MONTPELIER -- Union organizers these days have a mighty tough row to hoe. This summer has seen both the fracturing of the embattled AFL-CIO, and, on a local level, the restructuring of the innovative Montpelier Downtown Workers Union. After two years trying to organize Montpelier's service-sector employees into a single union, the group severed its connection with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (U.E.) and the nonprofit Vermont Workers Center.
The rechristened Montpelier Workers Union has instead affiliated itself with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a.k.a. the Wobblies. Founded by Socialists and anarchists in 1905, the IWW hopes to organize all workers into one big union. They have approximately 1200 members nationwide.
Why the switch? Organizers said high turnover in these low-paying jobs and opposition from local businesses drove the move. In fact, stewards Kristen Warner and Sean Damon, who appeared on the cover of Seven Days in an article about the union last summer, have relocated to Philadelphia. And business owners and their supporters were openly hostile to the effort. Last summer, Montpelier resident Sandra Nall called the organizers "bellicose union cowboys" intent on "driving a wedge into this community."
Even workers never embraced the union the way organizers had hoped they would. Warner's initial goal was to win five union contracts. The group ended up signing just two, at the Savoy and at Mountain Cafe. At-large membership from non-unionized shops hovered at around 50 employees.
Montpelier Workers Union steward David Van Duesen says that, because of the reorganization, the union must ask all of its original members to recommit. So far 75 percent of its members have signed IWW union cards. They'll have to renegotiate the two contracts, too.
But Van Duesen is putting a positive spin on realignment. "Our total membership base will likely surpass all previous numbers within the next 30 days," he predicts. "We also are expecting to win new contracts over the course of the coming year." He and fellow steward Diana Duke have said they'll continue to fight for job security, sick and vacation time and respect for Montpelier's service workers. Says Van Duesen, "This reaffiliation is a great opportunity to reinvent ourselves." Given current labor trends, it'll take nothing less.