A People’s Bailout: May Day in Burlington, Vermont

Ella Baker (Mike Chamness)By IAN LUNASEGNO and ERICA ARADIA

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Amidst a wash of car horns, Abel Luna with Migrant Justice shouted into the bullhorn, “Who has the power?” He was answered by another blast of metallic cacophony and affirmative shouts, “The people!” The participants were crammed in a Staples parking lot near Interstate 89, spread across a motley group of at least 250 cars, which were decorated with handmade signs of protest and flying a diverse array of radical flags and banners. Many different tendencies were represented, ranging from left liberal to anarchist.

They were all tuned in to the same Zoom call, which served to both broadcast the rousing speeches of activists and coordinate the motorcade soon to be underway while providing directions on safety and social distancing, such as remaining in vehicles and wearing masks when outside the vehicle. Luna—a young and passionate member of the group Migrant Justice (Justicia Migrante)—continued on, stating that the purpose of the day was to remind teachers, health-care workers, essential workers, persons imprisoned and detained, migrants and immigrants, farm workers, and all working-class people that “we are standing together and together we will win.”

Migrant Justice/Justicia Migrante, the principal organizers of the rally, represent the entirely self-organizational efforts of the migrant farmworkers who, despite comprising the backbone of Vermont’s dairy-driven economy, are nonetheless subject to coercion, low wages, abuse, unsafe conditions, substandard housing, and threats of deportation from farm owners. Though not incorporated into any formal union structure, the group very much represents the beating heart of labor activism in the Green Mountain State. Supporters of the rally included Vermont Workers Center, Vermont Federation of Nurses, Vermont National Education Association, City Market UE Local 203, Burlington Tenants Union, Vermont AFL-CIO, and Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington.

After engaging participants in chants, Abel handed off the horn to Jess Morrison, a nurse practitioner and member of the Vermont Workers’ Center, who began with a simple (and chilling) statement: “Before the pandemic our people were already in crisis. Now we are in uncharted waters.” Alluding to a looming depression, Morrison went on to blast the government for bailing out billionaires while basic services are cut and people lose their health care from mass unemployment, stressing the urgency of achieving free universal health care for all Vermonters, regardless of income or immigration status.Burlington food (Mike Chamness)

These sentiments were echoed by Sarah Ferguson, vice president of the Union of Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and registered nurse at UVM Medical Center, who outlined how hospital administrators and high paid health-care executives “are more interested in the bottom line than in providing quality health care for Vermont patients.”

The health-care crisis facing Vermont is made more precarious by Governor Scott’s attempts to rob Vermont Medicaid funds to bailout OneCare, a private company trying to monopolize the Vermont Health Care System. Teyve Kelman, a high school teacher from Randolph, Vt., and member of the VT-NEA union, stressed the urgency of the health-care crisis amidst a context wherein neoliberal policies and austerity reign.

He stated: “We know we’re going to see more austerity. We know we’re going to see more cuts to public services. We know they’re going to try to put us against one another. We know that Governor Scott is not going to give us what we need because he has proven to us he’s not a friend of working people. We remember how he wined and dined Scott Walker to compare notes on union busting and budget slashing. … We can’t afford to go back to the way things were. Poverty wages, private prisons, mounting insurance premiums, predatory landlords, we’re not going back there.”

May 1 belongs to the workers of the world. This year we find ourselves fighting for our lives against not only the COVID-19 pandemic but a steepening economic crisis. If any silver lining—however thin—can be extracted from this collective despair, let it be that the least paid among our ranks are learning their extreme value to society and are being galvanized into spontaneous action.

Kelman went on to say: “… and we also have a stake in this fight because we work with students whose parents  are essential workers: health-care workers, grocery workers, farm workers … and we have students whose lives are shaped by racist criminal justice policies, by unjust immigration laws, by structural generational poverty, all of which are products of the American capitalist system .. .and all of which have been made worse by the corona crisis…

“We have a stake in this fight because we know the wealthy and the powerful interests in our state are going to use this crisis to attack public education, to push for layoffs, cutbacks, consolidations, and closures. In fact, they already have. Two weeks ago they tried to (permanently) close down the Vermont state colleges, three campuses serving rural working class kids who do Vermont’s essential labor … and you know what? I’m proud to say that a united front of students, employees, and community members shut that shit down, because when we fight, we win!”

Invigorated by the impassioned speeches, the caravan began to travel by car on a route that was deliberately planned to include sites of struggle such as UVM medical center, Edmunds Public School, City Market, the Department of Labor, Chittenden County Correctional Facility, and Hannaford’s Grocery Store. The peaceful rally was conducted through the heart of the city, completely shutting down main roads with a mile-long caravan. Passersby on the side of the road clapped, cheered, raised their fists in the air in solidarity, and chanted slogans of support. Some had made signs of their own.

The sun shone down as a shared playlist of revolutionary songs blasted in all of the car radios through Zoom while organizers led chants of: “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (The people united can never be defeated). Workers at the school and City Market came out to greet the caravan with fists held high.

Throughout the day, there were multiple calls from rank-and-file union workers as well as union leadership to end austerity, bureaucracy and neoliberal policies that harm workers. Andy McDowel, City Market grocery worker and member of UE Local 203, stated, “When the pandemic started, City Market management made no effort to involve the union in pandemic planning. We had to fight for hazard pay and PPE and social distancing measures. With the overwhelming support of the Burlington community, we were able to force management’s hand on hazard pay, and with a successful social media campaign, we achieved a $3 hazard pay bonus for membership.”

He went on to say, “Grocery store workers are essential workers but it took this pandemic to be recognized as such and for us to receive a living wage for our labor.”

