‘We Need to Become Something That Politicians Fear’

A sweeping pro-worker bill, the PRO Act, just became law in Vermont. The story behind how it was passed—a years-long effort to build worker power—has national implications.

By Paul Blest,
More Perfect Union
May 31, 2024

In a legislative cycle that has seen both considerable leaps forward and enormous steps backward for labor rights, Vermont workers just reached the culmination of a battle for several essential rights — and largely won.

Lawmakers in the Green Mountain State this month passed the Vermont PRO Act with a veto-proof supermajority, and yesterday it became law of the land. The new measure extends organizing rights to domestic workers and opens a pathway for farmworkers to do the same, prohibits captive audience meetings, and — in a long sought-after win — will allow public sector workers to win union recognition via card check.

Just a few short years ago, the landscape was much different, according to David Van Deusen. In 2019, Van Deusen was elected president of the Vermont State Labor Council, the state federation of the AFL-CIO, as part of a slate called United! pushing for democratic reforms and more labor militancy within the AFL-CIO.

There was pushback from the old guard of the state labor movement and political establishment; the late national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, for example, reprimanded Van Deusen in November 2020 for a resolution passed by the state federation to call for a general strike in case former President Donald Trump attempted to overthrow the results of the election. The federation also abandoned its longstanding policy of endorsing mostly Democrats at the state level, withholding that support until the party enacted new laws removing obstacles to organizing—such as card check.  

But five years later, the Vermont chapter has results to show for its more militant approach. Not only has the Vermont PRO Act passed, but membership in the state AFL-CIO has doubled over the past five years to approximately 20,000 workers. Van Deusen stepped down from leadership after two terms last year and was succeeded by top ally Katie Maurice, a 31-year-old AFSCME and Democratic Socialists of America member, who is now the youngest leader of a state labor federation in the U.S.

Van Deusen, who recently authored the book Insurgent Labor: The Vermont AFL-CIO 2017-2023, spoke with More Perfect Union for a wide-ranging conversation about the passage of the Vermont PRO Act and growing the labor movement in Vermont and across the United States. 

More Perfect Union: So this has been a big month for Vermont labor’s political strength, getting a raft of legislation done in other states passed all at once. How have the politics changed in the last few years for Vermont workers to bring lawmakers along on these reforms?

David Van Deusen: We have grown the power of the working class’s ability to organize by getting this passed. But our starting point, before United! came to power, was a very different situation. For 20 years we tried to get card-check passed as a standalone bill. And despite the Democrats more often than not being the overwhelming majority of the statehouse, we never saw that bill get close to being passed, let alone a larger omnibus bill that included the other provisions that the Vermont PRO Act has. 

We have to build our own independent power, separate from the major political parties. And we need to put focus on organizing — internal and external — and we need to become something that the politicians fear. And as we grow that power, then the politics will follow. That was our premise.

When we took power, we took the money out of lobbying and we put it into creating a new organizing department, with organizers that we can deploy to affiliates to help them grow their numbers, and to help internally organize when requested. And that is where we put our focus. We have managed to help organize, working with internationals, thousands of workers in the state since 2019. In fact, in 2018, before we came to office, there were 10,000 AFL-CIO members in Vermont. Today, as I talk to you, there are 20,000 AFL-CIO members in Vermont. So we’re doing something right. 

So from the 2020 general election until present, because the Democrats failed to advance card check and the Republicans weren’t supporting it either, we’ve had moratoriums on those parties. So that means two election cycles ago…if I recall, we endorsed nine Democrats in total, and that was the least we ever endorsed in a general election. Usually, it would be upwards of 100. And in the last election cycle, we dropped that number—in 2022, we dropped that number to eight. And then eight became the lowest amount of Democrats we ever endorsed in a general election. In addition, in both those election cycles, we endorsed the entire social democratic Vermont Progressive Party slate, which was also never done before.

I don’t want any of this to sound like we did not have strong backers from the Democratic Party. We certainly did. And some of those labor champions were people we were proud to endorse with a two-thirds override vote from our executive board, one of which was Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale. She worked night and day to get the Vermont PRO Act passed, both in the Senate and advocating in the House. And she was awesome. 

We don’t pretend to have all the answers. But what we do know is the old way of doing things — the only thing they’ve done is they’ve gotten the United States of America from 35 percent union density in the United States to about 10 percent density today. We’ve got to try new things if we’re gonna win as a labor movement and transform politics, not just in Vermont, but in America.

Taking us back a little bit, what was your experience as a rank and filer in the Vermont labor movement before you rose to the AFL leadership? And what motivated you to run for leadership in the first place?

I’m a member of AFSCME Local 2413 right now, but years ago, I was a member of the National Writers Union-UAW Local 1981. [Note: the NWU disaffiliated from the UAW in 2020.]

I’m 50 years old now. Back when I was about 36 years old, I ran for and got a seat with the executive board as a district vice president for Washington County. Back then [was] not very different than 2017 or ‘18, before we took power. The focus was squarely on playing nice with a few Democrats and hoping they throw [the labor movement] some crumbs…I would argue for doing these differently, but I was a minority voice back then and much younger than the other aging leaders. 

