Is VSEA crazy?

If you read today's article in VtDigger you know that the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA) has confirmed that they are talking to Vince Illuzzi to take over the job as legislative affairs director. The job is available because Cassandra Gekas, who had confirmed just before the election that she had been offered the job, has decided not to take it.

The question I have to ask about this story is a simple one: are they crazy?

We know that Illuzzi has had good relations with organized labor, and over the years he has run for office with the endorsement, if not the active support, of some of Vermont's biggest unions. Still, if VSEA thinks that Vince Illuzzi is a friend to Vermont's working people they're kidding themselves.

I'll just talk about one chapter in recent history. In 2010 Vermont's unemployment compensation trust fund was in trouble, closing in on a zero balance. This wasn't surprising, since the economy had collapsed,, Vermont, like the rest of the country, was experiencing high unemployent, so many more people were drawing on the fund.

In addition, for decades Vermont law had systematically underfunded the system with artificially low caps on payroll levels subject to the unemployment tax. In other words, Vermont businesses had received the benefit of having their employees covered by the unemployment system but had not had to pay taxes at levels needed to sustain the system. We had undercollected from employers, and that led directly to the fund balance shortages in 2009-10.

There had to be a legislative solution, and advocates for unions, unemployed people, and employers spent hours at the State House trying to work out a solution. The advocates for the unemployed had to fight hard to limit attacks on benefit levels, expansion of disqualifications, and other anti-worker proposals.

What did Vince Illuzzi propose?

For one thing, he proposed $22 million in new taxes on Vermont's workers. As Peter Hirschfeld reported in Vermont Today:

 A proposal under consideration in the Senate would raise up to $22 million annually by assessing a new tax on the vast majority of working residents. The new revenue, Senate lawmakers say, could allow the state to rescue the bankrupt fund without cutting the benefits of out-of-work Vermonters. The additional money, according to Sen. Vince Illuzzi, would also tamp down the tax increases on businesses that will be needed to return the fund to solvency.

You got that, right? Illuzzi's proposal was to raise taxes on workers specifically in order to avoid raising taxes on businesses. This tax was such an extreme measure that even the anti-worker Douglas administration would not support it.

 For another thing, the bill that Illuzzi introduced, S. 290 (technically it was a committee bill, but it was a bill from the committee he chaired) included other anti-worker provisions. His proposal, which became law, was to slash unemployment benefits by imposing a one-week waiting period on benefits for newly eligible workers. While couched as merely a delay and not a cut, since most workers don't exhaust their benefits the waiting period actually reduces the total benefits they receive by one week's worth.

His bill also included harsher treatment for workers who are disqualified for benefits because they were fired for misconduct in connection with their employment.

The cuts and other program changes would have saved money by cutting benefits to unemployed workers by $100 million. 

Fortunately, Democrats were able to limit, roll back, or sunset some of the worst provisions of Illuzzi's bill. The bill would have been a lot worse, and specifically a lot worse for workers, if Illuzzi had gotten his way.

There are plenty of organizations in the State House who hire lobbyists without regard to ideology. To a degree, if you know your way around the building and do your homework you can do a job even for a client you don't really agree with. Traditionally, though, unions rely on union people to represent them in the building; it's seen as more than a job.

While Illuzzi has a reputation of being a determined fighter for the things he really wants, is there any reason to think that he is committed to the cause of workers in Vermont? 

20 thoughts on “Is VSEA crazy?

  1. On a very practical level, Illuzzi would take the job on a part-time basis so he could stay on as Essex County State’s Attorney. How’s he going to balance those two obligations? What’s he going to do when he has a big trial or three during a legislative session? Doesn’t VSEA need a full-time advocate?

    Also, during the campaign Illuzzi was depicted as some sort of ideal politician, universally loved by all around him. Or, in Jon Margolis’ very unfortunate words, “Illuzzi radiates optimism and charm.” (Blech.) Problem is, he’s also known for having a temper and holding a grudge. He has a checkered past, and that would hurt his ability to represent VSEA’s interests.

