Montpelier city-wide union

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(Host) Commentator Ellen David Friedman says that this year Montpelier shoppers have more to think about than just who’s next on their gift list.

(Friedman) Sometimes the exercise of democracy jumps out of its normal conduit – that familiar routine of voting in March or November. Sometimes it enters our lives as a living controversy. a thing local and immediate.

In Montpelier right now we’re arguing about what’s called the downtown citywide union. This is an effort by low wage retail workers — primarily in mom & pop businesses – to organize a single union throughout the city. For many, the issues are poor wages, no health insurance, no sick leave, no benefits, and part-time schedules. For some, it’s just the chance to be heard. The issues are familiar, but the approach is unprecedented. The United Electrical Workers – or UE – is a ground-breaking kind of union. It was UE that recently helped workers organize at the food coops in Montpelier and Burlington. They’re doing this project jointly with the Vermont Workers Center.

Over seventy-five workers in nearly two dozen businesses have joined, and so far, one courageous employer is poised to voluntarily recognize the union and sign a contract. And what a storm of reaction!

There’s been enough news about it that, when I stood with support petitions at the Montpelier Farmers Market on a recent Saturday, I hardly needed to explain why I was there. I was juggling three clipboards, and barely keeping up with the crowd. Two hundred signatures in two hours. Another volunteer going door-to-door in Montpelier that morning told me 47 out of 50 people signed his petition.

But at the Farmers Market, support wasn’t unanimous. Some people didn’t sign because they thought a union would hurt the viability of the downtown. An acquaintance who owns his own small business got very angry and yelled at me that he should have the right to fire any of his workers whenever he wanted. A local lobbyist, a moderate Republican I’ve known a long time, confessed that his two business partners supported the drive, but that he wasn’t there yet. And with virtually every conversation, I saw people working this thing through in their minds.

Now I’ve been a labor organizer in Vermont for twenty-five years and I’ve never seen anything like this. Of course it’s great that people support the rights of workers’ to organize. But, equally interesting was that most people were pro-worker, but not anti-business. which seems to also be the case for many of the downtown workers themselves. In fact there’s a strong general sense of protectiveness for our tiny downtown. And this is where I think our democratic debate is leading us. to a recognition that both workers and lots of customers support the idea of union. That both want the local businesses to thrive. And they see that a strong, better paid workforce, is a necessary part of a healthy downtown economy. In this age of globalization, that seems to me like a really smart synthesis of values and pragmatism.

Ellen David Friedman is vice-chair of the Vermont Progressive Party. She has worked in the labor movement in Vermont for more than 25 years. She spoke to us from our studio on Montpelier.

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