In Search Of Compromise With Governor, House Speaker Alienates Organized Labor

May 16, 2017

Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson has unveiled a plan she hopes will end the month-long standoff in Montpelier over the issue of health benefits for public school employees. But Democrats’ efforts to appease Republican Gov. Phil Scott could cost them a key political ally in the process.

On Tuesday morning, at a press conference in the Statehouse, a coalition of union leaders stood behind a Martha Allen, who’s found herself in the eye of the political hurricane that has parked itself over Montpelier.

Allen is president of the Vermont-NEA, which represents the 14,000 educators whose health insurance plans are the focus of showdown between Scott and Democratic lawmakers.

Scott wants to dictate the terms of the next health benefits contract for public school employees. Whether that means a statewide contract, or a legislative mandate for a certain plan structure, Scott says action is needed to ensure $26 million in savings to the education system.

On Tuesday, flanked by representatives of more than a dozen Vermont unions, Allen derided Scott’s plan as a “attack” on collective bargaining rights.

“The governor and his allies see this issue as a once in a lifetime opportunity to take power away from working people in this state, and in particular, to take power away from working women,” Allen said, noting the majority of NEA members are female.

"I can say that its conditioning of bargaining is an affront to local educators and local school boards, and sadly is an anti-worker intrusion into to collective bargaining process." — Vermont-NEA President Martha Allen

According to Allen though, the Republican governor is no longer the only threat to organized labor.

Johnson has put forward a plan that would leave teacher health negotiations at the local school district level. But it would set strict parameters around what those health plans could look like. Those parameters, according to Johnson, would dictate certain minimum financial contributions from school employees covered by the policies.

“Those parameters drive people toward the savings that we’re all talking about, and it makes sure that those savings get applied to property taxes,” Johnson says.

Allen says Johnson’s plan would be a betrayal of the unions that have until now been able to count on Democrats for support in Montpelier.

“I can say that its conditioning of bargaining is an affront to local educators and local school boards, and sadly is an anti-worker intrusion into to collective bargaining process,” Allen says.

It isn’t just the NEA that’s worried about Johnson’s plan. Unions representing bricklayers, steelworkers, roofers, carpenters, plumbers and firefighters met with Johnson in the Statehouse cafeteria Tuesday to register their concern.

If the bargaining rights of teachers are weakened, says Bradley Reed of the Professional Firefighters of Vermont, then protections for unions like his are also threatened.

“We are asking Vermont lawmakers to ensure that our basic rights to collectively bargain are protected, and to stand with Vermont workers,” Reed said.

But Johnson says the political realities of this moment aren’t breaking in unions’ favor.

"The implications of the vote a few weeks ago was serious ... When push came to shove, people chose property tax relief over collective bargaining rights." — House Speaker Mitzi Johnson

She says Scott’s plan has support in the Statehouse, noting it would have actually passed in a vote on the House floor, had two representatives not been absent.

“The implications of the vote a few weeks ago was serious,” Johnson says. “When push came to shove, people chose property tax relief over collective bargaining rights.”

Scott has made clear that he’ll veto the state budget if Democrats don’t bend to his will. And Johnson says that means they have to come up with something the governor can support.

“Because just say no isn’t working,” Johnson says. “It isn’t working, and the political reality is there aren’t the votes for just say no to get us all the way through the process.”

It’s unclear whether Johnson’s approach has the support needed to pass in the Senate. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe canceled a press availability Tuesday afternoon.

The Senate approved a proposal last week that requires school districts to come up with $26 million in annualized savings, but leaves it to districts to decide how to come up with that money. Johnson says that plan doesn't have the support to pass in the House. And Scott has said it doesn't pass muster with him anyway.

Also unclear is whether Scott will buy into the House Speaker’s proposal. Rebecca Kelley, Scott’s director of communications, says the governor would like to see some changes.

The full Legislature is scheduled to return to the Statehouse on Wednesday, when Johnson and Ashe hope to have a compromise plan for both chambers to vote on.