UK union observers attend US trade union convention as it passes historic general strike resolution

Vermont AFL-CIO

By Daniel Randall, Assistant Chair, RMT Bakerloo branch

Reposted from the RMT London Calling website

Three activists from the RMT Bakerloo branch attended, via Zoom, the Saturday 21 November convention of the Vermont State Labour Council (AFL-CIO) as observers. The convention was attended by nearly 100 delegates and guests, from local union branches and campaign groups, as well as a number of elected city councillors. As a statewide federation, the rough equivalent to the Vermont AFL-CIO in the British labour movement would be one of the regions of the TUC, such as London, East, and South East TUC (formerly SERTUC).

The convention’s two major items of business were to discuss a resolution calling for a general strike in the event of an attempt by Donald Trump to sabotage and obstruct the election result, and to discuss a series of democratic reforms to the union federation’s own standing orders.

In opening the convention, Vermont AFL-CIO president David Van Deusen said the labour movement had to make itself a tribune of democracy: defending existing formal democracy against a potential Trump coup, but also fighting for a much fuller, more accessible democracy, including economic democracy, as well as transforming the movement itself to make it more democratic.

The business of the convention was conducted in a highly open and accessible fashion, with all delegates able to have their say, and propose amendments to the motions from the floor. Those expressing minority viewpoints were encouraged to speak up and share their views. Executive officers said that bringing the motion to the convention was an important way to give rank-and-file delegates input and ownership over strategy and perspectives, rather than simply having it determined from above.

In the discussion around the general strike resolution, delegates emphasised that the purpose was not merely to defend the victory of one man, Joe Biden, against another man, Donald Trump, but to make organised labour and workers’ action central to a wider movement against the authoritarianism, racism, and bigotry represented by Trumpism. Many delegates stressed their opposition to the neoliberal policy agenda of Biden and the Democratic Party leaders, and said the labour movement had to prepare for action to make demands of a Biden administration.

There was some debate over whether the motion was constitutionally admissible, given that local AFL-CIO federations are not able to directly call strikes or issue instructions to their affiliated unions. AFL-CIO national president Richard Trumka had written to the Vermont AFL-CIO to declare the resolution unconstitutional. Many delegates expressed frustration with his intervention, reminding the convention that the resolution was not intended to be a binding instruction but merely a call advocating a general strike in certain circumstances. One delegate asserted it would be good if President Trumka had been as quick to speak out on the need for unions to defend democracy as he had been to try to prevent discussion of the resolution.

In an indicative vote on the resolution, in which both delegates and observers were entitled to vote, 92% supported it. In the formal vote, the resolution was carried with 39 in favour, five against, and one abstention.

Although Vermont AFL-CIO is a small federation, representing around 10,000 workers, the adoption of the resolution has significant symbolism. It shows that activists in the US labour movement are thinking politically about the role of organised labour, including how to face down legal restrictions on workers’ ability to struggle in defence of rights in the workplace and wider society.

A political general strike would, in both Britain and America, be illegal; whilst simply demanding workers take illegal action without adequate preparation and organisation would have little grip, unions must challenge and ultimately defy the laws that shackle us.

RMT supports the Free Our Unions and the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, which campaign against anti-union legislation. Such campaigning has to be stepped up, especially in the context of Tory plans to impose further restrictions on transport workers’ right to strike.

Following the adoption of the resolution, a workshop session was held to discuss strengthening rank-and-file engagement across unions. Vice President Tristin Adie gave a presentation on the principles of rank-and-file organising, looking at how these had been applied in a 2018 nurses’ strike in Vermont. The presentation emphasised the need for independent working-class organisation and self-activity. As Adie put it: “No-one is coming to save us.” Breakout groups discussed the challenges delegates faced in organising at work.

The convention’s final plenary session discussed and passed a series of reforms to the federation’s standing orders, which aimed to widen rank-and-file participation and increase the number of officer positions which were directly elected. Cold War-era language in the standing orders was replaced with new statements affirming the federation’s commitment to anti-racism and anti-fascism. It was an honour to attend the convention and witness the adoption of a historic resolution.

