VSEA executive director Steve Howard at a Statehouse press conference
Four state House candidates have declined endorsements from the Vermont State Employees' Association, citing "harmful inconsistencies" in the union's support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In an open letter published Monday, the candidates expressed particular concern about what they saw as the union leadership's lack of willingness to address state government's "status quo culture" surrounding racial justice.
"We are living through too important a racial awakening for organizations not to be called on to reflect on their internal actions and external positions," reads the letter. It was signed by first-time state office seekers Taylor Small and Emma Mulvaney-Stanak — who are running as Progressive/Democrats in Winooski and Burlington, respectively — as well as incumbent Reps. Mari Cordes (D/P-Lincoln) and Selene Colburn (P-Burlington).
"This, to me, was an opportunity to think more deeply about the concept of solidarity, and the intersection of the labor movement and racial justice work," Mulvaney-Stanak told Seven Days on Monday.
VSEA represents more than 6,000 state government employees. That includes more than 100 law enforcement officials — Vermont State Police lieutenants among them — and those in the embattled Vermont corrections system, which has suffered several high-profile scandals in recent years.
The House candidates justified their decision to reject the endorsements by citing two examples that they said demonstrate how the the union's public comments on racial justice have not always jibed with its actions.
In early June, the VSEA board of trustees released a statement saying that it "stands in solidarity " with the family of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police. "We demand an end to unnecessary violence at the hands of police who have sworn to serve and protect," the board wrote. "Our union stands with the Black Lives Matter movement.”
But two weeks later, at a virtual hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, police trainer and VSEA member Drew Bloom testified against the elimination of chokeholds in proposed police use-of-force legislation, which Gov. Phil Scott later signed into law. Although the union's executive director, Steve Howard, attended the meeting, he did not speak up and say whether the union supported or opposed the proposed reform, according to the candidates.
"We have to go beyond statements. We have to really connect the dots on what organizational leaders are saying," said Mulvaney-Stanak, adding the union still did not have an official stance on the proposed reforms when she reached out several weeks after the June hearing. "Silence is pretty powerful."
In their second example, the candidates pointed to a July virtual meeting of the legislature's Working Vermonters Caucus. Though union trustees and rank-and-file members at the meeting expressed the need to confront racism within the state's criminal justice system, multiple union members later used internal communication channels to "harass" a female board member who was supportive of the efforts, and VSEA leadership didn't step in, Mulvaney-Stanak said.
"When organizational leadership fails to address attempts to minimize the existence of racism, it contributes to the culture of harm against BIPOC people," the group's letter reads. The candidates called on the VSEA to engage its membership in "discussions of critical race theory, examine how state government perpetuates racism, and work towards a more equitable Vermont."
The candidates said their rejection of VSEA's endorsement does not "diminish" their support for workers, unions and state employees. "The majority of us have been or are union members, organizers, and leaders in Vermont," they wrote. But the candidates said they, as white people, are committed to engaging others like them about how racism "pervades our communities, organizations, and institutions."
"Anything short of this upholds the status quo," they wrote.
Howard, the union's executive director, did not return a call for comment on Monday.
Other candidates have been more receptive to the state union's support. In early August, Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Molly Gray said she was "honored" to receive the organization's endorsement.
And on Monday afternoon, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman held a press conference in South Burlington featuring various unions that support his candidacy for governor, including the VSEA.
The Progressive/Democrat ducked a question from Seven Days about the House candidates' comments, saying he believed "we are all on a journey of improvement" — unions included — "and we will continue to do that."
"As governor, working with our unions, we will continue to move forward in welcoming a broader knowledge and understanding of our past, so we can have a better future," Zuckerman said.
Asked whether he thought the VSEA had made enough progress on that journey, he responded, "Well, what I'm talking about is moving forward," before expressing his own support for growing Vermont's office of racial equity.