Divided We Brawl: The Fight to Unionize Vermont's Home Care Workers | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Divided We Brawl: The Fight to Unionize Vermont's Home Care Workers

Fair Game

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Two of the nation’s leading labor unions worked hand in hand during this year’s legislative session to win collective bargaining rights for some 7000 home-care workers in Vermont.

But with that decided, the two unions are now gearing up to fight each other over the spoils: the right to represent what’s expected to become the largest bargaining unit in the state.

“They’re like two heavyweight boxers eyeing each other and getting ready for the big fight,” says one person involved in the skirmish.

The stakes are high. Whichever union wins will become one of the biggest — and most powerful — in the state. It will negotiate state subsidies and benefits for a growing workforce charged with providing in-home care to elderly and disabled Vermonters. And if the money each side is throwing around in the unionization drive is any indication, the winner will be a major political influence in Vermont for years to come.

In one corner is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has operated in Vermont since 1953 and represents more than 2000 police officers, emergency responders and city workers. They’re pitching themselves as the local boys, with experience working the powers that be in Vermont state government.

“We’re a union that has 60 years of experience representing workers here,” says Matthew Mayers, AFSCME Vermont’s legislative director. “Our members are neighbors and friends.”

In the other corner is the Service Employees International Union — a newcomer to Vermont, but a national leader in organizing home-care workers. Of their more than two million members nationwide, they say 600,000 are home-care workers and another 600,000 are health care workers.

“Home care and health care — this is who we are and what we are,” says Matt McDonald, SEIU’s Vermont campaign director. “We have the experience, resources and expertise in how you can improve funding for home-care services. And that can often be a very complicated process.”

Vince Illuzzi, a former state senator who now lobbies for the Vermont State Employees Association, says he expects quite a tussle.

“The battle lines are going to be drawn between a union with an established presence in Vermont that has successfully negotiated contracts versus a very large and powerful union that has, by Vermont standards, unlimited amounts of resources to commit to any campaign,” Illuzzi predicts.

The SEIU has already brought those resources to bear in Vermont. Last summer, the union established an advocacy group called Vermont Leads, which invested in television advertising and campaign contributions to support the state’s quest for single-payer health care. McDonald says the SEIU contributed $200,000 to the effort, which included $100,000 in ad buys and $50,000 in campaign expenditures by an affiliated super PAC.

While McDonald says the move was unrelated to SEIU’s union-building efforts, many political observers speculated at the time that it was a means of currying favor with Gov. Peter Shumlin and Democratic legislators poised to vote on the home-care unionization bill.

Both sides, meanwhile, contributed directly to Vermont political campaigns last fall. AFSCME’s political action committee donated $24,000 to Vermont candidates and parties, while SEIU donated $21,000.

In the first three months of this year’s legislative session, AFSCME spent $9000 on lobbying, while SEIU spent $33,000, according to the secretary of state’s office. Because they aren’t required to report the rest of this session’s lobbying expenses until July, a full accounting of their advocacy won’t be known until then.

None of those figures include what the two unions have spent reaching out to the 7000 home-care workers who will ultimately decide which organization to choose. Both sides have deployed paid and volunteer organizers to go door to door around the state, and both are spending on targeted advertising and direct mail. McDonald estimates the SEIU has spent “in the hundreds of thousands” so far on such efforts.

All this action is leading up to a vote that could take place as early as this summer.

As soon as Shumlin signs the home-care worker unionization legislation into law — and that’s expected to happen within a week or two — the Vermont Labor Relations Board will start drafting rules for an election.

If both SEIU and AFSCME present enough signatures to make it onto the ballot, home-care workers will be able to vote by mail for either of the two unions or for no union at all. The VLRB will hold a runoff if none of the three options wins a majority.

“This would be the largest election, by far, we’ve ever done,” says VLRB executive director Timothy Noonan.

Who will prevail is anybody’s guess, but one thing is clear: Given the importance both national unions have attached to winning Vermont, this will be a fight to watch.

Grand Ole Party Poopers

Why is the Vermont Republican Party still giving money to former gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock’s failed 2012 campaign?

That question dominated a meeting of the Republican state committee last Saturday, according to several attendees, and it brought out into the open lingering tensions between two factions of the Vermont GOP.

The controversy surrounds two recent $5000 payments the party made to Brock’s campaign, nearly six months after he lost to Shumlin.

According to Mark Snelling, who serves as treasurer of both entities, the party is simply making good on a promise it made to the Brock campaign a week before the November election. Encouraged by promising internal polls, the GOP pledged to reimburse the Brock campaign if it bought $20,000 more worth of TV ads.