Stopping in front of the Department of Labor, union representatives discussed the challenges facing the 30 million unemployed workers in the United States, tens of thousands of whom reside in Vermont. David Van Deusen, President of the Vermont AFL-CIO, called for both immediate and long-term measures to protect Vermont workers, demanding crisis pay for all essential workers, regardless of immigration status. He went on to put the crisis of the pandemic in the context of what is needed for a sustainable future, advocating for a way forward that rebuilds the economy through a “Green New Deal.”

“We will not go back to status quo or business as usual,” said Van Deusen, “Now is the time to fight against neoliberalism and austerity.”

The caravan also passed by Handy’s, where a protester donned in a facemask and gloves stood holding a sign that said, “Boo!” Cars chanted boos out the window as they passed the real estate conglomerate’s Auto Service Shop. Handy’s owns $54 million worth of properties in Burlington. They are well known for their mistreatment of tenants, and have come before the housing board of review 10 times since 2014 for their negligence of tenants’ rights.

Christie Delphia of the Burlington Tenants Union advocated for this community to “shift the balance of power away from real estate development and towards the people who actively live in and make up our community.” Delphia also connected housing justice to migrant justice, stating, “When we say housing is a human right, we mean safe housing for everyone regardless of their documentation status.” This is imperative in Vermont, where many migrant farmworkers live on farms and are exposed to terrible housing conditions, without reliable access to clean water, basic sanitation, and proper heat. Delphia also connected the issue of housing to those living in ICE detention facilities.

Delphia and the Burlington Tenants Union announced organizational efforts toward a Burlington Rent Strike, citing how ⅓ of U.S. residents were unable to pay rent in April. Tenants aim to conduct the strike once they get 1000 people to sign on, which would be about 10% of Burlington renters. Chanting the slogan, “Food not rent!” she encouraged protesters to save what money they have for food and basic necessities instead of rent, “which just puts more money in the pockets of landlords.” Delphia went on to read the demands of the BTU.

One of the final stops of the caravan was the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. Car protesters passed by with loud honks and shouts to “Free them all”. The prison, which was surrounded by pro-police propaganda, imprisons 150 women in Burlington. A representative of Black Lives Matter Greater Burlington spoke out against the racist criminal justice system, admonishing about how the American prison system is “the new Jim Crow.”

He addressed the crowd: “We are here to acknowledge those victimized by our criminal punishment system! We see their humanity and the crimes committed against them by our racist system that prioritizes capitalism over people. We see their rights systematically ignored every day.” In 2019, Burlington spent 20% of its general funds on policing, which was $12 million more than was spent on housing, community development, and community justice combined.

“Do not forget,” he continued, “Black people make up little more than 1% of Vermont’s population, but make up 8.5% of Vermont prison population. Black folks are homeless six times more than white folks in Chittenden County. Police exist to protect the property and profit of business … not to protect people or our public safety. … The criminal punishment system has always been dangerous to our humanity, our bodies, to our movement.” His speech came amidst the daily news of the prisons and jails having the highest rates of COVID-19, with nearly 10,000 incarcerated people testing positive across the United States; the number of cases is doubling each week.

The rally culminated at Hannaford’s Supermarket in S. Burlington. Hannaford’s is a major regional grocery chain and has yet to sign on to Migrant Justice’s Milk With Dignity program, which ensures that the dairy it buys comes only from farms that abide by labor practices set by the workers themselves.

Rosi Alfaro, a mother and dairy farmworker in Vermont and organizer with Justicia Migrante/Migrant Justice, addressed the crowd in Spanish with translations by Will Lambek: “I’m a dairy worker here in Vermont, representing the immigrant community that sustains the dairy economy during this pandemic, and in these difficult times the community cannot rest, cannot go on lockdown because we continue working every day on dairy farms. Because the cows don’t milk themselves!”

Alfaro described how the community of dairy workers has been urging Hannaford’s to join their Milk With Dignity Campaign for over seven months with absolutely no response from the company. Hannaford’s is owned by Ahold Delhaize, a large multinational corporation with several grocery chains that has seen its profits soar during this pandemic. Alfaro concluded, “Hannaford’s, we’re here to tell you the community has the solution and that solution is Milk With Dignity. Because if you’re going to call us essential, then you have to recognize our rights are essential too.”

Supporting Migrant Justice’s calls for dignity for workers, Maria Schumann, a farmer from Greensboro, Vt., spoke out on the issues impacting Vermont farms: “Farmers have always been essential but you wouldn’t know it if you looked at the low wages and dangerous working conditions of migrant farmworkers all across this country. And you wouldn’t know it if you looked at the suicide rates of U.S. farmers, five times higher than any other occupation.”

She went on to give the context of the financial burdens facing farmworkers and farm owners alike, such as low wages and crushing debt. In a passionate, bold voice she declared, “The wealthy and the powerful are trying to use this moment to grab more wealth. Just look at the bailouts, look at the millions of dollars that went to giant corporations and banks while the farmworkers who risk their lives to put food on the table for all of us got nothing. They are not wealthy and powerful because they are better or smarter or more deserving than us but rather because they have a ruthless will to exploit people, animals, and land. But they can’t eat money. They need us!”

She paused for a moment and someone shouted from their car, “And we don’t need them!”

Following some more rousing speeches and lots of honking and chanting, Abel Luna closed by saying, “I’m really glad that all of you took the time to join forces and stand together in solidarity and march across all of these places that represent all the different struggles that we’re facing here in Vermont. Sometimes we feel that we are so separated from each other, that these struggles are so far away from each other, but they’re all connected and today we show them that we are connected, that we are going to stand together and fight together until we win.” As the rally came to an end, meals were given out by People’s Kitchen, an arm of the Vermont Workers Center, led by Faried Munarsyah, which provides mutual aid and food to the many statewide social movements.

Photos by Mike Chamness. 

 

 

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