Category Archives: Labor

Pearce’s Pivot

Still proud of her, @vtdemocrats?

At the end of last week, we got a sizeable Friday newsdump from an unusual source: State Treasurer Beth Pearce. In a report on the state’s public pension funds, she called for new limits on pensions for state employees and teachers. It was duly reported, first by VPR and then by VTDigger, but neither story captured the significance of Pearce’s pivot.

This is, in my view, the single biggest position shift by a top Democratic officeholder since Peter Shumlin abandoned single-payer health care in 2014. That move brought Shumlin’s political career to an ignoble conclusion, since he’d staked his governorship on delivering single-payer. I doubt that Pearce will have to slink off into the darkness, but she might not get the rapturous receptions at party functions that she’s gotten used to.

The pension plans don’t have enough funds to pay promised benefits because, through most of Howard Dean’s governorship and about half of Jim Douglas’, the state consistently shorted its annual contribution. Many have called for a shift from defined-benefit to a 401K-style defined-contribution plan. The former promises definite retirement benefits; the latter only promises to contribute money to the plan. Actual benefits depend on the health of the pension fund.

Pearce had been a champion of retaining defined-benefit. She’s an expert at public finance, so her view has carried a lot of weight. Now, she has abandoned that position. She still supports defined-benefit plans… but she has effectively changed her definition of the term. That’s a big, hairy deal. It puts legislative Democrats under pressure to go along with pension cuts — and that threatens to drive a wedge between the Vermont Democratic Party and two of its biggest supporters: the Vermont State Employees Association and the Vermont National Education Association.

I can’t say I blame her, given her recitation of the facts. But this could touch off a political shitstorm.

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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.

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The Cromulent Bureaucrat

The official responsible for the Scott administration’s biggest clusterf*ck to date has been … rewarded with a promotion?

You can tell the Gov had no qualms about removing the “interim” tag from Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington’s business cards because he [checks notes] announced the news at 4:56 p.m. last Friday.

Yeah, the classic weekend newsdump.

Harrington, voted the administration official most likely to be featured in the Lands’ End fall catalogue in an imaginary poll, was named interim DOL chief last September in a Falling of the Cabinet Dominos — old-school hardass Tom Anderson stepped down as public safety chief, Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling replaced him, then-labor commissioner Lindsay Kurrle slid into Schirling’s seat, and then-deputy labor commish Harrington moved up the ladder.

His interimship has featured the failure of a long-overdue upgrade of unemployment insurance software, and the UI system’s collapse under the unprecedented demands of the Covid-19 pandemic. Neither can be fully blamed on Harrington; in many ways he was dealt a really bad hand at the worst possible time.

But still. When a team performs poorly, the coach gets the zig. You might say Harrington is the Hue Jackson of Team Scott. It wasn’t entirely Jackson’s fault that the Cleveland Browns had a 3-36-1 record — the front office was a disaster, and Jimmy Haslam may be the worst owner in the NFL. But the coach bore the brunt.

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OneCare: “Please make us too big to fail”

As VTDigger reported a few days ago, Vermont’s public sector unions are feeling a little dubious about turning over their health care benefits to OneCare Vermont, the accountable care organization that’s beginning to develop a record of scoring own goals. For instance, OneCare seems to be (inadvertently, one would hope) doing its best to validate the unions’ concerns.

OneCare is in the process of seeking a dominant position in Vermont’s health care marketplace, by signing up as many groups and individuals as possible to its model of paying providers for outcomes instead of services performed. It’s the current hot idea in health care, and many smart people see great promise in it.

Of course, go back eight years and a lot of smart people saw great promise in then-governor Shumlin’s single-payer idea. And we know how well that went.

A little more than a month ago, OneCare went before the Green Mountain Care Board with a request for a $1.36 billion budget — a whopping 33 percent increase over last year’s. See, it’s been losing money and failing to produce the cost savings it promised.

OneCare’s explanation: It’s not big enough. Digger:

“We can’t measure success without scale,” [OneCare] CEO Vicki Loner told the Green Mountain Care Board at its budget hearing last month. The more people who participate, the more effective the system will be, she said.

Yeah, well, that may be true. But it’s also an invitation to pour more money down what might turn out to be a rathole. Loner is essentially saying that OneCare has to become too big to fail, merely in order to adequately test its health care model.

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The Watchdog labors mightily and brings forth a mouse

The readership of this blog has been growing rapidly of late. Part of the new crowd, to judge from the Comments and my Twitter feed, is comprised of conservatives who apparently read this stuff as a form of aerobic exercise: Stimulate the heart rate through aggravation.

One brave Tweeter recently responded to my disparaging comments about Phil Scott’s letter touting “concerning reports,” anonymous, that the Shumlin administration was trying to shoehorn political job-holders into regular state positions.

Scott has kept quiet about the letter ever since, so methinks he realized he had no evidence beyond, according to his office, one single inside source.

(Either that, or somebody told him to STFU because Jim Douglas did exactly that during his exit from office.)

