By James Haslam – Published: July 15, 2005
Montpelier Times-Argus

For several years, there was a steady flow of calls to the Workers’ Center’s Workers Rights Hotline from workers in downtown Montpelier. All kinds of workers in all kinds of workplaces had complaints and questions about being treated unfairly at work. Unfortunately, as many people know from firsthand experience, it’s often difficult or impossible for one individual worker to solve problems on the job. Workers have very few individual rights, under our labor laws.

In June of 2003 the Vermont Workers’ Center – Jobs With Justice began partnering with United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) to pioneer an innovative response. Jointly we committed ourselves to help workers in Montpelier learn about collective action and organize a citywide union. Immediately there was a lot of interest amongst workers, people working in shops, markets, theaters, restaurants, and bars. And now — after almost two years of struggle — this month the UE and Workers’ Center decided to end the Downtown Union campaign.

The high turnover in this low-wage industry, combined with the retaliation against some high-profile leaders of the union, has made it difficult to recruit enough active leadership. Looking back, the Downtown Union experienced lots of challenges, but also unexpected success.

Every day, the Workers’ Rights Hotline receives calls from workers all over Vermont who have experienced unfair treatment on the job. Favoritism, discrimination and disrespect, and unjust firing are all common in Vermont’s workplaces, and all are perfectly legal. The law protects workers against discrimination based on race, gender, and a handful of other protected categories – though the legal process is slow, and discrimination often difficult to prove – but for the most part, the only way for American workers to have enforceable rights on the job is through a union contract.

For workers in small retail and service establishments, organizing one small shop at a time is simply not possible under current American labor law. Furthermore, some issues, such as the lack of livable wages and healthcare, can only be addressed on an industry-wide basis, or require political solutions to protect small businesses from the predatory practices of big-box stores. This is why Montpelier downtown workers sought to organize a city-wide union. As they started gathering together they realized there were issues they would like to address. The idea of a Downtown Workers in Montpelier gradually took hold. Often expressed as: “If business owners have their employer association, doesn’t it make sense to have ours?”

Many downtown employers were not as thrilled about the possibility of downtown workers having their own organization. When the conflicts that happen every day in some workplaces were brought out into the open, the union was sometimes accused of causing polarization. In fact, the union was often just bringing these long-standing problems out of the closet and into the light of day. But this process does involve conflict, and sometimes it made some residents of Montpelier uncomfortable. A memorable example is that of the conflict with the Bashara Corporation, which operates J. Morgan’s Steakhouse. After the majority of workers at the steakhouse signed up for the union in a span of a few weeks, the Bashara Corporation responded in a Wal Mart-style illegal union-busting campaign. Nearly 30 charges of Unfair Labor Practices against pro-union employees were filed against the Bashara Corporation. These included charges of people being fired and having hours cut. The National Labor Relations Board investigated, a settlement was reached and workers received back pay. But the intimidation had worked. The workers who had previously signed-up for the union became scared of losing their jobs. Bashara Corporation was allowed to undermine their workers union despite the overwhelming support the workers received from the community. Unfortunately this was another sad example of the failure of labor law in this country.

The Montpelier Downtown Workers Union did not succeed in its ambitious goal of establishing basic standards for working conditions in downtown Montpelier, let alone being able to enforce them through a union contract, but there also was success. There were workers who initially opposed the idea of the union, but then experienced unfair treatment themselves and seeking the help of the union stewards. Some of these folks themselves became vocal union supporters. The union assisted workers throughout downtown Montpelier, from both small stores and corporate employers, in resolving numerous problems, ranging from discriminatory application of store rules to receiving back wages or settlement checks as a result of wrongful firings and sexual harassment.

But perhaps the single greatest accomplishment was bringing attention to the rights of people working in this industry. As one union activist put it in an interview last summer, “We’re not invisible any longer. That’s a victory.” Since this campaign started, some workers have told us that their employers have been on their best behavior. The concept of organizing in an industry which is not a traditional place for people to have unions has been raised.

Many union organizing campaigns take a few rounds to succeed. The Fletcher Allen Health Care Registered Nurses voted against the union twice, and a few years later reconsidered and voted in a union by a 2-to-1 margin. The faculty at UVM had three union elections over a 20 year period before they succeeded in establishing their union.

In many ways the energy of the campaign is continuing in new forms. Workers at Vermont Center of Independent Living who joined are now becoming associate members of UE Local 221, which represents workers who work for non-profit organization across the state. Some former Downtown Union members and others are attempting to start a union chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) as something different and separate from the UE and Vermont Workers’ Center.

At the Vermont Workers’ Center we have learned a great deal from supporting the efforts of the Downtown Union campaign and are committed to continuing the campaign for workers’ rights. Whatever form that campaign takes, we will be there to support workers who are organizing for good jobs at livable wages, decent healthcare, and dignity and respect on the job.

James Haslam is director of the Vermont Workers’ Center – Jobs With Justice. More information available at The Vermont Workers’ Rights Hotline is 802-229-0009.