Government Must Put People First in Post-Irene Effort – Vermont Workers’ Center Op-Ed

As members of the Vermont Workers’ Center have worked to dig ourselves and our neighbors out of the thick, toxic mud left by Tropical Storm Irene’s flooding, we have been inspired by the solidarity, caring and resolve of our fellow Vermonters. But inspiring as this show of community solidarity is, it is clear to us that it is going to take much more than a neighbor’s helping hand to rebuild from this crisis.

We recognize a familiar pattern. Those communities most affected by this latest crisis are those already suffering most from the ongoing economic crisis: people with disabilities, people who are homeless, people living in mobile home parks, people with no or low incomes.

Irene both exposed and deepened the economic and human rights crisis that people in our communities already face every day — a crisis of injustice.

Six years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, federal and state politicians not only failed to respond to the needs of people in New Orleans, but capitalized on that crisis by imposing a radical new agenda of privatization of government responsibilities. In Vermont, the public services that many rely on have been systematically cut back year after year, along with the jobs of the Vermonters who provided those services. These cut-backs were justified by the need to "balance the budget," but really what our revenue and spending decisions represent is a decision not to adequately tax those who can most afford to pay, at the expense of the rest of us. Flooding aside, we have been drowning in the politics of greed.

To truly rebuild, we must address both the immediate crisis and the long-term crisis. We must not allow this "natural" disaster to be followed by a man-made disaster of inadequate and harmful reactions from state and federal governments. The force of Irene — like the unusual flooding in late-spring — was likely a result of another man-made crisis, that of global climate change. Our efforts to rebuild must include organizing to change our energy policy and stand up against corporations that profit from destroying our natural environment and our communities.

We believe Vermont can lead the way to a new society of solidarity that puts people first, in times of disaster and beyond. In early 2011, the Vermont Workers’ Center launched the Put People First campaign, an umbrella for grassroots organizing efforts including the People’s Budget Campaign and our incredibly successful Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign, which, through grassroots organizing, changed what is politically possible and began the process of enacting the country’s first universal health care system.

With the historic passage of our universal health care law this year, Vermont has demonstrated its recognition of our government’s obligation to ensure people’s human right to live in dignity by protecting their health. Now we must hold our government accountable to respect, protect and fulfill all of our human rights, to enable us all to build dignified lives in the wake of Irene’s flooding.

Vermonters understand that solidarity means more than lending a hand. It means recognizing our common humanity, our interdependence and our stake in each other’s welfare. It means remembering that we govern ourselves in order to serve the needs of our communities and that our government is obligated to satisfy the human rights that follow from our needs.

Solidarity also means recognizing that many current crises have common roots. It means carrying the relationships that we build in these difficult weeks into a long-term struggle against policies that cause further hardship. It means working together to demand government that puts people first.

Peg Franzen of Montpelier is the president of Vermont Workers’ Center.