  2. Crazy is definitely the word for it.

    There is something decidedly schizophrenic about a short list that has been narrowed down to Cass Gekas or Vince Illuzzi!!

  3. Mitt Romney meeting with Obama.  Illuzzi offered a job with VSEA.  What is this?  Adopt a Republican week?  Isn’t there a job for poor old Donald Trump somewhere in this?  

    Hey, I guess Republicans are now HIP.  ANTI-HEROES.  There will be rock groups.  Republican T-Shirts with BORN TO LOSE on them.  A Republican Motorcycle Gang.  A fucking movie with Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Robert Mitchum lookalikes called A Republican Without A Cause.  Mitt Romney starring in a remake of The Call Of The Wild.  Jack Nicholson playing Ronald Reagan in Easy Rider Contra.

    Yes, I think we are seeing the beginning of a new genre–Republican Noir.  Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Ann Coulter as femme fatales. Tax Me Deadly, Double Exemption, The Big Loophole, Cool Hand Don, Farewell, My Bailout.

    Shit, wait til the fashions come out.  Your 15 year old boy in a three piece suit.  Your 15 year-old daughter in a cocktail dress.  Bastard.  What kind of drugs are we going to be looking at?  Those fuckers.  Next they’ll be marching in the streets singing I Ain’t A Payin’ Taxes Anymore.

    This is insidious.  And our National Guards are all in Afghanistan.  Who will stop this FREE LOVE THE RICH movement before we see them running about naked passing around rolled up thousand dollar bills filled with Tea?  Where’s Nixon when you really need him?  Oh, the humanity!

  4. Can you think of a decision the once progressive union has made recently that isn’t backwards?   Hoffer replaced by Vince in this election season?  Mass staff exodus?  Stepping on the toes of the governor and legislators?

    Hiring a prominent Republican to lobby a dominantly non Republican majority really fits into that decision making mindset.  

    Which cliff is the bus driving over next?  

  5. I’ve been scratching my head with the direction that VSEA is going for the past year.  It appears that the Board is asleep at the wheel while the new director only cares about covering his own hide at any cost.  The staff exodus didn’t happen because of a manifestation of a new direction to organizing the union.  Clearly, you are not in tune with VSEA’s long-term strategy.  VSEA has been working on exactly the organizing plan that the new director purports to have initiated for years.  The problem is, time and time again, the membership at-large (who, incidentally, does not make up the group who consider themselves to be vsea “activists”) has shown that they prefer a service model.  And with the current make-up of the VSEA Board, your average state employee is not going to be motivated to become active within the union as it currently stands.  Senior staff left because the Board picked a new director who came to VT and began making poor choices for the members long-term interests, treated his staff horribly and made immediate enemies with the Administrative & Legislative branches of government. It’s truly ironic that the staff of a union, of all organizations, would fail so miserably in standing up in solidarity for each other.  The whole process that has been reported for this Lobbyist job has proven to be one big debacle, and indicative of the union’s poor ability to function.  

    Here’s an idea, why don’t you poll the new staff, who recently stepped up to fill the vacancies how they feel about the Illuzzi appointment.  I bet I know the answer. Good luck VSEA! This is pure entertainment for those of us watching.  And yes, VSEA is officially crazy.  

  6. “A fucking movie with Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Robert Mitchum lookalikes called A Republican Without A Cause.”

    Wrong movie, dude. Brando and Mitchum never did a picture with Dean.

    Dean was in the famous “Rebel Without A Car” about an angst filled teen who was angry that he had to drive his dad’s 10 year old car because his dad refused to buy a new sleek model for his son to look cool in.

    Brando was in the “Wild-ish Bunch” about a motorcycle gang whose dirty work included not helping little old ladies cross the street and not tipping bartenders for their drinks.

    Mitchum, of course, had a long career, but I remember him best for the TV series, “The Windbags of War”.

