California single-payer advocates watched with envy last year when tiny Vermont snatched the laurels they had long been seeking here on the Left Coast: enactment of a first-in-the-nation, publicly-funded universal healthcare plan at the state level.
Prodded by a strong grassroots movement and a progressive third party — both of which took many years to build — Vermont’s new Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin signed Act 48, legislation designed to make “health care a human right” in the state. Under Vermont’s proposed “Green Mountain Care” system, private medical insurance or job-based benefits would no longer be needed by those who are self-employed, working for a small or large business, or lacking any job at all.
By 2017 or thereabouts, something akin to Canadian-style coverage would also supplant most of the multi-payer quilt that now covers everyone in the state whose health care is already tax-financed—through Medicare, Medicaid, the VA system, and a children’s health program, plus state, local, and federal government employee plans.
Unfortunately, phasing out existing private insurance coverage and consolidating some of the public plans can’t be accomplished overnight. That multi-year process is giving corporate-funded single-payer foes extra time to unravel Act 48. Largely rebuffed by legislators last year, Vermont’s business community, private insurers, conservative PACs, and Republican politicians have counter-attacked with negative advertising.
Their paid media fear-mongering raises the specter of huge budget deficits and future tax increases, all due to reform yet to benefit a single person. Act 48 foes know that much can change, politically—and Vermont budget-wise--between now and 2017, particularly in a state with two-year gubernatorial terms and a Democratic majority in the legislature that also has to get re-elected.
Gov. Shumlin’s New Ally
Understandably concerned about fending off these attacks--and securing his own second term in November (a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for further implementation of single payer)--Shumlin has just turned to a surprising new ally, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has no Vermont members.
On June 28, the multi-millionaire Putney businessman will stride from his state house office in Montpelier to an auditorium next door. There, he and selected friends of his administration will unveil “Vermont Leads: Single Payer Now!”--their own organizational vehicle for TV advertising and door-to-door canvassing in favor of Act 48. This new entity, backed entirely by SEIU, plans “to engage and activate Vermonters through media and grassroots organizing.”
Neither Shumlin’s office nor Vermont Leads director Peter Sterling would provide details on their projected collaboration before next Thursday’s press conference. However, in an email several weeks ago, Sterling reported having about “$100,000” ready for media buys this year, with “more expected in 2013 for TV ads.”
By Vermont standards, that’s not a small wad of political cash (and doesn’t include any additional direct SEIU contributions to the re-election campaigns of Shumlin and other Democrats in the legislature.)
Vermont Leads backer Ellen Oxfeld, a professor at Middlebury College, considers this funding to be “a gift from heaven. So far, she has been joined on the Vermont Leads board by five other individual activists, plus out-of-state SEIU staffer Matt McDonald. McDonald has been dispatched to Vermont from SEIU headquarters in Washington, D.C. with a dual, but not unrelated, mission: support Peter Shumlin and find a way for SEIU to win bargaining rights for 5,000 publicly-funded home health care aides, a goal that can’t be accomplished (by any union) without the governor’s support.
Left Out of the Picture
What’s raising eyebrows in local progressive circles is who’s not part of this June 28 photo op in Montpelier: the Vermont Workers Center (VWC). The VWC’s much-admired “Health Care Is A Human Right Campaign” (HCHRC) has been widely credited, both locally and nationally, with spearheading the multi-year community-labor mobilization that secured passage of Act 48.
To achieve that goal, the VWC has worked supportively with Shumlin and key Democratic law-makers. But its well-organized HCHR campaigners are also willing to sound the alarm and swarm the state house when things get off track. To wit, a year ago this May, VWC brought more than 1,500 Vermonters to Montpelier to thwart a bid, by legislative insiders, to exclude undocumented workers from “universal” coverage.
The VWC has long received strong organizational backing from unions with members who live and work in Vermont—like the United Electrical Workers UE), Communications Workers of America (CWA), and the AFT-affiliate which bargains for most unionized nurses there. In contrast, Vermont Leads is being funded by just one union—the 1.9 million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU). SEIU currently has no Vermont bargaining units and failed to affiliate the still-independent Vermont State Employees Association more than a decade ago.
Gift Horse or Trojan Horse?
SEIU’s unwillingness to work with the VWC is worrisome to its supporters. They’re continually raising funds to support the VWC’s energetic staff of eight, which coordinates the activity of scores of volunteers around the state. In a recent appeal for financial and political support, VWC leaders argued that “we will never be able to outspend giant healthcare profiteers and other big money groups in an ‘air war.” But we can out-organize them on the ground!”
SEIU’s lack of any members “on the ground,” plus its recent history elsewhere and current vying for Vermont home care workers in competition with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), has led some VWC stalwarts to question the union’s motivation for becoming a single payer sugar daddy, virtually overnight.
