Vermont Kicks Off First Troublemakers School of 2011

Labor activists are strategizing survival tactics at Labor Notes Troublemakers Schools around the country, in this year of attack and apprehension. Labor Notes is planning schools in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego, Madison, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles—and more if we can keep up with the demand.

Organizers of the Vermont school January 16 had planned for 35 people but found 100 troublemakers filling the room on a snowy Sunday. “May be a good sign that people are ready to start fighting back,” observed Traven Leyshon, one of the organizers.

First in the door, and living proof of the Troublemakers creed, was CWA-IUE Local 81359 President Dominick Patrignani, fresh from a grievance strike at the Momentive Performance Materials plant in Waterford, New York. The 360 workers in his local had just returned to work the day before, “together, with their heads held high,” Patrignani said.

Speaking on one of the panels, Patrignani pointed particularly to cross-union solidarity from Troy and Albany-Capitol Region unions and labor councils. He told participants that his local’s ability to conduct a militant, rank-and-file strike--over the grievance of a single member--had not sprung from nowhere, but was part of an activist culture he’s been promoting for several years.

“Whenever there’s a picket line anywhere, I bring my members,” Patrignani said. “I get them to see the struggles other workers are in. So they’re more confident… and, of course, a lot of people came out to support us when it was our turn.”

Energy in the room was also sparked by Sandy Pope, a well-known Teamsters reform leader and candidate for national IBT president, opposing incumbent James Hoffa. Pope was introduced by Jim Fouts, a bus driver and member of IBT Local 597 in Burlington, Vermont, who offered “10 things Sandy Pope has done that Jimmy Hoffa hasn’t…”:

#7: Worked on a dock… not walked on a dock.

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#3: Been elected president of a Teamsters local.

Fouts has worked with other members of his local at Chittenden County Transportation Authority in a highly successful campaign to bring rank-and-file activism into contract negotiations. Pope underscored member education, grassroots mobilization, and transparency as goals of her campaign and the tools needed to rebuild our unions. Watch her talk here.

The punishing atmosphere faced by public employees was reflected in stories told by several participants, including teachers from Vermont-NEA locals. Eric Krull, president of Green Mountain-NEA described recent years in which negotiations produced a strike in 2006, followed a couple of years later by an imposed contract, followed this year by a negotiated agreement reached within hours of a second strike.

The difference this time, Krull explained, was that the leadership reached out to younger members, stepped up member education, and did informational picketing, all of which demonstrated the union’s strength to the school board.

Participants included a large contingent from the Vermont Workers Center, which has led a powerful grassroots campaign for single-payer reform under the banner “health care is a human right.” Though Vermont seems poised to enact significant health care reform, the absence of concerted support from organized labor was held up as an example of work crying out to be done.

Help Organize a Troublemakers School

Troublemakers Schools bring activists together to learn new and old skills, to provide a dose of inspiration, and to find out who in their city wants to step up labor's game. The San Diego school is set for March 4, the Madison, Wisconsin, school is April 1-2, and Chicago’s will be in May.

To be in touch with a Labor Notes staff organizer and join a local committee, call 718-284-4144 or email schools [at] labornotes [dot] org.