    As for anthems, don’t forget the never-released soundtrack to ‘Bob Roberts’:

    The Times They Are A-Changing Back.

  7. It’s supposed to be funnier with all three of them (Dean-Ryan; Brando-Gingrich; Mitchum-Romney, Night Of The Hunter, Cape Fear)  And it’s The Wild One, I believe.

    But I forgot the angst saying:  “Live fast, die young, make a good looking profit.”

  8. I’d disagree a bit here.

    For as long a I’m aware, VSEA has been an organization in which membership is generally not engaged, and people in suits (usually with law degrees) (not that there isn’t a useful place for people with law degrees to be working within a union) do all the heavy lifting, and essentially act “as the union” or “for the union” on practically all matters.  This is a pretty top-down way of running a labor union, and in the labor movement in general, this is seen as not nearly as effective and powerful as an engaged, active, empowered membership.  The board chose to take a chance (a good chance, in my opinion) and brought in a different executive director and different senior staff in order to transition the organization into an “organizing model”- ie, to organize and engage the membership themselves, to embolden them and empower then to take initiative and action on their own behalf.

    I do not know what you refer to as their “once progressive” self- but an organizing approach to unionism is inherently more democratic and far, far more progressive than what was previously happening.  But, it is also a huge cultural shift within the union, and as with any huge change in organizational outlook or strategy, there is inevitably hesitation and push back from at least some of the people on hand who are used to doing things a certain way, who may even only be qualified to do things the old way, and who may not like or agree with the new direction.  The “staff exodus” that took place is merely a manifestation of this, and frankly, though I consider a number of the people who left friends (and very smart and capable people) if they weren’t willing to go along with the new direction, moving on was the best things for all involved.

    Finally, the Governor and the Legislature essentially represent “the boss” for state employees whose wages, benefits, work conditions (and therefore living conditions) rest in the hands of policy and budget decisions that are made by those bodies.  Though the/a Gov or Leg body can act otherwise, in even the most conservative of class analysis these are two groups with competing interests.  That the old way of doing things at the VSEA involved being very cozy with these leaders didn’t particularly work all that well for the membership (Dean, Douglas, and Shumlin have had no problem using state worker’s as the first scape-goat in any tight economy, despite the incredibly invaluable services they provide for all of us).  With the union’s new direction, there very well needs to be push-back on these politicians.  I think of the union leaders who recently met with Obama, and instead of demanding budget and economic fixes which burden soley those in a position to give more, they were all buddy-buddy with the president’s promise to make everyone pay more.  That’s not a union movement, that’s more cronyism and big power begetting bigger power.  A funny thing about power-holders: they have no friends, just means towards ends.  As any recent administration or legislature shows, they may be friends with the union when they have to negociate a contract and convince the union to freeze wages, cut staff, and the like, but all that niceness tends to disapear rapidly when the workers are in need of something that may be politically difficult on a politicians larger interests/agenda.

  9. What a bunch of hypocrites. VSEA is always talking about how the executive branch is contracting out state programs. Now here they are contracting out their own lobbying program. Doesn’t sound like a progressive new direction to me.

    The fact that half their staff left voluntarily (and that no one seems to want the head lobbyist job) seems to indicate a problem with leadership. If the new director wants to empower workers, maybe he should start by treating his own a bit better.    

  10. I agree that the VSEA have never been very radical although I do think it has had some good staff over the years. Membership less than enthusiastic.

  11. Yes, that movie–right before Dean crashed.  Brando in the Rock Hudson role?  And Mitchum?  I guess his role would have been smaller, as the owner of the diner who beats the crap out of Hudson for intervening in his “We reserve the right to refuse service to those we deem undesirable–or whatever.”

    I think Mitchum would have enjoyed beating the shit out of a ‘method’ actor.

    Or, in ’54–The Caine Mutiny.  Mitchum as Captain Queeg;  Dean as Ensign Keith; and Brando as…hey, shit…he already did a ‘mutiny’ flick.  Never mind.

