House Speaker Mitzi Johnson meets with labor leaders at the Statehouse cafeteria.
Tuesday morning brought an extraordinary moment in the Vermont legislature's end-of-session drama: House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) met publicly with a couple dozen labor leaders in the Statehouse cafeteria to air their differences on how to end the standoff between the Democratic legislature and Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
At issue is Scott's demand that negotiations for teacher health care benefits be done on a statewide basis — the best way, he says, to maximize taxpayer savings from pending changes in health insurance due to the federal Affordable Care Act. Democrats have pushed back on Scott's idea as an encroachment on the collective bargaining process between teachers and local school boards. House and Senate leaders have sought common ground with the governor, so far without success.
Johnson's plan has not been made public, but its outline has been widely circulated. It would leave negotiations at the local level while establishing statewide parameters for health care bargaining.
This morning, the speaker shared copies of her proposal with leaders of the Vermont-National Education Association. Afterward, a coalition of labor unions, including VT-NEA, returned the favor by holding a press conference to denounce the plan as an unacceptable infringement on collective bargaining rights.
"Its conditioning of bargaining is an affront to local educators and local school boards, and sadly, is an anti-worker intrusion into the collective bargaining process," said VT-NEA president Martha Allen. "As it stands now, we oppose the approach that would precondition bargaining on such an important topic."
Allen trained much of her fire on Scott. She branded his proposal "anti-worker, anti-union and anti-local control," and asserted that it "has very little to do with property tax savings." She called it "the thin end of the wedge," tying Scott to the right-to-work agendas of Republican governors in other states.
In her meeting with union leaders, Johnson defended her plan as the best way out of a difficult position. She referenced a recent House vote on the health care issue, in which Johnson herself had to cast the deciding vote.
"The reality is, we don't have the votes to override a governor's veto," she told the union reps. "There are an awful lot of representatives who don't understand what you do and the importance of bargaining rights."
Having thus thrown unnamed members of her caucus under the bus, she went on: "I will continue to fight very hard, but we have to find a way through this."
Rebecca Ramos, a lobbyist for multiple unions, countered with a call for Johnson to "lead on the value of collective bargaining — lead Democrats in protecting labor on this issue." On each of the last three words, she smacked her hand on the table for emphasis.
Johnson invited those assembled to come up with "a better idea acceptable to all parties. 'Just say no' isn't working."
She closed with another call for acceptance, if not support.
"At some point, tomorrow or a month from now, we need to have something that everybody can say 'yes' to," Johnson said. "It won't be anybody's first choice."
The meeting ended politely, but with no sign of accord between House leadership and a core constituency of the Democratic Party.
Johnson and her leadership team adjourned to her office for a round of closed-door strategizing — and perhaps a little damage control.