Union organizers report some successes on Labor Day

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(Host) The news is mixed for organized labor in Vermont this Labor Day. In recent years there’s been a loss of many high paying manufacturing jobs. At the same time, officials say they’re encouraged by a flurry of new organizing around the state.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) The face of organized labor is changing in Vermont. James Haslam is with the Vermont Workers Center.

(Haslam) “One of the things that’s interesting is the new labor movement in Vermont looks different than the old one. There’s a lot more women involved. Health care workers have been organizing at an incredible rate in Vermont and it’s a heavily feminized work force.”

(Zind) Organized labor’s biggest victory in the past year came last October when registered nurses at Fletcher Allen Health Care voted to unionize. In June, the nurses and the hospital agreed to a contract.

Jennifer Henry is a Fletcher Allen nurse who was a member of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals bargaining team. She says the union’s success at Fletcher Allen has helped health care workers across the state.

(Henry) “We’ve heard of discussions about patient ratios and also improvement to wages and benefits at other hospital that we believe were probably a direct result of our negotiating our contract.”

(Zind) Workers at several Vermont food cooperatives have also organized in the past year. But these jobs pay far less than the manufacturing jobs that have long been the backbone of organized labor. In spite of a string of layoffs and plant closings, organizers say they’ve held their own because of gains made elsewhere. Ron Pickering is President of the Vermont Labor Council.

(Pickering) “It’s probably a wash. I think that’s a sign that organized labor is doing the right thing from an organizing standpoint.”

(Zind) Pickering says the number of union jobs has declined in other parts of the country. Because of threat of layoffs and closings, workers have made job security a top priority in contract negotiations, eclipsing even wages and benefits.

Organizers say unions can’t stop a manufacturer from closing a plant or moving jobs out of state or overseas, but a union contract can help cushion the blow by giving workers a say in how the cuts are carried out and how workers are compensated by manufacturers who cut jobs.

Labor leaders say workers usually unionize in waves and they think the success at Fletcher Allen will have a ripple effect that will lead to more Vermont workers voting to unionize.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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