Those dirty hippies who made Joe Benning walk the gauntlet on Inauguration Day are most likely in this for the long haul. I say this because the Vermont Workers’ Center is a rapidly-growing organization with surprising financial muscle.
According to the nonprofit’s most recent IRS filing, VWC had revenue of nearly $680,000 in the year 2013. VWC head James Haslam told VTDigger’s Morgan True that this year, the figure will be around $800,000. As recently as 2009, its intake was less than $200,000; you do the math.
That’s pocket change in Koch World, but in Vermont it makes VWC a power to be reckoned with, beyond its ability to draw a crowd to the Statehouse.
Aside from money, it’s also tapped into a deep vein of dissatisfaction with/alienation from politics as usual. Its members are committed enough to turn out large numbers for a demonstration or flood the Statehouse hallways when needed. They are also willing to financially commit: VWC charges membership dues, and pulls in about 30% of its budget from members without much apparent effort.
My big question, when I saw VWC revenues in the high six figures, was: where is it all coming from? Haslam:
That work is supported by a combination of foundations which, typically, is about half of our support or maybe a little bit more. The other half is from our base, which is individuals and trade unions. I think it’s something like 20% unions, 30% individuals. It fluctuates year to year, but that’s about right.
I didn’t ask him for a list of foundations; as a nonprofit, VWC is not obligated to release donor information. VTDigger’s Morgan True reports that the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation is its largest nonprofit donor, having given $50,000 this year and a total of $160,000 since 2010. True also reports that VWC has strong ties to a national network of progressive organizations; “We’re part of a broader people’s movement to turn things around for working people,” Haslam told him. Well, if its largest foundation gift was 50K and they’re pulling in 400K from foundations, then they’re drawing from a large donor pool.
One other note from Thursday’s protest. It’s been reported that five of the 29 people arrested that day were paid by VWC, which has raised some hackles. Haslam says the five are members of VWC’s ten-person staff. He says they did not receive any remuneration beyond their regular pay for taking part in the protest or for being arrested.
At a planning meeting before the protest, Haslam told me, people were asked whether they would be willing to be arrested if necessary. “We were hoping that nobody would be arrested,” he said, “but our members felt that it was important for us to take a bold stand.”
Those who volunteered for arrest, he said, “were all people who had had first-hand experience with the health care crisis.” Five of them happened to be VWC staff. “That was a voluntary act for sure,” he says. “We have a number of staff people who didn’t do it.” Including, as it happens, Haslam himself.
With a committed membership and a growing financial base, VWC shows no signs of being a flash in the pan, or some sort of Occupy movement that will burn brightly for a brief time and then flame out. They look to be in this for the long haul, on a broad variety of issues. Whether or not they continue to declare themselves at big political events, they’ll be around, promoting their causes and making it harder to ignore their issues.