Published: Sunday, September 3, 2006
Burlington Free Press (versions also published in Times Argus and other VT newspapers)

By James Haslam

On the evening of Aug. 24, an unusual meeting took place. Burlington teachers, construction workers, University of Vermont faculty, service and maintenance workers from both UVM and Burlington public schools, and union representatives from the Burlington Electric Department, Chittenden County Transportation Authority, UPS, City Market and Burlington schools paraeducators sat down together to discuss how to make Burlington a “real livable city” for working people. It was fitting that this took place near the eve of Labor Day. We started by asking ourselves: “Is Burlington one of the ‘top 10 most livable cities’ in the country?” as has been boasted in national magazines. And, if so, livable for whom? The discussion, surprisingly, painted the picture of a different reality for thousands of community members who are feeling very insecure about the future. The common problems were pointed out:Health care costs are soaring. The system is broken, health care should be a basic right and companies shouldn’t be profiting off the sick. There is no affordable housing.We can’t afford to send our children to college.The costs of living are going up across the board, and wages aren’t keeping up.

Property taxes are not the way to fund our schools; they need to be funded by fair income taxes based on people’s ability to pay.The point of this meeting wasn’t just to list problems, but to do something about them. Burlington labor leaders began making plans on taking action. The first step is to recognize that there’s a “race to the bottom” going on, where workers are forced to take less every passing year — cuts in benefits, low wages, increased hours of work. Almost every employer, whether they be mega-corporations or public school administrations, are saying in unison that benefits need to be cut. Nowadays, unionized workers are the last workers to have affordable health care and decent retirement benefits, and now those are under attack. For workers who don’t have unions, those benefits are often cut unilaterally, or they were never given in the first place. But even when union workers successfully fight back against concessions and hold on to decent benefits, the race to the bottom continues as the thousands of non-unionized workers continue to lose ground and good jobs disappear. Unionized workers are only 10 percent of the work force, but organized labor is still the only voice of all working people. On Labor Day we celebrate victories won by the labor movement: the weekend, the eight-hour workday, employer-funded health care, a more humane workplace, and Social Security. But as these past gains erode, the need for a new labor movement based in our communities, workplaces, and homes is increasingly important.

On Labor Day 2006, labor leaders in Burlington are upholding this tradition when they say “Let’s make Burlington a real livable city for everyone.” At 10 a.m., Monday, join hundreds of Burlington-area community members for a Labor Day parade starting outside the H.O. Wheeler School on the corners of Elmwood Avenue and Archibald Street. The parade will make its way through the city and down to Battery Park where there will be a rally and free community picnic with hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream. It will not only be a fun family day of celebration, but a starting point for a new movement in Burlington. A movement to establish affordable health care as a basic right, livable wages for all workers, the creation of much needed affordable housing and for people to have time to spend with their families. The race to the bottom must be stopped. Together we can make Burlington a real livable city for everyone.

James Haslam is the director of the Vermont Workers’ Center Jobs With Justice. E-mail to tell them what a livable city would mean to you and to learn more.