Labor

More Dollars Leaving Vermont

This morning I read that the State of Vermont has just contracted with an out of state firm, TPI, to advise the State of Vermont on using IT more efficiently and cost-effectively. This equals dollars leaving the state. David Tucker, the interim Commissioner and State CIO says that "IT is increasingly critical to performing the core missions of state government, especially in economically challenging times". It is unbelievable that the state CIO (interim or not) would use these tough economic times to finally decide that IT is critical; it only shows where his head has been over the years when dedicated state IT workers have tried to get that point across. Now, is seems that Tucker will use critical dollars to look at outsourcing and send those dollars out of state instead of keeping jobs in state government. Of course, this shouldn't come as any big surprise to us. Given where Tucker sits he doesn't know any better. But we should beware because this only adds to the trend that we are seeing from folks that should know better, for Vermont labor's sake. After all, Jeb Spaulding brought in an out of state law firm to advise - this equals dollars leaving the state. A law firm, by the way, that admits as one of their practice areas counseling businesses on how to stay "union free." Earlier we learned that an out of state group, "Public Strategies Group," was hired to come in to help the state identify "reform and redesign opportunities." This again equals dollars leaving the state. Get the picture? Dollars leaving Vermont. Add them up. Dollars that could stay in Vermont and keep Vermonters working!

Outsourcing the State Workforce

As I'm sure other legislators have heard from state employees, I too recently heard a compelling story which for me symbolizes the irrational layoffs that are happening in state government today. These stories are not something that we can be proud of as a state, nor should we be proud of the layoff process and  treatment of our dedicated public workers. Nor for the treatment of those workers left behind. Yes, those left behind have a job, but they sit on pins and needles waiting for the hammer to fall, which creates low morale and a heavier workload for them. They are wondering when their time is coming. The story that I heard was of a staff member who had been working for the state for 8 years or so was RIFed at random. That person has now been hired into another RIFed position (80+ miles round trip away). They are relieved that they have a job, but are still fearful that they may be laid off as soon as they start. The RIFed employee shared that it was a very painful experience to be laid off arbitrarily, when they felt they worked as hard as the employees who were not laid off. The employee was never absent, never late in their eight years of working for State Government, until the layoff notice arrived. This employee felt that the position was needed by the public and would impact service to some our very vulnerable citizens, children. In fact, this proved to be the case: the person was invited back by their former supervisor to be a "temp" worker due to the statewide demand for changes in the WIC program given new Federal regulations. How do we think the Governor and Neale Lunderville would feel if they were called back to their jobs as needed, at  less pay and without benefits? There's also the question of temps working with confidential health files. State employees receive many hours of HIPAA training in the course of the work they are doing. Is this a requirement for temps? It would seem that given the limited number of hours a temp can work and the high turnover rate, this important training would reduce a significant part of any savings. State employees do not spend an extra dime in their communities when they are out of work, adding further to the problems in the local economy. Also, in this case, the family suffered as the RIFed employee worked three part-time jobs to help make ends meet. No doubt about it: the random RIFing of public servants hurts the public and shows me that it is highly likely the rest of our public employees are taking on more duties.  This in turn creaties low morale and a "pins and needles" working atmosphere. Random layoffs cause bitterness and financial woe for the RIFed employee and leaves them feeling like the Governor  and his staff are cruel and heartless. The treatment and use of temporary employees is a whole other can of worms, and certainly should be a part of a "responsible and transparent" government. And like state employees, the temps want to serve Vermonters, and are only looking to support their families in a tough economy. It is the Administration who abuses their services, rather than providing them stable employment and benefits. So, while the Governor and his 'hammer' Lunderville seek to tighten government's belt, let's be sure that it is done in a transparent and responsible way. With that in mind, I ask: "is the administration being required to provide to the JFO and the Government accountability committee, on a real time basis, the amount of money being spent on contract workers (and associated temp/agency/managerial costs), while simultaneously laying off or deferring the hiring of regular workers?"

