Shay Totten
Vermont Guardian
December 21, 2005

BURLINGTON — A panel of legislative and ecumenical leaders heard testimony from dozens of Vermonters about the challenges they face with low pay, a lack of job security, no health care for their families, and how many employers work against their efforts to form unions.

For many of the 12-member Worker’s Rights Board, chaired by U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, the stories are nothing new. Worker after worker testified Dec. 10 under three broad themes: livable wages and good jobs; the right to organize and labor rights; and the right to health care.

The board was comprised of several Democratic lawmakers, one Progressive legislator, a student leader from the University of Vermont, a retiree, and several Burlington area religious leaders.

The panel, whose members were appointed by a coalition of labor organizations, has no strict mandate. In the coming weeks, however, the board will discuss specific actions it could take, or encourage others to take, as a result of the testimony it heard at the hearing, said James Haslam, director of the Vermont Worker’s Center, an event sponsor.

The event, on the Trinity Campus of the University of Vermont, was held on International Human Rights Day to link the economic struggle of workers to the broader discussion of human rights, said Brady Fletcher of the Student Labor Action Project at UVM, one of the event sponsors.

“Human rights refers to many things and we don’t associate, as we should, the issue of human rights with economic rights,” said Sanders in an opening speech to the crowd. “To my mind, if someone cannot find a job that pays them a wage so that they and their family can live in dignity, that is a violation of human rights; if there are people across the street from here who work 40 hours a week but cannot find a doctor or dentist because they cannot buy health insurance, that’s a violation of human rights. If people are living in poverty in the richest country in the world, that is a violation of human rights.”

Given the location of the event, UVM’s administration took the brunt of criticism from participants, many of whom are support and clerical staff members who are attempting to form a union.

“For years, UVM said that while their salaries weren’t great, their benefits were,” said Jennifer Larsen, a lab technician who has worked at UVM for 16 years. “Then they turned around and said that the benefits we get would bankrupt the university in 10 years, and they then gave us a large cut in our health insurance, and [no] salary increases.

“In the past five years, I have seen a 495 percent increase in premiums and that has not been matched by a salary increase — and in this academic-gone-corporate environment we have no power to speak out,” Larsen added.

Two weeks ago, hundreds of students, UVM alumni, faculty, and staff, along with construction workers and community members rallied outside a UVM board of trustees meeting to call for fair labor standards on campus.

Lester Gockley, a UVM maintenance worker and member of the United Electrical Workers Local 267, said a lot of skilled jobs are going by the wayside at the university. “There is a blatant attempt to subcontract a lot of work,” he said. And without a union in place to fight against this move, more jobs may have been lost by now.

“Since the arrival of UE at UVM, our organization has led an attempt to promote a livable wage, and UVM has fought this every step of the way,” he said.

A UVM spokesman said the school does not openly work against union activity, as evident by the fact that four employee groups are unionized, and strives to ensure that all employees are cared for.

“Our approach with union organizing is that we simply want to make sure that our employees are in the best position to make a well-informed decision as to whether union representation is in their best interest,” said Enrique Corredera, a UVM spokesman. “We also recognize the importance of well-compensated and well-cared for employees, whether they are faculty or staff as they are critical to the success of the institution and our ability to fulfill our vision.”

Other than UVM employees, former employees at Wal-Mart and IBM, as well as staff members from the Community College of Vermont and Verizon, testified about the challenges they faced trying to form or maintain unions.

Haslam called the event an important step in bringing the real-life struggles of working families to the attention of people who have the power to make change.

“What we saw today was regular people coming together who have the audacity to say that we should have livable wages and good jobs, the freedom to organize, and that health care should be a basic right available to everybody,” said Haslam. “And even though we are told that these things are not politically possible … together we can change what is politically possible. This event was a step in that direction.”