Snelling explains that party chairman Jack Lindley “wanted to assist in making that possible, so he committed to a minimum of $20,000 to make that happen.”

But according to participants in the Saturday meeting, Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) objected to the payments, wondering whether they were appropriately reported on campaign-finance forms and approved by the party at large.

Flory did not return several calls seeking comment.

Chittenden County party chairman Jeff Bartley says he joined Flory in the interrogation of Lindley.

“My questions were really based on transparency: What are we spending money on?” Bartley says. “I believe Peg asked the question: Is the party endorsing Randy [for another bid]? If there’s other candidates thinking about running, I didn’t want there to be a perception that we’ve already endorsed Randy Brock.”

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe), a member of the party’s executive committee, says she too was concerned about the payments.

“It just raised some questions about what exactly our budget was,” she says.

According to Lindley, the fuss was much ado about nothing.

“Randy Brock was kind enough to allow us to make sure we had enough money in the treasury when we fulfilled our obligation to him,” Lindley says. “I’m still puzzled about what the issue was.”

But, he adds, “I have some thoughts about what their ulterior motives are.”

No doubt Lindley was referring to ongoing efforts by several moderate Republicans to steer the party in a different course than the one charted by Lindley, Snelling and political operative Darcie Johnston, who are viewed as more conservative.

As the Vermont Press Bureau’s Peter Hirschfeld reported in April, Scheuermann, Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) and several others aligned with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott have been working behind the scenes to distance the state party from the national GOP in an effort to court disaffected moderates and independents. If that faction prevails, Lindley would likely be out of a job.

Flory and Bartley weren’t the only ones who spoke out against Lindley at Saturday’s meeting.

Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) says he challenged Lindley for suggesting that Republicans who voted for a gas -tax hike should be opposed. McAllister was one of many Republican legislators who backed the tax increase — including House Transportation Chairman Patrick Brennan (R-Colchester), who was one of its architects.

“I was very upset with him,” McAllister says of Lindley. “That kind of smacked a bunch of us.”

He adds, “I think Mr. Lindley is out of touch. Personally, if we could find someone qualified, I’d rather see them there.”

Rights or Wrong?

Would Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) risk the fate of comprehensive immigration reform by forcing a vote on a contentious gay-rights issue?

Among the 300 amendments to the immigration bill drafted by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, two of the most controversial were his: They sought to give gay Americans the right to request green cards for their foreign-born partners.

But fearing that Leahy’s amendments could scare off Republicans and imperil the bill’s chances on the Senate floor, several Democratic colleagues did everything they could to persuade him to withdraw them. They even urged President Barack Obama to intervene and pull Leahy back, several news outlets reported.

Reached Monday, Leahy spokesman David Carle said his boss “deeply believes in this,” adding, “It’s the right vehicle for solving this long-standing problem.”

But as the committee wrapped up its work Tuesday night and prepared to send the immigration bill to the Senate floor, Leahy announced that “with a heavy heart” he’d decided to withdraw the amendments.

While he may still offer them on the Senate floor, their chances would be greatly diminished because they’d face a higher, 60-vote threshold for passage.

Will gay rights leaders blame Leahy for backing down?

Not so much, says Immigration Equality spokesman Steve Ralls, whose group fought for the Leahy amendments.

“Sen. Leahy is the one senator on that committee who has stuck his neck out for gay and lesbian families more than anybody else,” Ralls said Monday. “At the end of the day, it will be the Gang of Eight Democrats who cave to Republican threats and bullying who will bear the blame for this. Sen. Leahy is very powerful, but at the end of the day, there’s only so much one senator can do.”

Media Notes

Six years after joining Vermont Public Radio, news director Ross Sneyd is leaving the station to take a communications gig at National Life Group.

The veteran Vermont journalist moved to the state in 1987 to take a job with the Burlington Free Press. He then spent 18 years at the Associated Press — the last 16 of them in its Montpelier bureau. At National Life, Sneyd will work for vice president for communications Chris Graff, who also happened to be Sneyd’s boss at the Vermont AP.

Sneyd says the decision to leave journalism wasn’t made lightly, but he’s looking forward to a shorter commute from Plainfield and more time running the bed and breakfast he co-owns with his partner.

Also departing the Vermont press corps is VTDigger reporter Nat Rudarakanchana, who joined the online news outlet last July. The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism alum is heading back to the big city, where he’ll write for the International Business Times.

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