The Democrats’ Union Problem

Four Democratic/Progressive candidates for the House, including two incumbents, have declined endorsements from the Vermont State Employees’ Union, citing “harmful inconsistencies in the organization’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement.” (The four are Reps. Mari Cordes and Selene Colburn, and Democratic candidates Emmy Mulvaney-Stanak and Taylor Small.)

Or, to put it another way, the VSEA’s kneejerk support for its members — even the rotten apples threatening to spoil the bushel.

Protecting its members is a core mission for every union. But there can and should be exceptions to the rule. It’s really in the best interest of the union (and the labor movement) to ensure that the bad apples are removed before they harm the reputation of all its members. Kind of like when the Major League Baseball Players’ Association blocked meaningful action to address baseball’s rampant steroid problem. Was it really in the best interest of non-using MLBPA members to allow the cheaters to go on damaging the game?

No, but the PA acted on first instinct. And when the VSEA staunchly claims that all the problems in Vermont’s corrections system are on management, and asserts that its members are blameless? They’re doing the same thing. And it must be said, DOC members wield a lot of power in VSEA. So much so, that if I were a VSEA member in some other state agency, I’d be upset over the union’s inaction when scandalous behavior is unearthed at state prisons.

This creates a dilemma for Democratic officeholders.

Union backing is a mainstay of Democratic politics, between financial support and volunteer activity. Unions have earned a substantial voice in Democratic (and Progressive) circles. But at this critical time for justice reform, does that relationship make it harder for Dems to support strong reforms in every aspect of law enforcement, from traffic stops to treatment of inmates?

It doesn’t make the task any easier. And this move by these four candidates is a tacit acknowledgement of the two-edged sword that is VSEA support.

“I was anticipating a juncture like this,” said Cordes, a nurse at UVMMC and a member of the AFL-CIO. “My belief about unions, especially unions like my own and VSEA whose members are trying to build it into a member-led union instead of a staff-led union, is that we must also be supportive of social justice and must hold each other accountable.

“I don’t believe that unions should protect members at all costs. We should work for all workers, including those outside the union.”

Which is easier for her to say than for union leaders to actually carry out. After all, it’s the members who pay the dues. And this isn’t clear-cut either way; I don’t trust the Scott administration’s motives in, say, closing the Woodside juvy facility and outsourcing the work to an outside contractor whose employees may or may not be unionized.

Nor do I entirely trust the union’s defense of its members and its insistence that it’s been a force for positive change at Woodside — and throughout the Corrections Department.

Nor, I have to add, do I trust the response of Democratic politicians who have to balance the union’s interests with what’s best for those entrusted to the state’s care. Because they’re conducting this realpolitik balancing act.

Well, most of them are. Now we have a brave handful who are willing to decline a very valuable endorsement to make the point that the interests of justice are a higher priority than an at-all-costs defense of a union.

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