James Haslam and the Vermont Workers’ Center have a growing presence in a wide spectrum of issues
MONTPELIER —When a House committee held a public hearing this month on raising the minimum wage, a few dozen red-shirted Vermonters filed into the chamber and urged legislators not only to raise the minimum wage, but to elevate it higher than the governor wanted and to require employers to provide paid sick leave.
When regional bus drivers went on strike this month, scores of supporters turned out to rally for the drivers, adorned with stickers reading, “I Love My Bus Driver.”
When lawmakers were weighing a bill earlier this year to allow child care providers to form a union to bargain with the state for subsidies, the Statehouse was regularly populated with T-shirt-clad supporters.
None of these gatherings happened by accident. The Vermont Workers’ Center, led by Executive Director James Haslam, had a hand in all of them as a team that has persistently prodded government to take action.
The center, based in Burlington’s Old North End, is a growing force in Vermont. On issues from health care to child care, minimum wage to climate change, the organization has succeeded in drawing supporters out, firing them up and making sure their voices are heard.
Haslam has been the driving force behind that effort for 14 years. He started out as a volunteer for the workers’ center, soon became the organization’s part-time director and sole employee, and now oversees an operation with 10 employees and $635,000 in revenues in 2012. He’s almost always wearing a button or sticker championing a cause.
Haslam recalls what drew him to this field of work.
“For me, it was starting to enter the workforce working in a bunch of different jobs and seeing so many people just struggling to get by, struggling to be able to support their families, not having the kind of dignity everyone deserves,” he said.
Working in a restaurant, he remembers feeling the contrast between co-workers and some of the wealthy diners who could spend $100 on a bottle of wine.
Haslam said, “I couldn’t accept the status quo knowing that we could do better.”
Today, the 40-year-old married father of two young children is even more motivated to help those people.
“It’s a particularly hard historic period to be working on this stuff —the fact that we have such a high level of inequality and suffering in such a rich country,” he said.
He manages to prod, poke and provoke local, state and business leaders on a host of fronts with an affability that keeps him from be shooed away. A soft-spoken man, Haslam is like a puppy persistently nipping at the heels of power brokers, but they still let him in the house.
One of Haslam’s strengths is being able to maintain focus, said Amy Lester of Plainfield, vice president of the Vermont Workers’ Center Coordinating Committee.
“He’s an extremely positive person, and he’s a visionary,” Lester said. “He can see things in a broad stroke and not get tied down by details.”
“He has great connections with activists, getting them energized and educated on issues,” said Rep. Chris Pearson of Burlington, the House Progressive caucus leader who said Haslam was in his wedding party.
That focus and those connections have allowed the workers’ center to stretch tentacles into just about every social cause going in Vermont. The center has partnerships with other social justice groups, such as Migrant Justice; with labor unions, which provide a significant portion of the center’s funding; and with national organizations including Jobs with Justice.
The ability of Haslam, his staff and their partners to rally grassroots support for causes is becoming increasingly obvious in the Statehouse.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hears regularly from the group. Chairwoman Mary Gerisch is a constituent of his and lobbied him last year about the state Veterans’ Home. The Legislature ended up initiating a study of the home’s future.
“I’m not sure it would have been done without them,” Sears said of the center.
Sears said the workers’ center is part of a growing presence of union activism in Vermont.
“There’s a sea change in this building,” he said. “They’re more active.”
George Malek, executive vice president of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce, found himself heavily outnumbered by red-shirted activists this month at a Statehouse minimum-wage public hearing. He said such organized efforts seem to be a growing trend, and he is concerned they could intimidate people with other points of view from speaking up.
“I can assure you some of the folks who feel strongly about the issue, like a woodworker who has a few employees, would be intimidated,” Malek said.
Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers’ Association, has gone up against Vermont Workers’ Center regarding paid sick leave.
“They appear to be well-organized,” he said. He wondered whether there would be a point of diminishing returns to turning out T-shirt-wearing supporters to a hearing. “I have no idea if they’re being effective, or if people have seen one too many red T-shirts.”
