How the Vermont Workers’ Center Pushed the State to Pass Universal Health Care

More than a thousand chanting and sign-waving Vermonters marched to the Statehouse two Sundays ago in Montpelier. They formed a sea of red, on account of T-shirts worn by hundreds of members of the Vermont Workers’ Center. […]

The VWC’s relentless activism helped push Vermont where no state has gone before: down the path to guaranteeing affordable and comprehensive coverage for every one of its residents.

“The work we’ve done on health care could not have been accomplished if Vermonters outside the Statehouse had not mobilized,” says State Rep. Mark Larson (D-Burlington), lead House sponsor of the Green Mountain Care legislation. “And the Workers’ Center has played a huge role in that.”

While the achievement may be unprecedented, there’s nothing mysterious about how it happened: “It all comes down to organizing,” says James Haslam, the center’s director.

VWC president Peg Franzen, 71, offers a similarly concise explanation: “We just decided to go out and build grassroots support everywhere in the state.”

The center’s three full-time paid field organizers, 300 dues-paying members and legions of sympathizers have been dogged and ubiquitous. As the banners borne along Main and State streets proclaimed, the Workers’ Center has built a truly statewide base. Windham County sent one of the biggest contingents to Montpelier; Bennington, Rutland and the Kingdom counties were represented, too, along with Washington, Addison, Chittenden and Franklin.

[…] The center did make “a smart strategic decision,” says livable-wage researcher Doug Hoffer, in basing its campaign not on a single-payer system per se but on the principle of health care as a human right. That spin enables organizers to make a principled case that’s difficult to refute, as opposed to defending specifics that can be attacked from many angles.

Franzen, Haslam and the center’s coordinators have also been “smart in staying away from party politics,” Hoffer suggests.

[…] Electioneering is not one of the center’s priorities. Haslam does claim some credit for pushing Peter Shumlin to embrace universal health care when he ran for governor. “Shumlin campaigned hard on that because he’s smart,” Haslam says. “He saw that people were getting organized on it.”

But success in elections should be seen as a byproduct of ongoing political involvement, Haslam suggests. “Look at all the hope and effort put into electing Obama,” he says. “This would be a different country today if that movement had stayed active.” […]