We hope to be able to welcome Vermont AFL-CIO activists to an RMT meeting in the near future.

Vermont AFL-CIO Resolution: Protect Democracy

November 21, 2020

WHEREAS, the Vermont AFL-CIO and our affiliates are committed to the defence of democratic rights and the institutions of democracy, regardless of the party affiliations of those in power;

WHEREAS, the Vermont AFL-CIO recognizes that democracy in the United States is hobbled by the archaic structure of the Electoral College and entrenchment of the two-party system;

WHEREAS, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have refused to acknowledge the results of the election in multiple key states and continue to mount frivolous lawsuits and various political interventions in a baseless attempt to overturn the November 3rd results;

WHEREAS, President Trump has refused, on multiple occasions, to denounce the activities of white supremacist militias and organisations that have stated desires to overthrow American democracy and instead has conveyed support for their actions;

WHEREAS, the Trump administration and Republican allies have conducted a concerted campaign to obstruct, sabotage, and reject a fair and complete count of presidential ballots by creating barriers to voting, targeted at people of colour, immigrants, women, and young people. These tactics include intimidation of BIPOC voters at polling places and requirements to have two people sign a ballot that hurt women voters, as well as dismantling key infrastructure such as the U.S. Postal Service;

WHEREAS, the Constitution requires voting results and Electoral College tallies to be completed and submitted to Congress by the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, and the new 2021 Congress to validate the results, and voters should be determining the results, not courts;

WHEREAS, Trump has denied science, resulting in more than 250,000 Americans dying from COVID-19, and millions more facing deep economic pain due to ongoing impact from the virus, and can do irreparable harm during a lame-duck session;

WHEREAS, the extreme risk currently posed to the historic institutions of democracy in our nation may require more widespread and vigorous resistance than at any time in recent history;

WHEREAS, the labour movement and trade unions have played a proud and vital role in protecting democracy and opposing authoritarianism in many nations throughout the world;

WHEREAS, the most powerful tool of the labour movement in our history has been the power of the general strike;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Vermont AFL-CIO is empowered by the delegates at the 2020 state convention to call for a general strike of all working people in our state in the event that Donald Trump refuses to concede the office of President of the United States.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Vermont AFL-CIO will work with allies in the anti-racist, environmental justice, feminist, LGBTQ+, immigrant rights, and disability rights movements to protect our democracy, the Constitution, the law, and our nation’s democratic traditions;

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Vermont AFL-CIO will call on city and county governments to pledge to protect protesters defending democracy, and commit to not using police action or curfews to curtail these activities, and to use all available resources to stand up against any effort by the Trump administration to steal the presidential election.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Vermont AFL-CIO commits itself to the long-term goal of winning genuine democracy through the abolition of the Electoral College and two-party system, through the collective action of our affiliates and allied organisations.

Adopted by the seated Delegates at the November 21, 2020 Vermont AFL-CIO Convention

Opening address to the Convention from Vermont AFL-CIO president David Van Deusen

Union brothers and sisters, allies, working people, Vermonters…

There are times when the decisions we make, the actions, together, we agree to carry out or not, define us as a people, as a union, and as a labour movement. Today we may be standing on the precipice of one of those great historic moments.

No matter who you voted for in the U.S. election, the results are in. Trump lost by any measure. And while I am not now nor ever have been an acolyte of the neo-liberal policies of the national Democratic Party, I am a firm and unapologetic believer in democracy. And even while I see with clear eyes the great short comings of our democratic Republic (from systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, and economic elitism to name but a few) I also know, as the Vermonter John Dewey once said, that “the only solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy.”

So I do not come before you today to ask only that you steel yourself for the defence of this election and this outcome; nor do I suggest that our problems as a working class and as a labour movement will somehow dissipate because one man lost an election while another won; far from it. The fact is, no matter which wealthy elite sits in the White House, we, as labour, must unequivocally grasp that it will only be through our unity, through our solidarity, through our collective action as a labour movement and as a working class that the economic chains that bind us will once and for all be shattered. And towards that day we, together, endeavour.

But make no mistake, the Trump administration persists in its refusal to accept the election outcome and seeks, even now, to retain their hold on power. At this very moment machinations are being hatched which aim to send delegates to the Electoral College who choose to NOT represent the will of the people. Instead these plotters seek to give form to the will of the present administration alone and the billionaires that stand behind him. And if by hook or by crook this administration, which has told armed neo-fascists to “stand-by”, manages to maintain its hold on power, the vestiges of democracy which persist in this Republic shall be extinguished for a generation if not more. We must not, cannot, and shall not allow this to happen.

And my friends, we are NOT weak. When united, when not divided by contrived notions of race, national origin, or gender, we are strong – union strong. After all, it is only through our labour that our state and our nation constitute themselves. As Big Bill Haywood once said: “All [working people] have to do is to put their hands in their pockets and they have got the capitalist class whipped.”

So my brothers and sisters, at this historic convention you will have a Vermont General Strike Authorisation Vote put before you in the event of a political coup in Washington. This resolution, which is recommended by your elected Executive Board, if passed, does not order you to strike. Rather it asks for your permission to allow your Executive Board to call for a strike and to do the hard work of organising one if our democratic Republic is threatened. Understand that if vested with this authority your leadership board will be judicious in exercising this power. It is only our intent to make this call if the democracy which we hold dear comes under a clear and imminent threat.

Over the last 20 years it has been my absolute honour and privilege to walk on picket lines with many of you, shoulder to shoulder. I have organised with you. I have sat at the bargaining table, shared in your struggles, dreams, losses, victories, and maybe even a tipped a few jars of whiskey along the way. And I have never known you to back away from that which you know to be right. So I ask you, as a union member and as a Vermonter, to consider the question of the collective defence of our democratic republic, and to not take this question lightly. I ask that you put aside any partisan leanings and that you ponder the resolution that will be considered later without fear of favour. I ask that you think simply about what is the right thing for us to do, together, should democracy come into existential crisis.

And here let us reflect on the words of Hannah Arendt when she says, “The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be or do either evil or good.” And brothers and sisters, it is my firm assertion that we are not those kind of people. But defending the democracy we have now, alone, is not enough. If we are to claim the mantle of “champions of democracy” we must live by that credo; and here we must seek to not only build a more direct participatory democracy here in Vermont, but also, through our unions, more economic democracy whereby working people have the security to not only live, but to live well. If you work 40 hours a week, you should not have to struggle to pay the bills.

We don’t just need liveable wages, we need prevailing wages. We need healthcare as a human right, and not as a bargaining chip we have to defend in each round of bargaining. We need to know that our kids have a clear path to college and technical training without going into debt for the rest of their lives. In brief, we need free tuition for our state colleges (and we can’t be closing down any campuses!). We also need to secure the tools required to unionise more shops, and for this we need card check. And we need to rebuild our Covid-shattered economy through a New Deal, a Green New Deal.

And while we struggle through the pandemic, putting our lives on the line, we need adequate PPE, safer working conditions, and hazard pay. And most of all we need to come together, be internally organised, united, and ready to support each other, each local [branch], when we are compelled to bring the fight to the bosses to achieve our aspirations, and in order to see our united program come into being. And of course, we also need to practice what we preach.

So as we defend democracy, struggle to build a more participatory democracy, seek to enlarge our Town Meeting rights, and as we fight to expand our economic democracy, we must also re-examine our own bylaws and our own Vermont AFL-CIO constitution so as to make ourselves truly a democratic labour organisation. And friends, it is your Executive Board’s hope and expectation that today, at this 2020 Vermont State Labour Council Convention, that united we will see through a number of democratic reforms which will vest more power and more authority with you, the rank and file. In conclusion, I thank you for the honour of serving as your President.

I ask that you and your families be safe and vigilant during this COVID-19 pandemic, and I thank you for standing united in defence of the better ideals of the Republic and for the kind of democratic change we know working people both desire and demand. United!

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