For most of his professional life, Steve Howard has either been running for elected office, serving in it, or lobbying politicians in the Vermont Statehouse. That experience should serve him well in his new job as executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, where Howard says the union’s approximately 5,400 members are looking to exert new influence over the electoral process.
That influence will come, Howard said, by “trying to elect pro-labor candidates and help them win the elections, and engage our members in not just voting for candidates who will stand up for the interests of working Vermonters, but helping them become part of the boots on the ground."
Howard, a Democrat, served a total of six terms in the Legislature, and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2010. Howard says the union’s attempts to deliver pro-labor candidates Election Day victories reflects the new face of a union that is adopting a more assertive, activist approach to all aspects of organizing.
“So I see this labor movement as growing more powerful and strong,” Howard said. “We’re changing strategy, because we’ve been under assault for so long, that we’re just not going to sit by and allow that to continue without some new energy and new focus.”
On the political front, Howard says the union aims to influence the outcomes of elections not only by spending money through its political action committee, but by enlisting members to conduct the grassroots field organization Howard says will be needed to win some closely fought House races this fall.
Howard, who replaces the outgoing Mark Mitchell, says the union also plans to continue its push to improve conditions in the workplace. He said that state employees are realizing that they have the power to change aspects of government outside of their collective bargaining agreement.
“Things like parking, things like the temperature of your work space. Issues like earned sick leave – you can mobilize on behalf of the temporary workers you know are working beside you with no benefits,” he said.
Howard said the union is also committed to growing its membership, beginning with the deputy state’s attorneys, victim advocates, administrative assistants and other employees staffing the state’s county courthouses.
Howard said the VSEA will also continue its work with another union to organize approximately 800 staff members at the University of Vermont.
Howard most recently served as legislative director for the VSEA, and says the union has several unfinished battles in the Statehouse, including minimizing government’s on private contractors, and ending what he says is an over-reliance on temporary employees.
Howard says the union will also be involved in the debate over single-payer health care, where the VSEA will launch a push to make the state-employee health plan – among the best insurance benefits in Vermont – the standard for the new system.