Since United! took office in 2019, this is what we’ve consistently done. We’ve asked our members to chime in on local issues, on workplace issues, certainly on class issues. But we’ve also asked them how they feel about international politics. One of the things I’m most proud of, as a former president, is we reached our hand out in solidarity to the labor movement in Rojava [in northeast Syria]…they’re in the midst of a revolution, where they’re seeking to establish direct participatory democracy, and economic equity, in a secular society, autonomous from the rest of Syria. And at the same time, they’re facing bombs, the bombing of civilian targets, the slaughter of civilians, by a NATO member, Turkey, that’s being supplied arms by the United States government. We had joint meetings with the Kurdish-led Rojava trade unions, and we learned about their issues, we recognized them as the revolutionary government, and that was ultimately a policy voted on by a rank and file. 

I think for too long, old-guard union leaders have thought that they know best. And frankly, what we believe and what United! believes is that we are all working-class people. We’re all union brothers and sisters. And frankly, we have to go back and rely on our members because it’s together, democratically, that we’re going to make the better decisions, we’re going to better reflect what our base truly wants. And our base has shown us time and time again, when asked, they want to stand in solidarity, not just with workers in Vermont but across into other states and also internationally, where working people are struggling for the same kind of dignity and respect and democracy that we value right here at home.

How did the United! slate initially come together? When did those conversations start with other rank-and-file workers that things needed to change? 

At the 2017 convention…there were 20-something delegates in total present, representing at the time 10,000 members. Now, to me, that’s as close to death as you could possibly be without being six feet in the ground with dirt being thrown on top of you. So I first convened with all of our nine AFSCME local presidents in Vermont, and said, look, even if it’s just us, we have to rebuild the labor movement. This could be a real vehicle for change.

Soon after that, we began building an alliance with the Vermont building trades. And then as we got serious about deciding that we were going to run a full slate and seek to take over the AFL-CIO to change it, then we started meeting with [United Auto Workers], we started meeting with the college professors from United Academics [at the University of Vermont]. We went all around the state and built an unprecedented coalition that ultimately resulted in us winning 14 seats on the executive board, and all the top officer positions, and we’ve maintained that majority power ever since now.

We faced a lot of challenges from mainstream lobbyists, from liberal advocacy groups, from especially from the Democratic Party which sought to hit us on the head with a club every time we strayed outside of the lanes that they thought were acceptable for labor. And every time they hit us on the head, we would hit them right back, you know, because it’s a class war. And if you’re gonna win class war, you gotta get your knuckles bloody sometimes. So we marched forward, we made sure the rank and file were overwhelmingly with us.

We have started organizing programs, not just training stewards, but training unorganized workers how to form unions. And we’ve had shops come to us with cards already signed, ready to take the union just saying, “Hey, which international should we work with?” That happened with one of our groups called Soteria House at Pathways, and that’s a direct result of us providing training to workers who are not yet in a union. So that’s the kind of stuff we’ve been doing.

A big focus of the Vermont AFL-CIO under your leadership was new organizing efforts, and membership in the federation’s unions doubled in just four years. Recently we’ve seen unions like the UAW under Shawn Fain completely reverse course and become more militant after a long period of playing defense — what convinced you that defense wasn’t enough anymore?

Look, if we had 99 percent union density, then maybe I would have put less of a priority on external organizing. Nationally, we have union density of 10 percent. In Vermont, we’re growing and we’re an example for every other state and union, but our density is still at somewhere a little above 15%. We have a long way to go.

But let me back up and say: we’re not doing what we’re doing in Vermont in isolation. What we see with the Teamsters and Sean O’Brien, what we see with the UAW with Shawn Fain and that reform caucus taking power, or the continuing efforts of Sara Nelson with the flight attendants, or Mark Dimondstein, president of [American Postal Workers Union], we see a really strong core of progressive left, working class, rank-and-file-driven union leaderships taking form around the country. And we are part of that. 

Now coming out of Labor Notes a few weeks back, a number of us including [Vermont State Labor Council] executive vice president Ellen Kaye..did a capacity, standing room-only panel discussion about the need to form a national left working-class caucus within the national AFL-CIO, to exert the same sorts of structural challenges that we advanced here in Vermont. But we need to do this on a national scale. It’s not good enough to have a Central Labor Council here or a Central Labor Council there doing the right thing. We’ve got to start coordinating this all together. I love what Shawn Fain is talking about now with timing contracts to end on May Day [in 2028], in order for us to start thinking about a general strike. This is the kind of discussion that’s been lacking in America since the 1930s. 

That’s when we won the New Deal. That wasn’t just because FDR snapped his fingers. There were millions of people in the street, there were hundreds of thousands of people walking on picket lines striking. The politicians, whether federal politicians or state politicians, they’re not going to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, or because it’s reasoned. They’re going to do the right thing when they fear us. And working people have suffered enough. Every single day, every time you have to pay your bills, figure out a way to pay the mortgage or the rent, every single day, we struggle and struggle and struggle. And you know what, in the wealthiest country in the world, in any country in the world, that’s not good enough.