Fueled by people’s stories
The Vermont Workers’ Center was born in Barre in 1998 by a group of central Vermonters who were pushing for a livable wage. The group’s first initiative was to set up a hotline. Haslam, then in his 20s and a transplant from Massachusetts who was working various jobs, volunteered to answer the hotline.
He heard stories from people struggling with wages and working conditions. One issue that often came up, he said, was people who lacked paid sick leave. All these years later, that issue remains one of the center’s priorities.
In those early years, Haslam went to the Statehouse to testify about raising the minimum wage, which was then $5.25 an hour, only a tad higher than the federal level of $5.15.
“Going to the Statehouse was totally new and weird but also felt really empowering to see people from all over the state come together and start trying to make change together,” Haslam said.
He’s now a regular in the building, though not widely known by those outside the causes he champions. Haslam often is the maestro behind the movement, but he typically encourages the grassroots supporters to step to the microphone to tell their stories.
Haslam and his team manage to keep getting people to turn out for rally after rally, whether at the Statehouse or on Church Street in Burlington. It helps, Haslam said, to pair up with labor unions, whose mission also involves grassroots organizing. Last week, Haslam emcee’d a rally for the Chittenden County Transportation Authority bus drivers out on strike. The week before, some of the striking drivers went to the Statehouse to speak up for raising the minimum wage.
Most of the causes the workers’ center adopts, Haslam said, are locally generated. Sometimes the group aligns with national causes, too. Haslam helped organize local protests just after Thanksgiving decrying wages at Walmart and at fast-food chains that was part of a national campaign.
One of the earliest organizing efforts Haslam worked on with the Vermont Workers’ Center was forming a union for employees at a Berlin nursing home.
“They’re doing some of the most intimate things that you can do for another person,” he said. “And to live in poverty and to just be able to scrape by.”
The union was short-lived, Haslam said, but he looks back at the effort as having raised awareness about working conditions in nursing homes. The experience also was a lesson in patience.
“It was not a full victory,” he said. “It’s not easy. It takes a long time.”
Health care as a human right
Of all the many social issues that the Vermont Workers’ Center tackles, access to health care is by far the group’s central cause. The center adopted “Health Care Is a Human Right” as a mantra in 2008. Haslam points to the passage of a bill four years later setting the stage for universal health care as an indication the campaign helped.
Pearson, the Progressive legislator who serves on the House Health Care Committee, said, “A lot of people fought for years and years and years to convince leaders in Montpelier that universal health care is critical. There is no question the workers’ center helped push it over the line. They did it by mobilizing people.”
Lester, the workers’ center board vice president, said the group thought hard in taking on health care about how to tackle an issue where many have failed.
“It’s about listening to people’s stories,” she said. “Then it’s about showing what we can do about that.”
That 2011 law that passed merely lays out a framework. Universal, government-funded health coverage remains very much up in the air.
“It’s a starting place,” Haslam said.
Most causes the center takes on are in a similar status.
Next stop: Paid sick leave
The 2014 legislative session is likely to come and go without passage of a bill that would require Vermont employers to provide mandatory paid sick leave, an initiative that was the center’s focus this year. Haslam, his staff and volunteers took flowers to legislative leaders and to Gov. Peter Shumlin this month to mark the bill’s demise —but also to remind the leaders of workers’ center’s presence.
Without the center’s pushing the issue, however, it would have been unlikely to have made it on the legislative agenda this year, said Harrison of the Vermont Grocers’ Association.
Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, chairwoman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee that passed the paid-sick-leave bill only to watch it languish in another committee, said because of the center’s work, “There’s much higher awareness around the issue.”
Lawmakers appear more likely to raise the minimum wage, possibly to $10.10 an hour by 2017. That’s a start, Haslam said, but it’s not the livable wage his group seeks.
They’re used to that.
“Most of the time it tells us we have more work to do,” he said. “We have to have people hear from enough of their constituents. Eventually, change will happen.”