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We will not let democracy die

An interview with David Van Deusen, President of the Vermont AFL-CIO

The authorization vote is a rare case of organized labor preparing a political strike over national politics, and is largely the result of radical new leadership in Vermont’s labor federation. Tempest Collective members Andy Sernatinger and Terri Niliasca spoke to David van Deusen, president of the Vermont AFL-CIO, about organizing the “United” slate, their efforts to democratize and revitalize the labor movement, and the vote to authorize a general strike. The interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Andy Sernatinger: About a year ago, you were part of a slate that ran for the Vermont state AFL-CIO. Tell us about that.

David Van Deusen: Two, three years ago, the Vermont AFL-CIO was on life support. We had about 20 delegates show up to the 2017 convention, representing 10,000 workers. So myself, [representatives of] a number of other major unions within the AFL, including the building trades, United academics, many unions, we said we have to change course here.

We need a new direction, a new way of doing our work. We have to engage our members more. We have to build more democracy. We have to be vocal and out on social issues that are important to all working people, and we have to do a better job advocating and supporting our affiliates. That led to the formation of the United caucus.

Since that time, our last two [2019, 2020] annual conventions have included over a hundred representatives from unions around the state. Our platform for the initial election in 2019, a 10 Point Program for union power (the “little green book”), gives us a very progressive vision for what direction we need to be going.

[In] 2019, we won 14 of the 15 positions in leadership in the Vermont AFL-CIO, absolutely transforming the vision of the organization. In a special election we held earlier this year in 2020, we took every single seat. United now has every single leadership seat in the Vermont AFL-CIO. We’re absolutely committed to social justice unionism.

>We’re committed to being unafraid of the strike as a tool in our arsenal. We are committed to combating fascism and racism, to transforming the labor movement, and therefore building the power needed to transform what is politically possible in Vermont and beyond.

That brings us to our November 21 convention. We had an affirmative vote by our members authorizing us, as the elected executive board, to call for a general strike in the event of a Trump coup. That resolution passed overwhelmingly, by the way, after a spirited debate that went on for about an hour or so at our convention.

Terri Nilliasca: Could you tell us a little bit about the convention? Who attended? Was it rank and file? Was it mostly delegates?

DvD: We had people in and out throughout the day. It was by Zoom, which is unusual—first time we’ve ever done that because of the pandemic. Throughout we had over a hundred representatives of labor groups and allies join us. We had a large cross section of delegates: folks from OPEIU, the building trades, AFT—you know, dozens and dozens of different unions and different points of view.

We’re not a monolithic organization. We have different points of view within labor and those were expressed and debated at the convention, but we had great participation. My impression is that folks walked away really feeling that their voices were heard. We actively encouraged opposition points of view, if you will, to be expressed. We did not rush the process.

It’s really important to us that we have rank and file participation in these discussions, in these debates, and in the votes that culminate in decisions. Now, as the executive board, we could have just unilaterally said, “in the event of a Trump coup we’re going to call for a general strike.” I believe that would have been within our authority, but that is not the way we want to do things.

We want to go back to the ranks and we want them to give us direction. We’ll express our points of view; we’ll express our analysis. We will spend an exorbitant amount of time as an executive board considering options and considering the political realities. We’ll tell our members how we feel, but we need the members to tell us how they feel too.

We want to give them opportunities to decide the direction that we’re going in. If it’s just [those] of us now in the leadership positions making these decisions, when push comes to shove, it doesn’t matter if you have the most perfectly crafted statement. What matters is when you ask for work stoppages, when you request actions, when you request folks in the streets, that they’re there. They need to feel that they were part of that decision in order for them to take part in what has to get done.

AS: I’m in Wisconsin. The news that there was a new leadership that had this kind of commitment in Vermont was something that a lot of people found inspirational. What did you have to do to accomplish this? Who was involved? What kind of organizing? It sounds so outside our experience here in Wisconsin.

DvD: Serious conversations started about six months before the 2019 convention, where the election was going to be held. At that point, myself as candidate for president, and a couple other core rank and file leaders reached out to unions all across the state. We said, “Look by any objective measure, we are not anywhere close to the level of power that we need in order to achieve those goals that we want to achieve politically and socially in the state, let alone [to] support our affiliates in a meaningful ways. So, we need to do things differently.”