    But fun to imagine a ’43 or ’54 movie the three of them could have starred in.  Mister Roberts?

  12. Given that both ‘mq1’ and ‘mooney34’ are new accounts, created today apparently for the sole purpose of chiming in on this thread, and that both are here just pushing the “VSEA is crazy and on the completely wrong path” story, it’s probably safe to think both of you are a) VSEA members who don’t support the union (likely for ideological reasons, though possibly for having had legitimate bad experiences with it), b) either former staff or current staff who are a part of said “old guard” that aren’t on-board with the new organizational approach, or c) concern trolls from the Administration with a divide and conquer approach to nullifying any potential gains the union is striving towards.  Any of which is fine enough except that most of us engage at GMD in order to have a productive and interesting dialogue about the issues and people who come here just to push an agenda (not that we all don’t do that to a certain degree) don’t usually get what they want out of it.  But it does seem unlikely to me that two completely random people would be so moved by this particular issue that they’d create user accounts to leave a single comment on this thread.  But hey, this also wouldn’t be the first time I’m completely wrong, if I am.  But if I’m not, perhaps the conversation would be more constructive if you were up-front about your personal interest/motivation in this.

    That said: if it’s true that the board is asleep at the wheel (I don’t know one way or the other if they are) then who’s to blame? the membership for re-electing them, and the membership for leaving them in power.  What is the best way to engage, motivate, and empower membership to take action on behalf of their own interests (even if just to elect a board that represents their ideals)? Having trained organizers who are making direct connections with members, demonstrating to them the inherent power they personally have in shaping their own lives and working conditions, and leading them in the various potential directions that will enable the membership to direct their own (political) power.  Very, very seldom are (successful) labor unions/movements or social movements the random by-product of people self-organizing and acting.  The hugely successful movement for single payer health care in VT is the result of years of organizers going to people, engaging them, helping them not only identify the problem but helping them understand possible solutions;  At that point, you have an organized movement capable of acting.  Likewise, the recent headline grabbing strikes by Wal-Mart workers across the country or fast-food workers in NYC? the result of years of work by organizers engaging directly with the workers.  To imagine that VSEA or any other union for that matter is or would be more effective at achieving the best results for their membership by pursuing or continuing an approach that shuns active and skilled organizers is completely counter to 100 years of labor history, not only in the US but throughout the world.

    As for VSEA membership at-large preferring a service-model union: you must be in possesion of information I’m not, because I doubt there’s any widespread data from membership on what they want from their union; furthermore, if the board has been pursuing the change to an organizing model for so long, and the membership don’t want that, why are these board members still in place? My sense is you’re likely taking your own opinion (and no doubt the opinion of a certain number of other people who you speak with) and conflating it to be the will of most of the 5,200 members (which, again, I’m not sure anything other than the results of board elections in the recent past exists in terms of evidence for what the membership actually wants).

    I don’t disagree at all that there are clearly problems at VSEA- big ones- as evidenced by the mess in the news with their search for a lobbyist.  But it does seem to me that such a substantive organizational shift almost certainly predicts a certain degree of messiness, and mis-steps.  Writing off the entire organization as completely useless and crazy just seems unproductive, and sounds like it comes from someone who is merely just pushing their own personal agenda rather than what’s best for the union membership themselves.  Again, I say that because I firmly believe (as does most of the labor movement, at least the best and most successful and most progressive elements of it) that an organizing approach is the most effective way to producing the best results.

    Then there’s this oddity:

    with the current make-up of the VSEA Board, your average state employee is not going to be motivated to become active within the union as it currently stands

    A circling, curious kind of logic.  As far as I can tell, other than electing the board, in a service model the membership does pretty much nothing except elect the board.  So the membership has elected this board, who has seen fit to change directions and attempt to implement an organizing model which asks membership to become more engaged and take more ownership over their union.  Yet, you’re suggesting that the membership isn’t engaged because for many, many years they’ve had a service model union which has served to negate their participation, which at this point in time has led to the election of this board.  Did you follow that? cause I’m not sure I did.  If you could clarify how that all works, perhaps there’d be more to say.  People motivate to act on their own behalf on such matters almost entirely because they’ve been organized and agitated to do so.  Again, over 100 years of labor and social movement history supports this.

