Like many other cities across the US both big and small, Burlington, Vermont’s economy has been hit hard by the fallout from the coronavirus epidemic. Because much of its economy depends on restaurants, bars, pubs and entertainment, the unemployment is higher than it has been in decades. As a result, tax revenues are down and city coffers are suffering. When one adds some poor decisions by the current mayor and the previous city council that were driven by developer greed regarding downtown development, the result is less income, looming layoffs of city workers, increasing poverty and, if the University of Vermont (UVM) acts on all of its intended cutbacks, even greater economic distress.
Regarding the UVM cuts; early retirements and layoffs have already occurred. Since UVM is the city’s largest employer, these cuts have a ripple effect throughout the economy. Fortunately, though, the university administration was put on notice immediately upon their announcement. Car protests, letter-writing campaigns and very vocal remarks from faculty, staff and some state politicians seem to have halted the layoffs for the present. Similarly, state college staff and faculty responded to a threat to close all but one of their campuses with an outpouring of protest. Meanwhile, city employees and workers elsewhere in the state’s public sector are mobilizing to defend their jobs and benefits in the face of threats to both from administrators around the state. Local unions working with the recently elected state AFL-CIO leadership organized a protest in Burlington as the first public action in the mobilization. Specifically, the AFSCME local representing most Burlington city workers decided to organize this action once the mayor’s office audaciously suggested the union should renegotiate a 2018 contract and accept concessions and even layoffs.
Unlike much of the national AFL-CIO leadership, Vermont’s leadership committee is an action-oriented collection of left-leaning workers and union organizers who prefer organizing and expanding the numbers of unionized workers in the state to lobbying and cozying up to politicians. Their long term organizing includes a ten-point program that includes elements of the so-called Green New Deal and involves coalescing with social movements and non-union workers. In a refreshing turnabout from typical AFL-CIO obeisance to the more conservative wing of the Democratic Party, Vermont’s AFL-CIO leadership council has aligned itself with progressive and left radical policies. Furthermore, the membership is reviving the street protest and other grassroots approaches to organizing.
Tuesday, June 9th began with an overcast sky. Small puddles could be found in the numerous potholes on the streets of Burlington, VT. By the time I made it downtown to help set up the parade and rally, the sun had dried the streets and sidewalks. The program called for a car parade/picket and a rally. In the days before masks and quarantines, the action would have been billed as an informational picket and involved several dozen workers walking a picket line around the City Hall Building in downtown Burlington. Since it had been a while since I’d been to a protest of any kind, I was looking forward to the event. (I was in quarantine during the recent protests for racial justice and against police brutality). In addition, the organizers asked me to be the emcee for the rallies. When I arrived at the gathering site before the motorized picket, there were less than ten people in the parking lot. Cars rolled in while we discussed the program. By the time the first speaker was introduced, over a hundred workers were present, with more coming into the lot.
The speakers at the opening rally came from unions representing the staff at the state colleges, faculty at local schools, the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America(DSA), Vermont state legislators from the Progressive Party and the vice president of AFSCME Local 1343—the unit representing the municipal workers and custodial staff from the nearby St. Michael’s College. An underlying theme was that the city workers being threatened with cutbacks were essential workers; indeed, all of us at the rally were essential to a civilized and humane society. Street cleaners and library workers, teachers and custodians, grocery store clerks and parks landscapers, etc. All of us are essential. By the time the last speaker had finished, over eighty cars and several motorcycles were in the lot and ready to go. The vehicles left the lot to a chant first heard at earlier car protests by workers at the state’s colleges: “Chop from the Top!”
The picket/parade was led by a half-dozen protesters on their motorcycles with the Vermont AFL-CIO president David van Deusen at the helm. As the caravan wound through the streets of Burlington’s South End on their way to City Hall, protesters honked their horns and hung out their windows receiving the cheers and closed fist salutes of bystanders. Occasionally, someone flashed a middle finger, but the overall response was positive. Everyone who works for someone else for a living understands the issue at stake; without work in the US of A there is no money coming in. Without money, living becomes that much harder. Working people have always known this and the coronavirus has brought it home in a very real way. It seems very likely that the shit has hardly begun to hit the fan. If the virus don’t get you, then the depression will.
In what can only be described as a unique setting for the closing rally, we assembled our vehicles on the top level of a downtown parking garage. Music streamed from a PA system already set up while people parked their vehicles and gathered. The second round of speeches opened with a passionate plea for social justice and worker’s rights from Dwight Brown, an African-American member of AFSCME Local 1343 and the Vermont AFL-CIO. His talk placed the worker’s struggle inside the context of the greater struggle for racial justice, while also focusing on the local issues at hand. Following Brown, van Deusen rallied those present to continue the fight. In amongst the remaining speakers—who represented faculty at UVM and local schools, the union at the local co-ops and members of the Progressive Party who sit on Burlington’s City Council—was an organizer and dairy farm worker from La Justicia Migrante (Migrant Justice), a Vermont organization dedicated to organizing and providing mutual aid to Vermont’s undocumented immigrants.
The final speaker was Damion Gilbert, the president of AFSCME 1343. After I introduced him as a fighter I was glad to have on my side, he opened his brief talk with a remark about playing rope-a-dope with the city administration. In essence, he notified the crowd that the next few rounds might require a different strategy. Before the crowd of over 150 packed up, the chants “They say cut back, we say fight back” and “Black Lives Matter!” rang from the parking garage onto the streets and pedestrian mall below. Since Vermont is re-opening its restaurants and retail stores, there were actually people on the streets to hear us. Although the future is uncertain, workers must insist on being part of the decisions that determine it.