Old-School Organizing: Vermont Healthcare Campaign’s “Secret” Weapon

How did Vermont manage to approve universal healthcare, when its governor initially gave it a zero-percent chance of passing? The driving force was old-school organizing powered by workers, community organizers and ordinary citizens. As a result, Vermont is on a path toward full health coverage through a single-payer plan by 2017.  Jonathan Kissam of the Vermont Worker’s Center recently spoke to about 20 members of Southern Illinois People For Progress and explained the maneuverings behind this success story.

Kissam said that one of the campaign’s earliest decisions was to frame healthcare as a human right. All of the questions asked during surveys, statements made to the public and to politicians emphasized that healthcare should be considered a human right for all, rather than a luxury afforded to the few. This strategy made the point up front that people have a right to expect reasonable access to healthcare and should not have to go hat in hand begging for their very lives from the insurance and medical systems.

Kissam explained that it all started when, in 1998, low-wage workers seeking economic justice launched the Vermont Workers Center as  part of the “jobs for justice” campaign. As workers at the center attempted to assist their constituency, the lack of access to healthcare became a common thread for many who turned to them for assistance. This problem frequently interfered with relationships between workers and employers, drove up costs, and caused discontent on both sides. In 2007, the Vermont Workers Center began the process that became the campaign for universal healthcare in Vermont.

The “healthcare is a human right” campaign had some important ground rules. Organizers agreed that in the past, divisive issues and efforts to split the general public into segments had interfered with progress. The goal became to respect each individual’s viewpoint and value system, but not to countenance racist, sexist or other divisive viewpoints. The campaign had to be for and include all residents of the state.

Early contact with politicians and policy experts made it clear that there was agreement on the issue of healthcare, but that little could be done. Previous efforts by the Center had left workers feeling that they had been fighting a defensive war, counting as victories efforts to retain gains of the past. The Center, therefore, decided to go on the offensive, which would involve organizing people who had been left out of the political process for some time, other than coming out to vote occasionally.

Efforts at organizing Vermont’s citizens included knocking on doors, talking to people at farmers’ markets, and meeting people wherever they were. This “low tech” approach enabled activists to establish personal relationships with individuals. who quickly saw the value of the effort being made and themselves becoming key proponents in their own communities. This result was often accomplished by asking questions such as, “Do you feel that healthcare is a human right?” It quickly got people talking about their own experiences and encouraged further engagement.

During the organizing phase of the campaign, there was not only no effort to involve politicians, the  policy was to ask politicians who attended or wanted to participate to refrain from making “campaign speeches” or otherwise sidetracking the effort. This tactic also allowed the campaign to build popular support, without having to deal with a counter-campaign from prospective opponents. The entire effort at this point was simply to organize.

Regular efforts by activists and locals kept the momentum going. Activists made signs and gave them to individuals, who would add their names and locations, and then take photos of themselves holding the signs. The images were organized into visual petitions. Organizers conducted surveys to provide additional opportunities to contact people, keep the issue in people’s minds and keep in touch with what people thought about the campaign. Organizers also identified local individuals with leadership potential and trained them, giving the campaign a local and personal touch. Training on how change occurs and anti-racist education were also important elements, preparing people for the large effort involved and maintaining solidarity.

Once the campaign reached the point of calling on politicians, the move toward universal coverage was known to be highly popular throughout the state. Large numbers of ordinary citizens would turn out to demonstrate at the capital. People gave personal testimony before the legislature, having gained confidence and expertise through repeated telling of the same story.

Even so, there were efforts to split the coalition late in the game. The Governor (who had run on a healthcare) told the coalition that there was 0% chance that immigrants would be included. Now organizing paid off, as it became possible to mobilize supporters and let politicians know they would not be happy with half measures. Much the same occurred when right to life activists moved to exclude abortion and related services from the bill.

When asked about influences, Kissam listed “old-school” labor organizing and the expertise of older organizers in the organization. Principles and methods utilized point to a direct descent from the writings of Saul Alinsky, who even emphasized the need to be flexible and not try to follow some kind of formula,  because each situation and effort is different. The pattern of starting with small efforts (getting a few people together, talking to neighbors, etc.) and moving towards larger goals as confidence and organization are built follow these same rules. The passage of universal healthcare in Vermont graphically displays that possibilities are still open, provided there are those knowledgeable enough to teach the necessary skills, while being humble enough to listen to what people’s concerns are. The rest is just doing the work.