    But to be sure: VSEA clearly has problems.  It has for a long, long time (much longer than the less than one year old move towards an organizing model).  I merely am arguing that the organizing model represents the best chance to not only address the problems that exist (and, in my opinion, the largest problem that exists for VSEA is that the union doesn’t work all that well for membership, and we see that not just in internal matters that I’ve only heard anecdotally from friends who happen to be state workers, but in the history over the past decade or two of job losses, wage freezes, and conflict with allegedly supportive politicians on matters that are of importance to members) but to further build the social and political power that is inherent in the mere fact that the workers do the work that keeps society churning.

  13. I would think the horse may be in back of the wagon.

    “As for VSEA membership at-large preferring a service-model union: you must be in possesion of information I’m not, because I doubt there’s any widespread data from membership on what they want from their union; furthermore, if the board has been pursuing the change to an organizing model for so long, and the membership don’t want that, why are these board members still in place?”

    I don’t know if you know anything about anything, but if what you said is true about the lack of data concerning what the membership wants, then what justifies the changes that are proposed?  The change would seem to require some buy in from the people who are going to be expected to implement the change, and if there has been no survey or other determination of what the customer wants to buy into, then why change your product?  If this change is about a few people at the top drinking cool aid and trying to force a change upon people who have been happy with what they have been paying for, then your business model is probably doomed to fail.   If the people on the street don’t want your product, well I guess you could probably see why the title of this article is correct and maybe too polite.  

    Effectively contracting out positions is something that a simple google search will reveal VSEA has been critical of several administration over.  Acting like the employees work “for” the legislative branch of government is a little off base perspective wise.  There is still something funny about the representation that several high level employees just decided to all  move on at once.  

  14. The board is charged with leading the organization in a manner that not only best represents the interests and/or desires of the membership, but that keeps the organization strong and successful (not for the sake of the organization itself, but for the sake of the purpose of the organization, ie furthering the collective interest of state employees).  The changes would, or could be justified simply by recognizing the union was not particularly effective or efficient and determining that the best way to ensure the strength and usefulness of the union was to attempt a different course of action.  Organizations of every kind do this continually.

    Your referencing the membership as “customers” “buying” something shows a tremendous lack of understanding of how or what a union is at all- the membership is the union; they’re not consuming something, it’s not a product- it’s a material manifestation of the will, interests and political and social power of a group of people.  A union member “buying” what the union is “selling” would be somewhat akin you “buying” which way you want to vote- it just makes no sense whatsoever.  Just a totally gross fucking way of conceiving of a union.  And 100% wrong.

    And I never said anything about the state worker’s working “for” the legislature or the administration; I said those bodies act as the “boss” in the power relationship between these (often) competing interests.  There’s a very substantial difference.


    I don’t know if you know anything about anything

    I didn’t personally attack anyone, or engage in name calling, or treat anyone like they are dumb.  Perhaps you can try to be somewhat reasonable yourself.  

  15. At its annual meeting in September, the VSEA membership voted in favor of imposing upon themselves a substantial dues increase with the express purpose of funding Organizer positions and other expenses necessary for pursuing more of an organizing model.  So there is evidence that not only the board, but the membership at large, favors this strategic shift.  Admittedly, only a relatively small portion of the membership actually attends the Annual Meeting – in that sense it’s a bit like the much-exalted institution of Town Meeting in Vermont – but at this point it’s the best measure we have that the membership approves the union leadership’s attempt to shift in the direction of an organizing model, and has weighed in according to the democratic process that exists.

  16. …from me that made you storm out of here, but what can I say? I just gotta be me.

    The reality is – wait for it – more complicated.