This Tweeter referred to a report on Vermont Watchdog about the allegations, and cited it as the kind of quality journalism that I’d failed to produce.

Well, as you already know, Watchdog is a place where they spell “quality” with a “K”, but I thought I’d better take a look at the article.

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Matt Dunne gets a major boost

I suppose they couldn’t change the timetable, but two of Vermont’s biggest unions picked a bad time to release their endorsements for governor and lieutenant governor. They were revealed on Tuesday, when practically all eyes were turned toward the last round of presidential primaries — and the few remaining eyes were focused on Governor Shumlin’s veto of S.230 and the legislative effort to rewrite the bill or override the veto.

But let’s not allow the nods to vanish into the mists of history just yet, because they are likely to carry great weight in our new, improved, low-turnout August primary.

The Vermont State Employees Association and the Vermont Labor Council AFL-CIO both opted for Matt Dunne for governor, and David Zuckerman for lieutenant governor. Last week, the VSEA’s legislative committee recommended Galbraith to its members, but the board of trustees went with Dunne after taking a straw poll among the union membership.

In both races, the unions opted for the person least associated with the Shumlin administration and the Democratic legislative caucuses. I guess that’s not surprising, given VSEA’s very contentious relationship with the administration. Just think of it as another of Shumlin’s little gifts to the Democrats who would succeed him.

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I don’t think Phil Scott’s going to get that VSEA endorsement

Oh look, here’s Mr. Leadership, Phil Scott, ducking out on another potentially uncomfortable interaction. He’s still resolutely passing on events staged by Rights and Democracy. And now, this week, the Vermont State Employees Association held forums for the gubernatorial candidates, seeking their views on issues related to the state’s workforce.

And guess who didn’t show up.

Lt. Gov Phil Scott, who is running for governor, was invited but did not attend either forum.

That’s right, kids. Democrats Sue Minter, Matt Dunne, and Peter Galbraith all made it, as did Republican Bruce Lisman. But not our brave and fearless would-be Leader. I guess there was a chili cook-off somewhere.

If he couldn’t be bothered to give a little face time to the employees he’d like to lead, at least he took the time (or someone on his staff did) to answer some written questions from VSEA.

His answers, however, are unlikely to earn him any union love. He sometimes sounds more like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker than the moderate Republican he purports to be. Otherwise, well, he ducks and dives a lot. Hey, it’s leadership the Phil Scott Way!

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New York: two giant steps toward a progressive economy

Andrew Cuomo gets a lot of grief in progressive circles. New York’s Governor has engaged in a petty spat with progressive New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. He created an ethics commission that began cleaning up the Augean stable of Albany politics — and then kneecapped the panel when things got a little too close for comfort. He’s been accused of excessive coziness with Wall Street and big business.

But damn if he didn’t just deliver a couple of big policy initiatives that seem downright unattainable in allegedly progressive Vermont.

On the last day of March, the New York State Legislature finalized a budget deal that included not only a promise to raise the minimum wage to $15, but also the nation’s newest — and by far its strongest and most comprehensive — bill mandating paid-family-leave time for most employees.

That’s right. While Vermont politicos are patting each other on the back for passing a much smaller minimum-wage hike and a minimal paid-sick-leave measure, New York has leapfrogged us (and the nation) on both.

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The importance of diversity: three object lessons

Diversity is a lot more than a liberal feel-good cause, a way to shoehorn visible minorities into public and private institutions just for the sake of it. Or just to disenfranchise white heterosexual men.

When universities argue against affirmative action bans, it’s not because they’re lefties; it’s because they realize a diverse student body (and faculty) makes their institutions stronger.

When I look at a political contest and see two roughly equivalent candidates, I give preference to the woman, the minority, the member of the LGBTQ community, because their perspectives make our politics better.

We have three object lessons from this week’s news, two right here in Vermont, each illustrating the importance of diversity.

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Your Daily Free Press, a shell of its former self

A bit of unintended irony in Friday’s Burlington Free Press. Page A13 featured a nice article about the awards given to the Freeploid by the Vermont Press Association.

Which, okay, whatever. The Free Press ought to take home a bunch of awards from the VPA. It is, by far, the biggest newspaper in the state. For the Freeploid, winning VPA awards is kind of like a 14-year-old faking his age and playing in Little League. Substantial built-in advantage.

But then, on page C3, there was a prime example of the Free Press’ diminished status. The page contained a column of Business Briefs, a series of items ripped straight from press releases and deployed to occupy space on a day when ad sales fall a bit short.

The first of the three started like this:

Walmart gives pay raises to 753 in Vermont

Walmart gave the largest single-day, privatesector [sic] pay increase ever on March 10 to more than 1.2 million Walmart and Sam’s Club employees in the United States, including 753 in Vermont. All employees hired before Jan. 1, 2016, will earn at least $9.60 an hour.

Well, isn’t that nice. How generous of an enterprise not known for its generosity.

But wait. Didn’t Vermont’s minimum wage just go up?

Why yes, in fact, it did. On January 1, the state minimum wage increased to… wait for it… $9.60 an hour.

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