Burlington, Vermont – Earlier this month, the “People’s Republic of Burlington” had a busy weekend mustering its “troops” for active duty on several fronts, one at home and the other abroad.
On Saturday, December 5, two hundred labor and progressive activists gathered at the University of Vermont to plan more effective resistance to job cuts and contract give-backs demanded by recession-ravaged employers. The title of their conference, “Turning Crisis Into Opportunity: Building Democratic, Fighting Unions and Defending Public Services in Hard Economic Times,” was almost as long as the list of domestic challenges its participants face.
The very next day, on the same UVM campus, another group of working-class Vermonters assembled to be fighters and defenders of a different sort. They were the first 298 of nearly 1,500 National Guard members who will be sent from here to Afghanistan between now and March. As reported in the Burlington Free Press, their unit’s largest deployment since World War II was celebrated at an “emotional ceremony,” attended by friends, neighbors and family members at an indoor tennis court. Flags were waved, speeches were made, a military band played, and “farewells were the order of the day.” To keep things on an upbeat note, one Guard officer proclaimed, with great enthusiasm and to much applause: “The Green Mountain Boys are coming!”
Similar irrational exuberance, in 1775, led Ethan Allen to attempt a disastrous invasion of Quebec, which remains, to this day, part of a foreign country unoccupied by the US. Allen’s Taliban-like frontier home-boys did much better fighting royalist intruders from New York and, early in the Revolutionary War, seizing Fort Ticonderoga. In the run-up to the UVM labor gathering, worker skirmishing with modern-day Tories was not going quite as well on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain.
Joblessness in the Green Mountain state – while running lower than in the rest of the northeast – has been high enough to leave its unemployment fund nearly broke. The region’s largest telecom, Fairpoint, just declared bankruptcy, throwing 2,500 workers into an uphill fight to defend their contract and customer service quality. (For the back-story there, see “Broadband Redlining Targets Rural America,” The Nation, May 14, 2007, about the debt-laden Verizon sale to Fairpoint that has, as predicted, landed the latter in Chapter 11.)
And then on December 3, the Vermont State Employees’ Association (VSEA) tentatively agreed to an unprecedented 3 percent pay cut for its 7,000 members, followed by a salary freeze. (Some VSEAers are currently campaigning for membership rejection of this unpalatable deal.) Already, 580 state jobs have been eliminated through lay-offs or attrition, but Republican Gov. Jim Douglas says he still faces a projected $150 million state budget shortfall next year.
In the Free Press, Douglas administration official Neal Lunderville called the VSEA capitulation “a common sense approach that should serve as a blueprint for teachers, municipal workers, and others who receive a paycheck from tax-payers” – a clear warning that they’re next in line for pay or job cuts too, like their public sector counterparts all around the country.
At the December 5 UVM conference, rank-and-file militants and campus socialists had a different message for Douglas. Summed up in the rousing chant that ended the final session, it was: “They say give-back, we say fight-back!” The difficult question that local teamsters, teachers, telephone workers, nurses and state employees grappled with throughout the day was how to make that standard lefty bargaining position actually stick. Their strategy discussions were aided by Labor Notes, the 30-year old Detroit-based labor education and research project, which publishes a monthly newsletter for “union troublemakers” of all stripes.
In the fifteen-minute talk I gave to the group, which included many local stalwarts of U.S. Labor Against The War (USLAW) and the Vermont Progressive Party, I tried to connect some dots, related to the back-to-back events on the same campus. I noted that everyone’s employer is chanting the mantra that times are tough, money is short, and there must be shared national (or local) sacrifice. In Vermont, that apparently means working-class people must, in disproportionate numbers, fight and die in Afghanistan, foot the bill, as taxpayers, for a $680 billion a year Pentagon budget (including the soon-to-be-increased $130 billion annual cost of two wars), and endure cuts in the pay, benefits, jobs or public services that they and their families depend on.
What’s wrong with this picture, I asked? The powers-that-be (or would-be) are saying, in their usual authoritative fashion, “There is no alternative!” But there is, in fact, an alternative. To avoid a 3 percent pay cut for 7,000 state workers, we could shut down the war in Afghanistan for twenty minutes and, at the current rate of US spending there, raise the $2 million that Jim Douglas seeks from the VSEA that way. To close the governor’s entire fiscal year 2011 budget gap would, of course, require the additional “sacrifice” of diverting 24 hours’ worth of Afghan war spending to help keep Vermont state government afloat for another year.
The following day, down at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington, where some National Guard families spent the weekend saying private good-byes, the logic of my brilliant antiwar math was not lost on a non-union waitress named Dawna. (For the record, there is no such thing as a “union hotel” in Vermont.) As she brought pancakes and syrup to my table late Sunday morning, everyone but Dawna was transfixed by the big flat-screen TV hanging next to the bar in the restaurant. There, we could watch real-time coverage of the National Guard deployment ceremony being held just up the road at UVM. All the Holiday Inn wait staff could recognize people they had served, in the same room, just a few hours earlier.
Now, these “citizen soldiers” who had been their breakfast buffet and overnight guests, were among those standing stiffly at attention, wearing field caps, camo and combat boots. On the platform in front of them, a parade of local politicians – pro- and antiwar alike, including Douglas, US Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, plus US Rep. Peter Welch – praised their patriotism and devotion to duty. Douglas has been a chicken hawk since his days as a late 1960’s Middlebury College classmate of mine, when he was an outspoken, Richard Nixon-loving Young Republican. So, from his usual perch, far from the front lines, the governor assured the soldiers and their families that “while you are doing your duty, I promise you we will do ours, here on the home front” – presumably by slashing state programs or UI benefits?
Meanwhile, my waitress Dawna was simply disgusted by the whole televised spectacle. “I’m tired of seeing a lot of guys marching around in uniforms,” she confided. “I wish they’d turn that off and go back to the ‘relax your muscles’ show” – a bit of self-help programming for sufferers of lower-back pain that was on the TV when I entered the restaurant. By this point in her Sunday morning shift, Dawna did not seem particularly relaxed herself, in her white shirt, bedraggled tie and sagging black waitress apron. Although only in her 30’s, she had the weary, weighed-down look common among the working poor struggling to survive in northern New England’s low-wage, service economy. Her cousin, the father of three, has been deployed overseas multiple times already. That’s why, she informed me, the war is “a sore personal subject” for her. “It’s ridiculous,” she declared. “We have people living on the street, who’ve lost their jobs, can’t pay for their homes. And now we’re sending more people over there to fight somebody else’s battles?”
“I’m Here to Say Good-Bye to My Dad”
Observing the somber family gatherings in the hotel over the weekend had clearly not been easy for some Holiday Inn staff members. Mistaking one mother and daughter in the dining room for a non-military family, Dawna had asked the child how she liked the hotel pool. “I’m here to say good-bye to my Dad,” the little girl sadly informed her.
“I’ll feel better later on, when I get off work,” Dawna assured me, as I paid for my breakfast. “You know – ‘out of sight, out of mind, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger?'”
At the same time, she didn’t seem very convinced about the truth of those two oft-repeated but oddly conjoined phrases. And one thing was certain: For some of the guests she had served earlier in the day, America’s troop build-up in Afghanistan will prove fatal, while leaving Dawna’s state, nation and fellow workers a lot poorer and not any stronger.