    Take your line:

    the membership is the union; they’re not consuming something, it’s not a product- it’s a material manifestation of the will, interests and political and social power of a group of people.

    I would qualify it thusly:

    the ideal is that the membership is the union; they’re not consuming something, it’s not a product- it’s a material manifestation of the will, interests and political and social power of a group of people.

    I’ve worked with a lot of unions going back to cities like Portland OR and Baltimore, and though I’ve seen unions come close to this ideal, they never quite get there. They are working against the fundamental nature of hierarchy, and they do so with variable degrees of success. Without exception, the ones that miss the mark the most have been the ones where the folks on the top just deny this inherent tension between leaders and followers in ANY institution (including unions) yell over people (including some rank and file) and say basically shut up you’re the union we’re all the union and we do it my way, but you’re the union, so I’m not making any decisions but I’m in charge.

    It’s a hard equation to balance, and part of the reason “organizing model” unions are in flux is that it can’t be fully balanced – it’s a tension that just has to be managed. I remember in Portland, the SEIU managed it quite well – until it didn’t, and it got ugly.

    Anyway, managing a union is a process. It’s a unique institutional challenge. And it comes with pushes and pulls like no other. Want to be more elastic and adaptable? Use an “organizing model” – but an organizing model is also the most fragile and volatile and always seems to breed inherent contradictions (gross – sometimes vicious – exploitation of its own workers who are expected to work under conditions the union exists to fight against, because their expected to be true believers/martyrs to what becomes an almost para-religious cause: a historically tried and true way to exploit labor). Those contradictions then make the whole thing even more fragile and unstable.

    On the other hand, there would be the more – let’s say – corporate model, which is far more institutionally stable (and therefore able to accumulate institutional clout and power, but less able to release raw grassroots power), and will generally be more humane to its own workforce and allow leaders to be more comfortable without the moral contradictions (you can work for fundamental rights of laborers in the union without tending to deny those rights to your own workforce) – BUT, that model creates entrenched power structures that sit above and apart from rank and file, and stagnate through inertia and a tendency to chuminess with management.

    Seriously. The whole union thing is absolutely necessary and critical – but doing it well?? Well, that was easy in the days of robber barons and child labor, but in the crazy complexities of our hyper-institionalized, largely middle-class society? Well, there just is no set formula of the “right” way to do it – or at least no one has figured it out. Maybe it just requires a constant reordering and restructuring… total nimbleness and adaptability.

  17. I don’t disagree with (most) of this at all; in fact, I think it’s all pretty reasonable.

    The comments you’ve made in the past that have made me dis-interested in being involved here involve writing off my thoughts or opinions as “utopian” or “in outer space” or completely based in some kind of alternate reality and the like.  

    All I really see you’ve done here is slightly re-word exactly my point to reflect more nuance; no where in my comments above do I claim any of this stuff works particularly easily or smoothly, nor did I get in to the internal power-relations of union staff hierarchies.  Anyways, without rambling needlessly I see your comments as a friendly tempering of what I was saying or details entwined with things I said that I just didn’t address.

    But perhaps I would add to your qualified version of my statement by noting that I’d argue that the membership is the union, always- but unfortunately as power concentrates within a union that happens less and less in a material fashion, and the membership themselves are less and less aware of that fact.  At the least this leads to disinterested and apathetic members, which easily becomes boards who are sleep at the wheel, worst it takes those components and leads to widespread cronyism and corruption and eventually the union itself cooperating with the boss at the expense of the workers.  

    But you can’t have a union with no membership, so their identities seem pretty synonymous to me.  

  18. it is the evidence they approve or are ambivalent to the whole thing or realize that those who attend but disagree saw the writing on the wall.  

    I simply would have thought that when instituting such a significant menu of changes, a membership survey would have been in order.   On top of that, since someone said the initiative of changing the model the organization uses has been the subject of change discussions before-without success and with apparently the seasoned staff that fled leading the charge-why would anyone think just instituting change by fiat would be successful?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *