Dean visits Verizon labor rally

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(Host) While former presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer was fundraising on one side of town Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean was attending a union rally on the other side. Dean spoke to about 100 union workers in front of the Verizon Wireless store in South Burlington.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean was handed a bull horn to speak to the crowd at the Verizon union rally. He tested it with a famous line from a Verizon Wireless TV ad.

(Dean) “Can you hear me without this? No? Can you hear me now?” (Sound of crowd laughter.)

(Dillon) About 600 Verizon employees in Vermont have worked without a contract since early August. Thursday’s protest was aimed at Verizon Wireless, which has about 40,000 employees but only 51 are unionized. According to the union, the company doesn’t want to include those 51 workers in the new contract.

Dean – who wants to win support from labor unions – was asked about Ari Fleischer’s fundraiser down the road.

(Dean) “Well let him collect a $100,000 from Skip Vallee and the boys. We’ll just unionize these guys and these people will make a decent living for a change and then the country will be stronger. Not because of Ari Fleischer, but because of the 51 employees of Verizon Wireless who are going to get a decent contract.” (Sound of crowd applause.)

(Dillon) Dean says the issue of fair wages goes beyond this particular labor dispute.

(Dean) “This is not just about Verizon and the union. It’s not even about the 51 workers. It’s about whether or not we’re going to have social and economic justice in this country with an administration that has essentially signed off on middle class and working people and forgotten about them. And everything they do is aimed at the president’s friends like Ken Lay and the boys who are signing those enormous checks to get him reelected. I think we need a president who’s going to speak for ordinary Americans again, and that’s what this is all about.”

(Dillon) Mike O’Day of Fairfax is district vice president of the Communications Workers of America local 1400. He says Dean’s support is a big help.

(O’Day) “The governor’s presence here was instrumental for us to bring to the national media the difficulties we’re having getting a fair and equitable contract with Verizon.”

(Dillon) As governor, Dean was not always known as a die-hard labor supporter. But unions are a key constituency for Democrats. James Haslam of the Vermont Workers Center welcomes Dean’s help.

(Haslam) “Absolutely he has not always been our biggest friend, but he’s been changing and people work with him over time. And a lot of people have been trying to get him behind workers. And now that he’s here, we’re happy he’s here.”

(Dillon) Dean spoke earlier this week at the Communication Workers of America convention in Chicago. He hopes to win the union’s endorsement in his race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in South Burlington.

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