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Public Program: The Labor movement in Vermont–Main Hall
December 3, 2022 @ 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Liz Medina, Executive Director of the VT State Labor Council, AFL-CIO discussed the history of labor, the state of labor unions in our state, and spoke about the VT PRO Act campaign, and the Worker Circle organizing project.
Grange members took part in the Grange Main Hall, as well as via Zoom, and more folks joined us via Zoom as well.
A dozen or more Vermont union members joined us in person to discuss what’s going on with labor organizing, stayed for the potluck dinner, and some stayed for the contra dance in the evening.
Below is Zoom recording of Liz’s power-point presentation and the discussion with attendees; unfortunately, the recording was not started until a few minutes after Carl Etnier introduced Liz, so please excuse the abrupt beginning!
Here are my notes on Liz’s presentation:
Liz Medina, executive director of the VT Labor Council, AFL-CIO was invited by Carl Etnier to speak to us about unions, and in particular about current labor activity in Vermont. She began her presentation by quoting Woody Guthrie: “The boss won’t listen when one guy squawks, but he’s got to listen when the union talks”. With that basic premise, she did a quick review of the development of the labor movement in the U.S. Starting well after the beginnings in the late 1800s, she focused on when labor fought to gain the right to organize workers in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. That struggle included a Teamsters strike in Minnesota in February, 1934. Their initial strike helped membership to grow to 5,000 by May of that year—but the trucking companies wouldn’t negotiate. That led to another strike, with a better organized strike, with “flying pickets” to go to places where “scab” (non-union) workers were being hired, and sympathy strikes by other groups. After a false promise by the corporations to negotiate, yet another strike was called in July—and police were called out, and ended up firing on workers, and arresting union leaders. This led to even more public sympathy, and around 40,000 people marching to protest the violence—the leaders were released.
After this sort of story was repeated in various parts of the country, and with the support of FDR, the congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. This codified the right of workers to organize, based on workers’ voting to join a union, without fear of retaliation from the employer. With this recognition and acknowledgement of workers’ rights, the union movement grew, reaching a peak of about 1 in 3 private-sector workers being organized after the Second World War. Since then, there has been a slow decline, to about only 1 in 10 being union members at this time. Liz believes we are in a bit of a union revival now, citing organizing efforts at relatively new companies like Amazon and Starbucks, and polls that report that 71% of American workers have a “high” opinion of unions.
In VT, the Labor Council’s mission is to support all workers and unions. Liz was part of a “reform” movement that brought in a slate of new VT Labor Council members and leaders, including her in 2019. The current Council’s initiatives include trainings for any 6 or more workers interested in organizing unions at their workplace(s), sending out organizers to work with groups, helping to set up “workers’ circles” to discuss relationships with management, training for the union stewards who are the ones who make sure union contracts are enforced.
The Council also does political work, including supporting the Vermont “PRO” Act, designed to “Protect the Right to Organize”. This bill would: end “at will” employment, requiring a “just cause” for termination, extending organizing rights to domestic and farm workers, stop employers from mandating workers attend meetings to listen to anti-union arguments, and would simplify the union sign-up process for public employees. Specifically, it would provide that if a majority of workers sign “cards” stating their desire to have a collective bargaining union, a second “election” stage would not be required—eliminating a significant barrier to union recognition. If you’re interested in learning more, and helping to develop the lobbying campaign to support this legislation, you can learn more and register for on-line meetings starting on Jan. 6, at this link.
The presentation was followed by an energetic discussion, which included critiques of the contract forced on freight railroad workers by the federal government to forestall a threatened strike, how “gig workers” can organize to bargain with employers, and several other issues. Listen to the recording which is posted above to hear more!
For more information about the AFL/CIO and the Vermont Labor Council, visit the website!
Notes by Tim Swartz