We circulated ideas. We jointly came up with the detailed platform, the ten-point program, which ultimately [was] adopted as the platform of the Vermont AFL-CIO. But that was a collaborative process. None of us went in and ran for candidate positions as a name, as an individual, as a charismatic one-person show. That in my experience has been a great failure of many reform efforts within labor. You might have a very good person run for office but they’re not often running as a slate, they’re not often running as a group within the labor movement with a very clearly defined platform. That platform proved important to mobilize the members. We had something like a hundred delegates, two years before we had about 20.

We had 100 delegates and many rank and file members, who didn’t have a vote but had a voice, come to that convention organized around [our 10-point] platform. They know what’s at stake: this is the vision. This is what we’re going for. We’re not just going to vote for Jane or John because they’re good people and they have progressive values. No, we’re voting for this vision.

That was qualitatively different than many of the reform efforts I’ve seen in the past, which frankly have failed. And after we assumed power, our experience has been that the platform has been very important because there are complex issues and questions that come up along the way.

Now myself and other members of the executive board have no crystal ball concerning what the right course of action is when unprecedented issues come up. But we have gone back to our own platform and said, “what is in line with our vision and how do we make this work?”

It’s been a way to keep us honest, right? With the pandemic, we had some discussion early on about [the state convention] in 2020: “Do we really want to dive into constitutional changes?” We made a number of constitutional changes at this convention that would further democratize the remainder of the AFL-CIO. And to keep the process moving there were moments where some of us rightly said, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t do that this year. Maybe we should do that next year.” But then, when we discussed and debated, we said, “No, this is part of the promise we made when we got elected. We don’t want to get in the habit of kicking the can down the road.” We promised to make changes in the constitution to build further internal democracy within AFL. By damn, that’s what we’re going to do.

So I would encourage folks that are looking to alter their leadership and the direction of other labor federations and unions to not do it as individuals, not to do it as charismatic leaders. Do it as an organization, as a group, as a caucus with a clearly defined, collectively created, platform.

AS: And for the group that you put together to initiate this United caucus, were they all from a similar sector or similar unions or…?

DvD: No, they were very diverse. Our caucus is called United. That’s important because we don’t just see ourselves as something that’s going to live only in the AFL-CIO.

There’s a new group in an independent union with about 7,000 members here in Vermont called the Vermont State Employees Association, which now has a United caucus being organized within their union. A month or two ago, in their most recent presidential election, [the] United candidate got 30% of the vote. [This was the] first time that they’ve run a candidate in their union for United, so we want to grow this out.

From the start, we wanted to avoid two major pitfalls we’ve seen in the past. One is either having the coalition center or core in Burlington, our largest city, or conversely being a coalition of the smaller communities outside of Burlington.

We’ve seen the city versus country divide time and again. We also have seen divisions between white collar and blue collar. So our coalition very conscientiously sought to build inroads both in the rural countryside and in Burlington. We did that successfully. We had support from all regions, among white collar and blue collar workers.

The building trades are a core partner of the United coalition as well as, United Academics, which is a larger local of perhaps 500 members representing University of Vermont workers and that’s very white collar.

We try to avoid those divisions. We recognize there are differences, and there’s going to be discussions and disagreements based on the life experience of these different constituencies, but today we’ve managed to hold those together. We want to go forward in a united manner for foundational change within labor and within the broader political context in which we operate.

TN: When you said you built inroads with different groups, how did you go about doing that? Was it through small rank and file meetings or some other method?

DvD: There were a lot of one-on-one conversations all throughout the state. And those conversations didn’t stop with winning at the polls.

In the past, and this might be shocking to some folks, we started going to locals and saying, “Hey, we really want you folks to show up to the convention and support this set of ideals as part of the United slate and our candidates,” —more than you would imagine people said, “what’s the AFL-CIO?” Think about that.

TN: Wow.

DvD: Swear to God. So that was the starting point. People didn’t even know that they’re a part of something called the AFL-CIO. They didn’t know what the executive board was doing. In the past, meetings happened three times a year. Three! For the elected leadership. If you’re a rank and file person, you would never have seen those minutes. Once we took office, we now meet monthly.

We’d been doing that for a year plus now, monthly meetings. That agenda is put out on our social media and the minutes, right after, are also published on social media for all members to know. If we have to make a mistake, our mistake will be on the side of transparency as opposed to non-transparency. We’ve very much tried to inform and ask for their opinions, folks and members, regarding all the issues we’re facing.