How has the rise of worker-led efforts at places like Starbucks and Trader Joe’s played out in Vermont? 

Younger people, workers, are overwhelmingly pro-union. Here in Vermont we were happy to help SEIU organize the South Burlington Starbucks, we did that a while ago. And all the SEIU locals have signed solidarity charters with the Vermont AFL-CIO, which is great. But we’ve also directly supported the unionization of the retail outlet of Ben and Jerry’s in Burlington, their flagship ice cream store. And these are young folks. 

When I was at my last convention, where Katie Maurice got elected and United! won again in September 2023, there were a whole bunch of workers there in their 20s, coming out of the service sector. And that was awesome to see. Having that kind of energy, having that kind of generational engagement is game-changing. You know, we see the young people all across the country, jumping over themselves to try to find ways to form unions, and they’re talking about unions. It’s part of the youth culture now. This is a good sign for our future.

In addition to getting state legislation passed there’s been a lot of success at getting local worker protections, like prevailing wage ordinances in Burlington and Montpelier and elsewhere. It seems like the role of the local level gets ignored when we talk about codifying labor protections, and I’m curious if it was an explicit strategy to get pro-worker ordinances passed.

It was. In 2020, when we started putting less focus on the traditional statehouse approach, we made a decision to start keying in on where we can have more power and more impact. So in 2020, we endorsed the entire Progressive Party slate for Burlington, our largest city, and won a majority. There was a Democratic Party mayor, more of a liberal mainstream mayor, and we had a majority of socialists on city council. And once we won that election, we did put resources that we thought would be more accountable than then state-level politicians. We then went to the city council and said, ‘Look, alright, we helped you do this. And now we need to see the prevailing wage ordinance passed in our largest cities set the example for communities around the state.’ And you know what? It did pass.

But again, it’s not just about the politicians, it can’t be. It has to be about the members. So the new approach that’s been going on now, in the last couple of years that my AFL-CIO has taken, is to also prioritize organizing what we call “workers’ circles” in different cities and towns in Vermont. It’s a place for union and non-union workers. Everybody’s invited, except for the bosses, to come together to talk about the struggles they’re facing at work, be it, “I’m trying to organize a union, can you give me some feedback how to do it,” or “I’m a union steward and this issue I’m dealing with, how do you all deal with it your shop?” And we got those going on right now in Burlington, Montpelier, Rutland, and in Brattleboro. And if those continue to grow, we’re going to continue to grow them out across Vermont.

We want to build worker-to-worker relationships and a true culture of solidarity. And in the long run, that’s how we believe we’re going to build a much stronger base of power, not just in those communities, but across the Green Mountains.

The national perception of Vermont is that it’s more friendly to progressive principles than most places in the U.S.. But what do you think other labor federations across the country, even in states more hostile to organizing, can learn from what the United! slate and Vermont workers have accomplished over the past several years? Are there any other states where you see worker-led movements really leading the way?

Well, first and foremost, I think right now, if you want to look to the future labor and where they need to be, we got to be looking at the UAW and what’s going on under Shawn Fain’s leadership. They’re providing resources and know-how to the Mexican auto unions in order to not allow capital and factories to easily flee to another country. What they’re doing is incredible, incredible work. 

Statistically speaking, Vermont is the most rural state in all of the United States of America. It has an aging population, has less diversity, I believe, than any other state as well. I mean, a majority of our roads are dirt roads. A huge percentage of people heat their homes with wood they’ve cut themselves. There are essentially no gun laws in Vermont…by every demographic possible, this should be the most Republican of Republican states, but that’s not the case. We are a very progressive state, but we’re a working-class progressive state. And we don’t try to seek to speak the language of New York, we don’t try to speak the language of California. We just try to speak the language of our people and frame them in ways that make sense to us.

Now, Vermont does have a long tradition of a version of direct democracy through the town meeting system, and I think that’s helped us as workers be more engaged, because we’re more empowered when it comes to issues—not just in the community, but on the job. So that may make it a more natural place to organize unions. But don’t think that we don’t get huge resistance from the ownership class and the millionaires and the rich people and the powerbrokers. We do. 

There are certainly lessons you can learn in Vermont, but some of the things that we do might not make sense in Detroit. Some of them might not make sense in Chicago. But that’s why we all have to experiment. We got to look at what each other are doing.

Now that the Vermont PRO Act has passed, what’s next for the Vermont labor movement?

The Teamsters up here in Vermont are not presently in AFL-CIO, but Local 597 were awesome allies throughout the entire process of getting the Vermont PRO Act passed. They had rank-and-file members engaging with politicians and the political process—so, props to Sean O’Brien, props to Teamsters, the local Teamsters here in Vermont.

Let us enjoy it for a week. Give us a week, but then we’ll be out there pushing again, and we’ll be pushing harder than ever for the next phase of the campaign. Because this never ends. And everything we do legislatively, that’s only one very small piece of the equation. In my mind, everything we do legislatively can’t be one-offs about one thing or another. Our priorities in the statehouse need to be growing our rights and how we can organize and what rights we have as unions—structural changes.