Tag Archives: VSEA

There goes the Governor, kicking the hippies again

Pardon my sparse posting of late. Tweaked my back digging the potato patch. Limiting my keyboard time.

Bad, but not at all unexpected, news on the labor front. The Vermont Press Bureau’s Other Guy, Josh O’Gorman:

Negotiations between state workers and the Shumlin administration have broken down and are heading to mediation, according to the employees’ union.

Not unexpected because (a) the state’s budget is tight as a drumhead, and (b) the Shumlin administration has made a habit of hard-lining the VSEA. In the bargaining room this is standard procedure, but Shumlin also likes to take it public:

Shumlin said agreeing to the terms proposed by the VSEA would be “unconscionable.”

“That position asks for a 13.4-percent pay increase over two years, which would cost Vermont taxpayers $70.6 million,” Shumlin said. “It’s beyond me how anyone could find that position reasonable. At a time when many Vermonters are not seeing their wages rise, it would be unconscionable to agree to pay increases that are more than quadruple the rate of inflation and would add substantial pressure to an already-tight budget.”

Hmm. Unconscionable, check. Unreasonable, check. For good measure, he adds “intractable.” Also, according to VSEA President Steve Howard, Shumlin is substantially (and “disingenuously”) overstating the union’s actual pay demands, which are nothing like 13.4 percent.

Remind me again, is it the Democrats who are the party of labor?

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Shumlin identifies the real culprit: “Anonymous blog sites”

In response to the killing of social worker Lara Sobel and three other women, Governor Shumlin has issued a plea for change. But he’s not calling for tougher gun laws or even better enforcement of the ones we have*. He’s not calling to boost staffing to make the Department of Children and Families more effective. Heck, he’s not even calling for better security arrangements for state workers — although he has “ordered a full review of our security procedures,” so we’ll see where that goes.

*Reportedly, Jody Herring should not have been able to acquire the gun used in the murder spree.

The real problem is “hateful speech” delivered on “anonymous blog sites and unfiltered social media.”

I realize the Internets provide an easy target in times like these, especially for a politico capable of writing “anonymous blog sites” without a trace of irony. But even aside from that inelegant phrase, there’s a real “You kids get off my lawn” feel to the whole piece.

Yes, “anonymous blog sites” can be wretched hives of scum and villainy. But is this our real problem? Was Lara Sobel’s death triggered by “anonymous haters who use vicious language to incite public ill-will toward others,” as Shumlin seems to argue?

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Vermont Dems bring back a familiar face

Didn’t take long for the Vermont Democratic Party to line up a replacement for departing Executive Director Julia Barnes. The VDP is announcing today that Conor Casey will be her successor.

“I’ve been a Democrat my whole life,” he says. “It’s an honor to be in this position.”

If the name sounds familiar, well, Casey spent eight years working for the Vermont State Employees Association, most recently as “widely respected legislative coordinator,” as he was dubbed by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz.

Casey’s tenure ended in 2012 when then-new VSEA Director Mark Mitchell was pulling a Samson act, causing six staffers to leave due to his “untrustworthy and reckless manner,” as one of the ex-staffers put it. Mitchell also burned more than a few bridges in the Statehouse. His year-and-a-half on the job included one firing and one reinstatement before he left in May 2014.

Meanwhile, Casey’s been working for the National Educational Association in Connecticut, from whence he now returns. His decade-plus in the labor movement is, I think, worthy of note:

“My background is as a labor organizer. I’ve spent my career representing working people. We want to put forward a message of economic justice; I think that resonates with all Vermonters.”

Could be, could be. On the other hand, the party’s top politicos (*cough*PeterShumlin*cough*) have often slammed public-sector unions when trying to prove their managerial toughness. Maybe there’s a realization that the Party and the labor movement work best when they work together?

Casey cites the late Teddy Kennedy as a key influence; he was a press aide to the Senator in 2003-04. “His passion really made me want to pursue politics as a career.”

Casey grew up in Ireland, and there’s a touch of the Ould Sod in his voice. But he’s spent much of his life in Vermont, and is happy to be moving back. Politics in Vermont is quite a bit less rough-and-tumble than in Connecticut.

Shap addresses the faithful

If the Democratic State Committee meeting was short of drama on the wind energy front, there were still a couple of interesting developments to report. I’lll write about one of them — some news about the future of H.76, the bill to ban teacher strikes — in my next post.

My subject this time: House Speaker Shap Smith addressed the gathering. That’s more noteworthy than it seems; the top elected Democrats rarely attend the DSC meetings, especially when it’s not a campaign year.

But Smith had a prominent place on the agenda, and he delivered an effective speech with two purposes: to buck up the party faithful, and to present himself as a person and leader.

Which immediately raises the question, yet again: is he running for Governor?

My own view is that he is not — yet. But he is ticking off the items on the Running For Governor To-Do List, and this was one more check box filled in.

In style, he was reasoned, earnest, articulate, and straightforward. Well, he plausibly appeared so, which is the most you can say for sure about a politician. In substance, he pointed out areas of significant accomplishment for the Democratic regime — things “not reported very much in the media.” They include:

— An improving economy with a low unemployment rate and (finally) some growth in wages.