TN: Can you discuss some of the constitutional changes that were proposed in this last convention?

DvD: Keep in mind that those changes are not official until they’re approved by the national AFL-CIO, but we have to pass them by two-thirds vote at our duly warranted convention, which we did.

We expanded the executive board for county regional seats. Right now it’s largely based on internationals and size of the internationals and sector. So we’re going to have significantly more people, once approved, who are elected to represent the rank and file and we will have more voices in the leadership. We see that as core to democracy.

We also passed—and this will sound a little like inside baseball—but right now we have a rule that at a convention, if 20% of the delegates vote for a roll call vote, then it’s weighted voting. So if your local has a thousand members and only sends one delegate, that delegate gets to cast 1000 votes on whatever the issue is. That has encouraged less participation at conventions [in the past].

We would like to do away with that entirely, but from conversations with the national AFL-CIO, it seemed unlikely that they would agree to anything other than a slight modification there. We passed a constitutional change that would take 30% of the delegates present to vote for a role call weighted vote.

We encourage as much participation—in person and active, participatory democracy, and debate—as we can. We also removed Cold War-era anti-communist language from the constitution and replaced that language with anti-fascist, anti-racist language. So there was in the past a clause basically saying if you’re a communist, you can’t partake in the leadership roles. And now the [changed language] is if you’re a fascist, we’re an antifascist organization, you can’t partake.

There were a number of changes like that. We’re looking forward to continuing this process because we’ve formed a standing committee to take the next year to look at further changes, to further deepen our democracy within our organization.

Next convention, I expect that we’ll be going back to the well of democratic reform and making more changes.

AS: You mentioned removing the anti-communist language from the constitution. That’s a significant change, since usually nobody wants to touch that stuff. So, what role did left politics play in developing this caucus or informing its politics?

DvD: Well, our coalition is not of one mind about every issue. The fact is we have some folks in the coalition that compared to me, perhaps, are fairly conservative—but they recognize the need for change. They recognize the need to bring the members in and to build a new kind of power, and that’s what keeps us united.

Speaking for some of us, I’m a member of DSA [Democratic Socialists of America], for example. We have other members in the leadership roles, including our newly hired executive director, Liz Medina, who is also a member of DSA. We have a former member of ISO [the International Socialist Organization], as our executive vice president. Myself years ago, I was a member of something called the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective.

Clearly for myself and [others] in important roles within the United caucus, left-wing politics and coming out of left-wing political culture was hugely important. At the same time, there is room within our caucus and within our movement to incorporate many different political points of view, as long as we respect the internal democratic process.

There are going to be days where whatever I think is right doesn’t win the day based on a vote. There are going to be times where a more conservative member’s opinion and view is not going to win the day. Can we respect that democratic process—talking about the things that unite us and the things we disagree about—but at the end, walk out of a room and be united and be on the same team? That’s the kind of way we’re going to hold the coalition together and move forward in productive and progressive ways.

TN: Can you discuss the resolution that you passed in support of a general strike if there was an attempted coup by Trump? How’s the reception locally within the rank and file? How that’s been going nationally, positive or negative?

DvD: First of all, the authorization vote overwhelmingly passed at the convention. Our executive vice president, for example, explicitly made an appeal to make sure we had an opportunity [to hear] from those who may disagree with a resolution while we were debating. We did not look to stifle that debate in any way, shape or form.

It might not be an exact number, but it passed by about four-fifths or more. [The convention] was overwhelmingly in favor. Thus far, we have received congratulations and communications from around the country: many different unions are looking at what we did as an example of what needs to happen in the rest of the United States. We’re feeling very good about that.

Our feedback from our members to date has been very positive too. Now feedback alone does not achieve a general strike. We’re going to have to do a lot of groundwork to make the general strike a real thing.

We’ve begun that. We’ve been speaking with key city councilors in our largest city of Burlington, as well as city councilors, key ones in our capitol, Montpelier. We’ve been speaking with elected and appointed leaders in different communities around the state to seek a popular front, in order to mutually support a general strike and mass work stoppages in the event of a political coup. More important is going to be the organizing and the discussions we have with the rank and file.

We have 10,000 members, and while we had good delegate participation at our convention, that is still a long way off from speaking with 10,000 people. There’s a lot of work to be done, [but] we’re feeling that we could make a meaningful contribution to the resistance. If democracy is set to die in this country, we will not let it die.