Socialized sacrifice, privatized profits

The latest news that Fairpoint is asking the union to negotiate for concessions should not come as any big surprise to us. After all, our Governor and his cronies are doing it. It seems to me that the latest mantra is, "everyone must share in the sacrifices." These words are ringing loud and clear in the working folks' ears, those who know what sacrifice really means. When businesses such as Fairpoint are saying "Hey, guys you'll get to keep your jobs all Fairpoint wants is a few concessions," working folks know what's really happening. Concessions, the great tool of the 1980's, is still one of the tactics used today. Fairpoint's approach smacks of similar concessions that were a part of the 1980 Chrysler bailout. It would seem that history is repeating itself, given the current attack on workers. Government and businesses such as Fairpoint using concessions to set a precedent for reductions in wages and living standards of the entire working class in Vermont. Economic studies of concession bargaining during the 1980's show that they increased shareholders equity by 8-12%. So, shareholders benefited considerably from the wave of concessions during that time period. Do we think that today the investors would come out ahead (as they did in the 80's) at the expense of the working folks who are living paycheck to paycheck? Or would both investors and the working class feel the sting of concessions. How will the working class benefit?" I think perhaps union leaders and workers should beware...studies over nearly 30 years show that concessions don't save jobs, and union givebacks like chopping wages, health care, and pensions only serve to weaken the union once the economy improves. Concessions can't change the economic landscape of the working class for the better. Some might accuse me of not "understanding the difficult economic times we face, not understanding the difficult decisions we need to make," and talk to me about how everyone must share in the sacrifices. Something I do understand is that many of my family, friends, and neighbors continue to work.  Even with both parents working they still struggle paycheck to paycheck. Today, I had to decide whether to pay my taxes, pay my outstanding high medical bills, buy food, or fill my oil tank. So, I don't need a lesson on economic dos and don'ts. I, like many others, live it. How many concessions do we think the working folks can give? Some have already given their jobs up for the unemployment lines. That's quite a concession that guarantees no increase in equity for the worker! In order to defend their jobs and living standards, Fairpoint union leaders and workers should say "no" to concessions, and refuse to reopen their contracts. Making concessions under duress should be out of the question. Union leaders, workers, and Fairpoint should work within the confines of the contract.

Vermont's Unemployment Trust Fund

My local newspaper reports that The Vermont Unemployment Trust Fund Reform Study group (a group of lawmakers) just heard that Vermont should keep unemployment taxes high when the economy is doing well so that Vermont will have the money to pay out benefits when the next recession hits. This advice comes from Rick McHugh a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project. McHugh noted that many states made the mistake of cutting taxes on employers during the economic good times of the 1990's. Vermont's unemployment taxes on employers have not been increased in nearly two decades.  Furthermore, employers only pay into the fund on the first $8000 of annual wages for each employee.  That amount was designed to be raised over time as wages went up...but it never was.  The fund is expected to go bankrupt in January. The Vermont Unemployment Trust Fund Reform Study group is looking to make the fund solvent by freezing the weekly unemployment amounts until 2018. Kudos to Senator Mark MacDonald (D-Orange), for pointing out that "what we have here is 18 years of tax breaks for employers followed by 10 years of cuts in benefits for employees." He was referring to the years that unemployment taxes were not increased on businesses when the economy was good. It's worth mentioning that this would really be equivalent to 28 years of cuts in benefits to employees because when an employee negotiates for their salary, the business takes into consideration expenses, including unemployment taxes, when determining pay and raises. The unemployment trust fund is not just an issue for organized labor, but for all Vermont workers. This is an issue for you personally if you are placed on unemployment for part of the year (such as construction workers, seasonal employees, short term layoffs for slow peaks in business, workers in the granite industry) or if you lose your job through no fault of your own. This issue and the proposed solutions are important to the economics of your household during a layoff period. Now is the time for you to contact your Senator or Legislator to find out what their position is on this issue. This is an issue that will likely be discussed in the Working Vermonters Caucus during the next session. If you cannot attend the meetings, ask your Representatives and Senators to give you updates on this issue and the possible solutions that are being discussed.

