PM Press Blog, Review

Labor Insurgency in Vermont: One, Two, Many Vermonts! 

By Ron Jacobs
May 3rd, 2024

David Van Deusen has been in a few labor battles.  I know because I shared some of the same trenches.  His new book, titled Insurgent Labor: The Vermont AFL-CIO, is the story of a radical attempt to realign the Vermont Labor Council along leftist, democratic and grassroots principles.  It is the tale of a determined group of labor organizers and union members working within one of the world’s largest and rather conservative labor federations in the hopes of returning labor unionism to its revolutionary beginnings.  Suffice it to say that their work is unfinished.  One also hopes it will continue despite the obstacles put in its way; obstacles from the union’s upper leadership, recalcitrant and apathetic members, local bosses and management and capitalism itself.

The narrative begins with a description of right-wing (and one-time governor of Wisconsin) Scott Walker’s 2019 visit to Vermont.  If the reader recalls, it was Walker whose anti-union actions during his time as Wisconsin’s governor provoked some of the largest labor rallies in recent history, especially in his home state.  After he was no longer governor, he became a darling of the right-wing talk circuit.  His presence in Vermont was the result of an invitation to speak at a meeting of Vermont’s small but arrogant and over-confident Republican party leadership.  Van Deusen’s description jumps directly into the fray, describing a picket against Walker and his reactionary agenda.  The protest was one of the largest pro-labor assemblies in Vermont in years.  The organizing was spearheaded by the Vermont AFL-CIO and some of its member unions, foremost among them was AFSCME 1343 and its president Damion Gilbert.  Beginning the book with a story of the picket sets the tone: this is going to be a radical book.  No holds barred.

Insurgent Labor does not disappoint.  The text takes the reader through the ups and downs of a campaign to wrest a moribund state Labor Council from a leadership drifting further and further away from its rank-and-file membership and into irrelevance.  Van Deusen describes a labor council stuck in a rut designed from above and defined by cozying up to Democratic politicians who make promises they don’t fulfill, lobbying those same politicians, ignoring calls from union locals for better communication, and generally appearing to be stumbling in the darkness. During this discussion, he talks briefly about his politics and his work in the Vermont union movement.  From there, the reader is introduced to the United! Campaign designed to replace the leadership of the State Labor Council with a group of union members that share Van Deusen’s vision.  He describes discussions regarding strategy and political agendas; organizing and relationships with political parties, social movement organizations and individuals.

Descriptions of these discussions—personal and public—provide the bulk of Van Deusen’s text.  While labor and leftist politics provide the foundation and structure for the text, the reality of personal relationships is woven neatly into the narrative.  This is true when the author is detailing the United! Campaign for leadership in the labor council and when he is discussing the debates around how to respond to the 2020 summer of protests against police brutality and white supremacy—something made more difficult given the fact that the AFL-CIO included unions that represented police.  As an aside, the Vermont Labor Council placed a moratorium on organizing any more police into any of its member unions and issued a bold and radical statement declaring its support for Black liberation.  The statement and the moratorium were met with threats from the AFL-CIO national office.  To its credit, the council did not back down, nor did it get censured.  The threats from the national office became real after the Vermont AFL-CIO called for a general strike if Donald Trump refused to leave office after his defeat in 2020.  Once again, the council was able to garner support from around the world for its stance and the national office backed away from its threat to take the Vermont Labor Council under trusteeship.

I have to be honest, I thought the goals of the United slate were quixotic, with David as the fellow attacking the windmills of entrenched power, monied interests and apathy.  Nonetheless, I was on board once I became a member of one of the union locals included in the AFL-CIO in Vermont.  It wouldn’t be the first time I joined something that probably had a snowball’s chance in hell (appropriate to Vermont) of success.  To the credit of the members throughout Vermont, the efforts of the United! slate moved the social movement character of many Vermont union locals forward at least a couple of paces while also increasing union member participation to levels not seen in at least a couple of decades. It also exposed the limitations built into most if not all AFL-CIO union constitutions (and enforced by the international) for those union members wanting to move beyond the two-party electoral system and join forces with social movements challenging the current system of capital.

Insurgent Labor is an honest take on the years Van Deusen was at the top of the United! Slate.  The history he provides details certain personal relationships in the state union network and the role these relationships played in the political battles. It reveals many of the problems with the current form of unionism existing in the United States and the often anti-democratic nature of its structure.  These issues are what prevents unions and their members from exercising all of their power while also encouraging them to deal with workplace issues as something separate from the political economy we live and work in.

Van Deusen is a good storyteller.  Although I was an active union member in Vermont for some of the years he writes about, there are other years discussed in Insurgent Labor when I was not.  Nonetheless, I was never uncertain or confused when reading Van Deusen’s descriptions of those years. In other words, Van Deusen’s easygoing writing style is engaging and quite easy to follow, despite the multitude of facts, union minutiae, and political education located  throughout the text.

Insurgent Labor is an important book.  It describes the possibilities and the shortcomings of the US union movement, especially in relation to the greater movement for economic, social and racial justice.  Furthermore, it is a useful narrative for union members trying to democratize their state labor council, their local and even the international.  I would even call it an instruction manual for today’s labor organizers and union members negotiating the battle between trade unionism and the struggle of the workers in the ongoing battle for economic and social justice.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: [email protected]