Union Member Recruitment by Vermont Progressives
“We will stand by our friends and administer a stinging rebuke to men or parties who are either indifferent, negligent, or hostile, and, wherever opportunity affords, to secure the election of intelligent, honest, earnest trade unionists, with clear, unblemished, paid-up union cards in their possession.” —Samuel Gompers2
Like much labor rhetoric, past and present, Samuel Gompers’s warning to the Democrats and Republicans contained more bark than bite. When progressive labor activists tried to break with the two-party system in the early 1900s, the American Federation of Labor president rarely backed them, no matter how “unblemished” their union record, if they campaigned under the banner of the Socialist Party. He preferred, instead, to stick with mainstream politicians, often in need of “a stinging rebuke,” but rarely receiving one because of labor’s still strong tendency to embrace the “lesser evil” on any ballot.
In 2012–14, deepening labor disillusionment with the performance of Democratic office holders led “intelligent, honest, earnest trade unionists” around the country to enter the political arena themselves, as candidates for municipal office.2 Rather than being ignored as the work of marginal “spoilers,” some of these insurgent campaigns by shop stewards, local union officers, and rank-and-file activists actually won substantial union backing, while generating valuable publicity for key labor causes.
As labor-backed independent electoral efforts proliferate, more activists in other states are looking to the example of the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP). More than any other third-party formation in the country, the VPP has campaigned successfully for state legislative seats and municipal office, “while building support for reform and nudging the Democrats left.”
Over the last three decades, Vermont Progressives have also been able to woo local labor organizations away from their previous knee-jerk support for local Democrats or moderate Republicans. These efforts have produced an influx of younger labor activists into the leadership of the VPP, who are now recruiting more union members to run against Vermont politicians who prove “indifferent, negligent, or hostile” to working class concerns.
What distinguishes the VPP from almost all state and local Democratic Party organizations, backed by labor elsewhere, is its year-round engagement withgrassroots labor causes and campaigns, as well as legislative/ political issues like single-payer health insurance. These non-electoral activities, plus the emergence of homegrown VPP leaders and candidates who have been workplace organizers and local union officers, haves greatly strengthened VPP’s ties with the local labor movement.
VPP candidates have taken a leaf from Bernie Sanders’ four decades of labor engagement and advocacy—first, as Burlington mayor, then Vermont’s lone congressman, and now junior U.S. senator. They have distinguished themselvesfrom their mainstream party opponents by focusing, in Sanders-like fashion, one conomic justice issues, rather than potentially divisive social questions. In areas of the state where working-class voters might otherwise be swayed by cultural conservatism or residual rural Republicanism, the VPP has, like Sanders, won elections by campaigning for workers’ rights, fair taxes, a living wage, and single-payer health care. The Party also pledges to “promote cooperative, worker-owned and publicly owned enterprises.”
Unlike many Democrats, VPP office-holders provide active strike support, as they did during this year’s Burlington bus drivers’ walkout. Progressive Party members initiate or join community-based campaigns to defend union jobs, while freely criticizing the labor relations record of Democrats involved in negotiations with teachers, state workers, and other public employees.According to Traven Leyshon, former secretary-treasurer of the Vermont state labor council, “Local labor leaders are now willing to support Progressive candidates over Democrats—when they’re credible—because of such pro labor stances.”
For the rest of Steve Early’s very important report, read the entire article on the Social Policy website.