AS: What did you guys do after winning office? What sorts of things have you been involved in? Obviously you’ve talked about some of the internal things, but externally facing, what has this new leadership tried to do?

DvD: One of the problems that we’ve had in the past is we put all of our eggs in the basket of basically backing every Democrat running for office. In years past we might endorse 100 or 150 candidates running for state house and more or less just back them because they have a “D” next to their name.

What we’ve seen year in and year out is we elect all these people, they almost all win, and then nothing happens in the state house for organized labor, or very little. So we called for a political summit last December before the legislature came into session and we brought in representatives from just about every non-fascist political point of view you could imagine: from DSA to the Progressive Party, which is a major third party in the state. We even invited the Republican party; they did not show up. We had the executive director of the Democratic Party. We had all sorts of other unions come in and speak about their perspectives on politics that kind of culminated in a vote to change our endorsement policy.

We put out our priorities. Last year we said, “Look, we need a better way to enforce misclassification claims in the trades. We need livable wages and we need card check for public sector workers. And if any party, not individual, if a party stands in the way of that, that party will suffer a moratorium on endorsements in the next election.” With a two-thirds vote of the executive board in rare circumstances, that moratorium may be overridden for individual cases.

As a result, we made progress in all of our issues except for card check. The Democratic Party is essentially a super-majority in Vermont. They did not move it adequately. It never got out of committee, so the moratorium kicked in. Instead of endorsing 150 Democrats this year, we endorsed nine.

Nine, right? The least amount we ever endorsed in an election probably since the beginning of time. We also endorsed the entire statewide slate for local elections of the Progressive Party, which is a social democratic party. That’s also the first time that the AFL-CIO in Vermont has ever fully backed the Progressive Party.

We’ve signaled to our members that we’re moving away from the old way of doing things. That’s important because, frankly, I don’t think our members gave a shit who we endorsed in years past. Because they see, “well, they always endorse shitty candidates that do nothing for us.” I don’t even think our endorsement mattered much in the past, but I’ll tell you what it does this year.

Before the general election in the Burlington elections, we endorsed the Progressive Party slate. We won. We put real resources into that. We’ve had ads on the sides of buses. We did radio commercials. We reached down to our members. We talked about why it’s important to back these progressive candidates. And they won a majority for the first time in many years of the city council. And when the mayor went to either force us to open contracts or lay off workers, the city council was with us.

When we had a picket line, city councilors from the social democratic Progressive Party stood with us and said, “we are with you, we won’t allow this to happen.” The mayor backed down. We saved jobs and we showed how building alliances with political groups and political parties that stand with us—that are not the binary, Democrat and Republican model—can have direct bearing and results on job security, on local issues—bread and butter issues that matter to people on the job.

TN: Very inspiring, I have to say. Do you want to speak more about that idea that with the United caucus, you’re interested in reaching out beyond Vermont? Can you elaborate?

DvD:We are, but first our task at hand is we want to grow the United movement, the United caucus to non AFL-CIO unions in Vermont. We dialogue with a caucus of more radical teachers in the NEA. We’ve had dialog with VSEA, which is a major player in Vermont labor; this is an independent union that now has a United caucus.

We want to build those Vermont relationships first. Once we solidify those, then we see the process is building out past our borders geographically to try to show that this can work. We need to have those wins under our belts though. We’re going to have more victories, and we’re going to be able to export this [model] to not only other Vermont unions, but also across our borders.

AS:Is there anything we didn’t get to that you’d like to talk about?

DvD:Yeah, I think that an important thing for progressives or leftists within the labor movement to keep in mind is that credibility matters. When you say you’re going to do something, you have to do it. When you commit to a political direction, you have to follow through, but you also have to do the little things well. And these little things are not little things to individuals. You need to do the bread and butter things and you need to do them great.

When we’re talking about grievances or during a contract negotiation, contract campaigns—these things matter very much to actual members when they’re trying to make sure their families have good health care and enough money to pay their bills.

If you don’t do those things well, you’re going to lose your credibility and you’re not going to be able to make progress on the big picture issues. It’s important to not only be the most militant, but also be the most relevant. That’s something that I would seek to drive home to anybody looking to organize a more radical caucus within their labor group.

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Terri Nilliasca and Andy Sernatinger View All

Terri Nilliasca is a Tempest Collective member in New York City.
Andy Sernatinger is a labor activist and member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint and Jacobin.