Interview: Vermont State College Workers and Students Rebuff Shock Doctrine
Unionized faculty and staff at the Vermont state colleges are in a fight to defend their jobs and schools, which teach working class students mainly from rural parts of the state. Last month Chancellor Jeb Spaulding announced the immediate, permanent closure of three of the six state colleges.
But a large movement rose up extremely quickly, stopped the closures, forced Spaulding to resign, and is now demanding increased funding to keep affordable public education available in the state.
Ben Luce is a professor of physics at Northern Vermont University and administrator of the Facebook group originally called “Protest Vermont State College (Permanent) Closures!”, now “VSCS Thrive!” He will be appearing on a webinar this Wednesday, May 6, on the fight for public education in Vermont. Ashley Smith talked with Luce about how workers and students organized their fight.
What are the attacks on Vermont state colleges that triggered this massive resistance?
Ben Luce: The chancellor attempted a surprise attack on our system right in the middle of a pandemic, in a classic “shock doctrine” move. This didn’t come out of nowhere, however. He and the trustees have been aloof, arrogant, and dismissive of the faculty and staff unions for years.
They have also operated in an unprofessional manner, attempting to make decisions outside of agreements with the unions or even their statutory mandate. For example, Spaulding was appointed without a public job search. I don’t believe they even really had the authority to decide the closure of these colleges.
They have systematically tried to reduce our salaries and benefits. In their last two contract negotiations, taking advantage of the lack of public scrutiny, they sought draconian cutbacks and utilized delay tactics that the phrase “bad faith” only begins to describe. And as our union cannot strike, I was appalled to see it unable to defend things such as health benefits for new hires.
There has been little transparency, and strange behavior in decision-making. For example, the trustees quietly transferred millions of dollars from Northern Vermont University, where I teach, to Castleton College, which they were blatantly favoring.
Spaulding and the board of trustees sought similar closures last fall, but the community rallied and faced off with the board in an epic meeting and forced them to reverse course.
They apparently learned from that, though, and this time tried to carry it out as a surprise attack, taking advantage of the budgetary crisis created by the pandemic, and the fact that students and employees were now stuck at home.
And what was really galling to the public was that they planned to do this without consideration of the economic impact on the surrounding rural and impoverished areas of our state. The impact would have been devastating.
How did you and others organize the resistance?
The day the closure was announced, I put out a Facebook post asking students in my social media circle if they had any ideas for protests. Someone suggested that we organize a car parade.
I immediately created a Facebook group with the logos of all three campuses under threat and called it “Protest Vermont State College (Permanent) Closures!” We used it to organize the car parade in the state capital, Montpelier.
I laid out the route very carefully, encouraged people to decorate their cars with slogans, and encouraged everyone to respect social distancing. The students got fired up and shared it with everyone they knew. Twenty-four hours after we launched it, we had more than 2,000 people join the page; 48 hours later we had more than 8,000; and now we have close to 10,000.
I collaborated with other faculty members I had worked with before on union fights or climate activism. They volunteered to do various things, from livestreaming to taking photographs. I sent out press releases, talked to the media, and was ready to respond if something went wrong.
I had never organized a car parade. I was worried that there would be an accident or that the honking would offend local residents. But none of that happened. Well over 500 cars turned out. There was incredible energy, enthusiasm, and a spirit of solidarity. And we won! We stopped the closures.
What were the key things that you think led to this initial victory?
We had a one-two-three punch that scored a knockout blow to Spaulding’s proposal. First, there was the petition that a student put together against the closures, which got nearly 50,000 signatures. We promoted this on the Facebook group as well.
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Second, the sheer size of the Facebook group and all the comments that demonstrated people’s determination to fight. Immediately thousands of people started writing letters to legislators and the governor.
Third, and I think key, was the car parade, which became the largest protest yet amidst the pandemic. This got good publicity even before it took place.
All of this drove the Vermont political establishment into action, especially the legislators representing the affected communities.
Under this mass pressure, Spaulding, the board of trustees, and the governor reversed course. They decided to delay the vote even before the impending parade, then they withdrew the proposal, and finally the chancellor resigned, even though he and the board chair have continued to defend the closures.
What has been the role of the Facebook group in organizing this movement?
It’s played an incredibly important role. It served as an explosive notification network and planning forum, and now it’s become a wide-ranging discussion forum.
The run-up to the car parade was like drinking from a fire hose. Everyone was asking all sorts of questions and coming up with lots of ideas. That’s continued and deepened now that the immediate threat has passed.
We’ve renamed the group “VSCS Thrive!” I’ve been posting a steady stream of provocative posts to keep the energy up, and so have others. Most of my posts emphasize state funding as the key issue, but I’ve also driven scrutiny of the trustees’ actions. I generally wake up each morning with a few new posts in mind. And so far we haven’t lost much momentum.
The truth is that the current budgetary crisis in the state colleges is a manufactured one. It’s the result of decades of government underfunding, period. If that was addressed, we would not be in the current mess.
I’m working with various faculty and students to organize a permanent new group to protect the state colleges with a website also called VSCS Thrive!, and a focused campaign for increased funding, wherein we ask legislators to sign a pledge to double the funding to the state colleges from its absurdly low level of 17 percent to at least 34 percent of our operating budget.
If the legislators and governor don’t sign on, then we will organize more car parades and other kinds of actions. Maybe we’ll even have to break the law and strike at some point. But I don’t think it will come to that. It’s very likely that we will get the bridge money we need to survive, at least for now.
One of the worrying things has been the governor’s attempt to pit different levels of public education and different institutions against one another. How should people respond to that?
It’s a classic divide-and-rule strategy. The governor is trying to pit K-12 education, the state colleges, and the University of Vermont against each other. I have expressed that we need to stand together to defend public education at every level.
We may be able to obtain the needed funding increase through reprioritizing or reforming the tax structure. And I think we need more progressive taxation to pay for education. We should not raise taxes on the middle class and lower-middle class, but I personally support raising them on the wealthy. That would solve the problem of long-term public funding of education.
Where does the struggle stand now? What are the next steps for organizing for the full funding of education in Vermont?
We won the first battle, but not the war over increased funding. Through our Facebook group and website, we plan to organize Zoom meetings to discuss ideas and come up with plans to secure funding for the long-term.
We need to build up a collective organization, not from the top down. Somehow we need to turn a quite disorganized but engaged group of workers and students into a focused yet bottom-up movement. We are just getting started doing that.
Ashley Smith is the managing editor of Spectre and a member of the Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America and the National Writers Union, UAW 1981.