Standing up for retirees

This past week I sent out emails to my fellow state retirees urging them to attend the meeting on Friday with the Retirement Commission. I am recovering from a serious illness and was unable to attend but stand in solidarity as a fellow state employee, retiree, and Progressive legislator. I feel that now more than ever the state employees, retirees, and the teachers’ union need to join together to fight the Commission’s version of retirement system reform , to protect their benefits and the promises made to them. Leaving that fight up to the Republocrats on the committee will only lead to further erosion of public services and broken promises to the public workforce. While I was a state employee, I eventually decided to run for the legislature because I felt that the working class folks of Vermont had lost their voice in the halls of Montpelier. My co-workers and fellow state employees did their jobs even through tough management times, countless re-orgs, a lack of quality leadership, scads of studies, numerous outside consultants, and the outsourcing of our jobs to less qualified contractors with no proof of savings. Even so, all the while I would remind myself that I was proud to be in public service and I had the interest of my fellow citizens foremost in my daily activities. As state employees, we would count on labor-friendly legislators to watch the backs of the State workforce. As more and more exempt employees were added to the ranks of state government, and unfriendly labor practices were put in place, I realized that dedicated, hardworking State employees were legislative "whipping sticks" - second class citizens who were used to balance state budgets and bow to outside contractors to do our jobs. Jobs that Vermont citizens depended on.  So, I decided to continue on in public service by running for the Legislature. The party I would decide to run under was not a difficult decision for me. The Progressive Party had been consistent with working class legislation and their passion for standing up for working class folks made my decision clear, I wanted to join my fellow Progressives under the golden dome. I sent a letter recently to the Retirement Commission, because I felt I should express my feelings as a retired state employee. This is a point of view that is not represented on the committee!  My letter is a heartfelt statement of my core beliefs. Below is a copy of that letter. I encourage all my fellow State employee retirees, current State employees, Vermont’s teachers, other union members , and fellow Progressive Legislators to stand in solidarity. Send a letter and attend the meetings. Your retirement benefits depend on your action. My letter:
Dear Retirement Commission, I write to you today not only as the Co-Chair of the Working Vermonters Caucus but as a retiree from State Government. I faithfully worked as a public servant in State Government for nearly 31 years. I worked different shifts, spending most of those years on 24X7X365 duty. My job came before my family many, many times and I was away from them on major holidays and off hours . I worked hard and feel that I lived up to "my end of the deal" and earned the benefits that were promised to me. Many times when I was frustrated with my job, the lack of leadership, the lack of staff and the lack of funding for my division, I would remind myself that I was providing important services to the citizens of the State of Vermont, my neighbors and my family and that I was earning "my keep". I was always proud to be a public servant. I have always taught my children and grandchildren that if they make a promise they need to keep it. I submit to you, "a promise made should be a promise kept." Please do not tamper with my earned benefits. Respectfully, Representative Susan Hatch Davis Orange 1 Co-Chair Working Vermonters Caucus VSEA Retiree ps: I tried to send this to the Governor’s office at htp://governor.vermont.gov/contact.html, however the message is limited to the number of words I can send, so I'm not sure the entire message was sent. Thank you.

State Employees Rally

On Friday I attended the rally in Montpelier to stand in solidarity with state employees to ask the administration to accept their offer and demand that the administration stick to the bargaining process for fiscal years 2011 and 2012. The VSEA and our State employees stepped up and this administration has not cooperated. They are holding state employees hostage, wanting more cuts and wanting to put more people in the unemployment lines. Today, the focus was on Governor Douglas and this administration, but we should not forget that the Democrat-controlled Joint Fiscal Committee put the nail in the coffin, and handed Governor Douglas the hammer. The Democrats on the Joint Fiscal Committee (excepting Mark Larson) can sit back and point to the Governor and his administration for this political impasse between the Governor and State employees, but they need to accept their own role in this. We hoped that these folks would be labor friendly and demand that the administration look for cost saving measures outside of the unemployment lines. Why wouldn't they ask the highly paid Commissioners, Secretaries, and Managers to earn their keep and really look at ways that services could be provided and keep Vermonter's working? After all, the employees who work for them stepped up and provided a way! Working Vermonters should not think that this is just about state employees. This administration is setting an example using State employees. Make no mistake, this is also a sign of union busting! Cutting benefits and wages, furloughs and unpaid holidays - this must be music to corporate America's ears! (Vermont companies included.) Beware Vermont working class folks-you will be next. This is not just about organized labor. Other Democratically controlled committees are meeting to discuss retirement and pension plans, unemployment compensation, and workers compensation. How many working class folks, members of the general public, or labor representatives are on these committees? How many of you have had input? Now is the time for you to become politically active, and contact your legislators and senators to ask them what their position is on labor issues. Remember this is not just about organized labor. Don't wait until the coffin is nailed shut, and don't think that you won't be next!
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