Steward System Is Key to Building Downtown Workers Union in Vermont

Supporters of an innovative city-wide union in Montpelier, Vermont are redoubling organizing efforts as the project enters its second year.

The Montpelier Downtown Workers Union (MDWU) was launched last June as a joint project of the Vermont Workers Center (VWC) and the United Electrical Workers (UE). The goal was to get retail and food service workers, mostly at small businesses, covered by a master contract that would create a "Montpelier Standard."

The strategy was to develop a contract that could apply to any small business and would include livable wages, union security, just cause protection, a grievance procedure, and maintenance of workers' current benefits.

Instead of relying on union elections, the campaign would attempt to build majorities at each business, and then demand recognition from the employer along with agreement to the standard contract. After one year, all the workers covered by the contract could sit down together to negotiate an improved citywide contract with all the covered employers.


This approach was less than successful. In October 2003, workers at six workplaces where a majority of the workers had joined the union demanded recognition from their employers and held a press conference announcing the beginning of the MDWU. Five of the six employers refused to recognize the union.

In the months that followed, workers did not organize at any additional workplaces. The momentum that had begun during the summer faded after a backlash anti-union effort from the owners.

What went wrong?

First of all, when making the early recognition demands, there was not enough worker organization with real power to pressure owners to agree. The workplaces are small, with few employees and high turnover. In many cases, workers were not ready to handle the attacks they faced from their bosses and customers.

The union was left having to defend the right to organize, instead of putting bosses on the defensive, forcing them to explain why they paid poverty-level wages and routinely cut workers' hours without notice. Our exclusive focus on the recognition demand diverted us from developing strong internal organization.

The emerging union leadership learned two lessons. First, efforts to involve downtown workers were much more successful when we focused on the issues they faced at work rather than the union itself.

Second, giving people the opportunity to define their issues and needs was more effective than determining those needs for them through a pre-written contract.


Drawing on these lessons, the MDWU surveyed over 100 workers about their concerns. We found that "just cause"-the right to be disciplined or terminated only for a legitimate reason-was the top issue.

Next, we held a town meeting where 25 downtown workers agreed on a plan. It was decided that a steward system would be set up in town to enforce a presumed right of "just cause."



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Essentially, we decided to act as if all downtown workers were already protected by just cause. Instead of fighting to win employers' acceptance of this right, the union would defend any worker wrongfully disciplined or fired.

Workers would not need to join the union to receive support. To back up the steward system, the union would create a community-worker group that became known as the Workers Defense Squad. If the stewards were unable to resolve a grievance, this group would use different tactics depending on the situation: anything from a few friendly phone calls to a full-fledged picket.

Four downtown workers went through UE's stewards training, where they were taught to respond to any unfair treatment of fellow workers as a grievable offense to organize around, just as they would if they were covered by a union contract.

Each steward took a geographic section of town as their area of responsibility, and a flyer was created with their photos and phone numbers to distribute to other downtown workers. Members then elected a chief steward to coordinate grievances and act as the spokesperson for the union.


The grievances started almost immediately. The VWC received a call from a worker at a large chain supermarket who had had her hours cut. The employee had been wearing an anti-Bush button and was taken off the schedule when she refused to take it off.

The union put her in contact with the steward assigned to her area, and together they brought a Request for Information (as commonly used in union shops) to the store and demanded to speak with the supervisor. He refused to meet with them, but later in the day the worker received a call from the supervisor saying she was back on the schedule.

This win was just the beginning. When a bartender at a local restaurant was fired because she requested a medical leave, she and her steward successfully fought for her to be brought back to work.

When a former employee called the Workers' Center saying she was owed 30 hours of pay from three months prior, the union helped her to immediately get it. When a cook's pay was decreased and hours cut, the union successfully fought to get him back to his previous hours and wages.


While these are small victories, each illustrates what the union is capable of, and each worker who has been helped has subsequently joined the union. The union's reputation is growing by word of mouth as more people tell their friends and co-workers about how the union helped them.

The transformation that occurs when workers see the power of solidarity is the key.

As Sean Damon, a union steward and Brooks pharmacy clerk, put it, "After months of trial and error, this steward system is what we've needed to defend workers around the city. I feel like we've arrived."

Tenaya Lafore was the full-time organizer for the Montpelier Downtown Workers Union for the past year, a position funded jointly by the VWC and the UE.