From the Clinton years to the Obama era, whether in California or Massachusetts, and certainly at the national level, SEIU has never fought hard for “medicare-for-all” (even though its local unions have passed many pro-single payer resolutions over the years). As I recounted in The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor
(Haymarket Books, 2011), SEIU helped run interference for the Obama Administration when it was working to keep “single payer” — and ultimately, any “public option” — off the table in 2009-10.
SEIU’s Man With A Plan
Fueling suspicion about SEIU intentions in Vermont are the multiple hats worn by newly arrived national staffer Matt McDonald. His past assignments have included trying to keep Kaiser workers in Roseville from fleeing SEIU and joining the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). In 2010, McDonald was part of the national union organizing team that engaged in so much misconduct--involving SEIU’s own dues-paying members— that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was forced to overturn the results of the election, which NUHW lost. (A re-run is expected later this year). McDonald set up Vermont Leads from scratch, made himself a board member, and hired Sterling as its director.
Meanwhile, he is also masterminding SEIU’s attempt to create a new statewide bargaining unit for 5,000 Medicaid-funded personal care attendants who assist the aged and disabled. To do this, Shumlin and the legislature would have to change their current status, as “independent contractors,” and create a mechanism for union recognition based on card signing or a representation vote.
If Shumlin, in the meantime, ever needs to do some back-peddling on single-payer--under pressure from business interests--SEIU could provide useful political cover for him. And the quid pro quo, local activists suspect, would be the governor favoring SEIU over AFSCME in home care.
For details on AFSCME’s home care worker organizing in Vermont, which started before SEIU intervened, see http://action.afscme.org/vthomecare
. In response to an email seeking information of SEIU’s home care unionization plans and the about-to-be-unveiled Vermont Leads, McDonald offered to talk off the record but, in the meantime, replied, unpromisingly: “The questions below don’t deserve a response as far as I’m concerned. I think they even threaten the dual goals of creating a single payer system here in Vt., and the eventual unionization of thousands of workers.”)
In Vermont, the Democratic-controlled legislature balked, for budgetary reasons, at creating a similar bargaining unit for home-based child care providers earlier this year in Vermont, despite intensive lobbying by the American Federation of Teachers, the state’s largest AFL-CIO union. That doesn’t bode well for AFSCME or SEIU doing much better on behalf of Vermont’s home health care aides, if the two unions remain divided rather than united.
The Price of a Relationship?
The prospect of more internal warfare is not appealing to state fed officials or Vermont Progressive Party (VPP) leaders. “In my personal opinion, SEIU seems to be cultivating a direct relationship with our governor by loyally supporting his healthcare plan—including all the expected comprises and retreats that may lie ahead,” says Traven Leyshon, Secretary-Treasurer of the Vermont AFL-CIO. “It’s their way of buying political leverage so they can freeze ASFSCME out and become the collective bargaining agent for homecare workers in Vermont. This will create real problems for any of us pushing for a stronger, more progressively financed single payer system than Shumlin favors.”
State Senator Anthony Pollina, the VPP’s candidate against Shumlin in a race for lieutenant governor ten years ago, is not only concerned about SEIU “providing cover for the compromise—or demise—of reform.” He worries that a pro-single payer “air war,” funded and directed from out-of-state, may “encourage right-wing groups to come in and spend even more money.”
According Pollina, “things could escalate into a media campaign that leaves citizens on the sidelines, just like past single payer referendum campaigns that were lost in Oregon or California.” Like the VWC, he believes that “progressive grassroots activists can ‘out organize’ the opposition on the ground.” According to Pollina, “we’re already doing that now but SEIU’s invasion could end up undermining this good work.”
Most scathing of all was the reaction of Ellen David-Friedman, a founder of the VPP who has spent three decades working for UE, AFSCME, and the Vermont-NEA. “Having SEIU here in Vermont is going to be destructive for workers,” she predicted. “It will be harmful to the ones they come to represent, as well as any others whose labor standards will ultimately be affected by SEIU’s short-sighted partnering with employers and politicians, not to mention its well-documented penchant for concession bargaining.”
Among longtime Vermont organizers like these, there is certainly justified concern that SEIU will eventually play the same health care reform role locally that it did nationally in 2009-10. If that results in another lost opportunity, the repercussions will be felt in every other state where labor and the left are still trying to do better than “Obamacare.”
(Steve Early is a labor journalist and lawyer who started writing about Vermont politics when he was a Middlebury College student in 1968. Early spent three decades as a New England representative for the Communications Workers of America, assisting members in Vermont and other states with strikes, contract negotiations, organizing, and health care reform activity. His past articles about the single payer movement have appeared in The Nation, New York Times, Boston Globe, New Politics, Social Policy, CounterPunch and many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, from Haymarket Books, and a longtime supporter of the Jobs With Justice-affiliated Vermont Workers Center.)