limited help, and those where the owners still were compelled to hold a second job as a common worker) voiced support for the union. These included The Book Garden and La Pizio shoes. In sociological terms, certain Marxist predictions proved themselves true. The wealthier owners (those who owned multiple businesses and/or controlled large portions of property i.e. the local bourgeoisie) stood firmly against the workers. On the other hand the allegiances of the petit-bourgeoisie became split with a minority of this subclass identifying with the workers
At J. Morgan’s Steakhouse (an upscale restaurant), the owners, the multi-millionaire Bashara family, quickly moved to hire the union-busting law firm Gallagher and Flynn. There, waitress Val Tofani, an outspoken union supporter, was fired for dubious reasons. Other union members had their hours cut and were taken off the more lucrative shifts. Management also harassed and threatened union supporters, installed security cameras to spy on workers, and had employees followed home after work.
Workers in other shops also began to feel the pressure. As the hammer began to come down, many began to distance themselves from the union. Although one in eight (100 total) from the service and retail sector signed a petition making themselves union members, the effective public strength of the organization was beginning to decline. Of the original six majority shops, only one, the Savoy, recognized the union and signed a contract. At the others, workers began to retreat from their public support of the union as bosses began to threaten and intimidate those who they suspected of signing union cards or even considering signing union cards.
The union attempted to retaliate in several ways. To build broader support for the organization, a Community Solidarity Committee was formed which included more than 20 people from within non-UE unions (NEA, VSEA, Teamsters, Carpenters, Iron Workers, Nurses etc.), retirees, and others. These folks, alongside downtown workers from within the Organizing Committee sought various ways to maintain the union’s momentum despite the bosses’ counter attack.
At J. Morgan’s a number of informational pickets were held. The largest picket drew 200 people from the labor movement (both Downtown Workers and those from other unions). Union members and supporters also held a ‘coffee in’ at the restaurant where most if not all the tables were filled up, and nothing but coffee was ordered. Here servers were delivered encouraging pro-union messages and large tips, while the owners made pennies on what would have otherwise been a lucrative dinner rush. The message was clear.
In December 2003, a union member also gained entrance to the restaurant dressed as Santa Claus, where he made a public scene announcing that the owners were being delivered the “Grinch of the Year Award” for their union busting activities and unfair treatment of workers. In addition to losing thousands of dollars in business due to the bad publicity and pickets, many organizations, such as the Older Women's League and VSEA pulled their plans to hold events there and at the adjoining hotel. Finally, the union filed 28 ‘unfair labor practice charges with the federal government on behalf of those workers and union members that received the wrath of management. With this, what began as periodic pickets at the steakhouse became organized weekly events. These pickets and the unofficial boycott, continued until the 28 charges were settled in the summer of 2004. In a word, the union busting owners lost tens of thousands of dollars in revenue, and were compelled to spend an estimated quarter of a million on attorney fees; all of this to avoid paying 40 employees fifty cents more an hour, and allowing shop floor democracy from gaining a foothold………….
[The rest of this essay can be found in On Anarchism: Dispatches From The People’s Republic of Vermont, By David Van Deusen, Algora Publishing, NYC, 2017. http://www.algora.com/539/book/details.html]
On Anarchism: Dispatches From The People’s Republic of Vermont
By David Van Deusen
Algora Publishing, NYC, 2017
Available direct from the publishers at: http://www.algora.com/539/book/details.html
Table of Contents
Red and Black in the Green Mountain State, By Jeff Jones of the Weather Underground… 1
Chapter I: History
The Rise and Fall of The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective… 5
Chapter II: Theory
Culture and Nothingness… 33
On the Question of Violence & Nonviolence… 53
Neither Washington Nor Stowe: A Libertarian-Socialist Manifesto… 65
Chapter III. Insurrection
Black Bloc Tactics Communiqué… 101
Anti-WTO Protests & The Battle of Seattle… 124
A:16 — A March On The Capitol: April 2000… 128
The Battle of Quebec City… 131
DC and the Twin Towers: A Battle Postponed… 136
Chapter IV: Organization
The Long Term Viability of Forming Workers’ Councils
(A Strategic Proposal To NEFAC)… 141
Chapter V: Workers
Montpelier Downtown Workers Union: Building Working Class Democracy,
One City At A Time… 177
Chapter VI: Secession
Vermont Secession: Democracy & The Extreme Right… 199
Chapter VII: On The Road
When the Levee Breaks: New Orleans, Katrina, & The People…211
Available direct from the publishers at: http://www.algora.com/539/book/details.html