— On health care, Vermont now has the second-lowest uninsured rate in the country at 3.7%. It was 7% before the Obama/Shumlin reforms took effect. The national rate is still 12%. “We are close to universal coverage in Vermont,” he said. “That’s a good story, and it gets lost in the problems with Vermont Health Connect.”

— Vermont has one of the healthiest populations in the country.

— Our public education system is in the top three nationally. “In the conversation around property tax, we lose sight of the fact that that money is spent for the next generation, and spent successfully.”

— The state has kept its promise to fully fund public-sector pensions and, in fact, “we’re making up for the sins of the past.”

— The Legislature has “kept our commitments” on a range of other issues, in spite of intense budget pressures.

The Speaker then moved to personal narrative, recalling that his parents moved to Vermont in 1970 as part of the “Back to the land” movement, in search of “the promise of Vermont.” As an adult he himself, after working in New York City, moved back to Vermont in search of that same promise. He concluded by saying “I’m proud to be in the House; I’m proud to be a Democrat; most of all, I’m proud to be a Vermonter.”

If he’s testing out a future stump speech, he’s definitely on the right track.

He took some unfriendly questions, especially on the administration’s fractious relationship (in both tone and substance) with labor. The two areas of concern were Gov. Shumlin’s desire to reopen the state workers’ contract, and legislation aimed at barring teacher strikes, usually accompanied by blasts of anti-teacher and anti-union language. One questioner complained about the “barrage of abuse from my leaders” toward teachers and local school boards.

On the former, Smith stood his ground, saying that given the budget situation, “we have to make some adjustments. We’re having ongoing conversations with the VSEA, trying to work things out, but we aren’t going to be able to make everybody happy.”

On the latter, he offered some news on H.76, the bill that would ban teacher strikes and bar the imposition of contract terms by school boards. The bill is seen by many as being much harder on the unions than on the boards. Smith said that “it will not pass the House in its present form.”

All in all, an impressive performance. I haven’t changed my view; it’s too soon to say whether he will run for Governor in 2016 or ever. Heck, we’re less than a year removed from the guy actively considering an exit from the Legislature. But is he positioning himself as a credible candidate for the corner office?

He sure is.

Peter Shumlin, Tough Guy

One of my least favorite things about our incumbent Governor* is his tendency to adopt Republican talking points, thus giving them a validation they don’t deserve. It’s sometimes called “kicking the hippies” — talking tough about Them Damn Liberals, in an attempt to self-position as a reasonable centrist.

*Same is true of many Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama and the Clintons, which is why Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can seem so refreshing.

"If one more person says 'G'day, Mate' to me, I swear, they're gonna get such a punch."

“If one more person says ‘G’day, Mate’ to me, I swear I’m gonna ball ’em up.”

So here he comes, by way of Administration Secretary and Hatchet Man WIth An Adorable Accent Justin Johnson, doing a little light sparring with the public-sector union punching bag.

Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson issued an edict to agency and department heads Tuesday that all new hires within the executive branch must be approved by his office.

The move, according to a memo Johnson sent to agency and department heads, is the result of signals from the Vermont State Employees Association that it is not willing to work with the administration on finding $5 million in personnel savings called for in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s budget proposal.

Yeah, really. How dare the VSEA react exactly how you’d expect them to react?

100 times out of 100, a union is going to balk at reopening a signed contract and acceding to personnel cuts. That’s What They Do. It’s the first round in the dance: management takes hard line, union takes hard line, they get together and work things out.

Johnson knows this. But he very publicly reacted to VSEA’s predictable “Fight Back” petition with a summary judgment: “The petition indicated that the union will not deal with the administration on labor savings.”

The petition indicates no such thing. VSEA is simply staking out a strong opening position for the inevitable deal-making. The administration did the very same thing by incorporating cuts in pay and staffing into its budget.

So why is Johnson going straight from the opening salvo to the dreaded Declaration Of Impasse? Because it makes the administration look serious about cutting spending.

Most of the conversation around the Statehouse these days is about tax and fee increases. Shumlin’s budget called for a mix of new revenue and spending cuts. The last thing he wants is for the public debate to center on the former and ignore the latter. So he sent out his H.M.W.A.A.A.* to stomp on the other end of the seesaw.

*pronounced “HIM-wah.”

He could just as easily, and more productively, said something like “We understand the VSEA’s interest in protecting its members. We do not welcome making cuts, but we believe that Vermont’s budget situation requires it. We look forward to working with the union to find ways to save money while preserving a strong, vibrant state workforce.”

But that wouldn’t have accomplished the mission, which was to make the administration look tough.

This would be nothing more than a harmless bit of political theater, except that it provides tacit support for a Republican talking point: that public sector unions are the enemy of the taxpayer. Shumlin does the same thing when he insists that Vermonters are Taxed Enough Already, or when he tries to cut social service programs, or when he frames health care reform not as a social justice issue, but as an economic growth initiative.

In doing so, he cedes the rhetorical ground to the Republicans. It gets him a bit of short-term shine as a Tough Guy and an Unconventional Democrat, but it hurts the liberal cause in the long run.

Plus, it makes me grind my teeth, and my dentist says I should stop that.

Postscript. Just in case there’s any confusion, I made up the quote under Mr. Johnson’s picture.