In the spirit of continuing transparency, I am attaching my answers to the Working Vermont Candidate Questionnaire sent to me by Michael Sirotkin of Sirotkin & Necrason, PLC, a law firm in Montpelier. Working Vermont is a “coalition of labor unions in Vermont” and according to the email I received, includes Vermont State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Vermont-NEA, Vermont State Employees’ Association, Professional Firefighters of Vermont, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Vermont Troopers Association, American Federation of Teachers, United Nurses and Allied Professions, Coalition of Vermont Building Trades, and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.
I want to reiterate that the opinions below reflect my own (sometime underinformed) opinion, and may not reflect the opinions of the voters of Washington County, whose opinions I have promised to accurately represent, even when my own opinion conflicts. Since I am running as a true independent, I do not have a party platform or predetermined positions on issues that I am tied to. I hope to politically empower every citizen that I represent.
Support for Legislative Working Vermonters Caucus
The number of policy issues affecting working families is beyond the capacity of one group to advocate and track. Examples include worker compensation, unemployment insurance, employer misclassification of employees, general employee rights and safety, and matters of job creation. Over the years, virtually all Vermont labor unions have developed their own coalition (Working Vermont) to work in collaboration on both labor-specific and general worker issues. Working Vermont has had an increasingly active presence in the State House. During the same period, Representatives and Senators with particular interest in labor and employee issues have developed a special Working Vermonters Caucus, meeting regularly during the legislative session with the active participation of members of Working Vermont. Its meetings enable legislators and labor advocates to exchange ideas and strategies regarding virtually all issues affecting labor and employees generally. Any legislator can be a member of the Working Vermonters Caucus and participate in its meetings.
Would you be interested in joining the Working Vermonters Caucus?
Yes, I am always interested in sharing ideas and discussing possible solutions.
If so, with what frequency would you intend to participate in its meetings?
The survey only offers “regularly”, “occasionally”, and “when issues of particular concern to me arise”. Because I don’t know how often these meetings actually occur, and because I will be working on issues that are of concern to the citizens of Washington County, not just me, I selected “occasionally”.
General Support for Organized Labor and Employee Rights
We know that unions deserve the lion’s share of the credit for helping create and sustain a healthy middle class. We know that, in recent years, this nation’s wealth, more than ever before, has become concentrated among the very few, and the strength of unions has declined. It is no mere coincidence that the rights of employees to participate in effective labor unions are under unprecedented attack in the United States. Powerful, moneyed interests – aided among other things by the Supreme Court legitimizing unlimited corporate spending – have poured vast resources into attacking unions in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, in Arizona, Alabama, and North Carolina, and many other states, including neighboring New Hampshire. The rights of workers to bargain and speak collectively – and thereby to help build and sustain a strong middle class – established over many decades, are needed now more than at any time since they were established.
In general, do you support efforts to strengthen the rights of Vermont workers to bargain and speak collectively in a labor union?
Placing “we know” before a claim does not necessarily make it true. Without agreeing to all parts of the preceding paragraph, in general, I do support collective bargaining rights for Vermont workers.
Fair Share Fee: Those Who Don’t Pay Their Fair Share
Every labor union has a duty, regarding collective bargaining provisions and rights, to represent all employees in a “bargaining unit” without regard to any individual’s membership in the union. The fair share fee is the proportion of a union’s dues that stems from that “duty of fair representation” (it excludes costs regarding political and most lobbying activities). Current Vermont law requires a union to negotiate with an employer over whether it may assess the fair share fee, even though dues and fees are purely internal union matters. In Vermont, virtually all private sector employers with unionized employees have agreed to the fee. All state level employers have also agreed to the fee. The vast majority of public sector employers in other states that negotiate over it have agreed to the fee. In Vermont, it is only about half of municipal employers and fewer than 20% of school boards that have agreed to the fee. These public employers have claimed, falsely, that a law requiring an employee to pay the fee would also require the employer to fire employees who refuse to pay it, and they make other arguments the overtly anti-union “National Right to Work Committee” makes. It was only because of a printing error in the House Calendar that this proposal was not enacted in 2012. Vermont law does not require anyone to join a union, and nothing in this proposal would change that. At least half a dozen other states have laws – not subject to employer agreement – requiring employees to pay the fair share fee if they choose not to join their union.
Would you support legislation that removes from employers in workplaces under state labor laws the capacity to prevent their union from assessing from union nonmembers their fair share of the cost the union is required to incur in representing them?
Again, I only address the question, not the preceding paragraph. As I wrote previously in my answer to the Vermont NEA’s questionnaire:
I agree, provided that all parties maintain transparency.
All employees should be advised of their “Beck rights” according to the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Communications Workers of America v. Beck. Employees should also be advised of the difference in cost between the “fair share” and the “full share” and how the difference between the two is calculated.
Retirement Security and Public Pensions
Public pensions help provide basic retirement security for long-term public employees. Like so many other public programs, our pensions require regular public funding. In addition, retirees with access to stable and adequate pensions spend them to meet their needs: that spending has a beneficial multiplier effect on the general economy. In Vermont, state employees and teachers worked with the state at the early stages of the current economic downturn – adjusting benefits and employee payments – to ensure the state can meet its obligations to its citizens who devote a career to public service. State workers and teachers have paid every dime required of them to sustain these fundamental programs each and every year. The Governor and Legislature have fully met the funding requirements of these programs for the past several years. Sustaining that pattern keeps the annual bill more manageable for taxpayers. There are some who advocate changing the nature of our public pensions from defined benefits (ensuring a certain pension level) to defined contributions (under which the state might pay a certain amount but leave it to employees to invest “wisely” for their own retirement). Defined contribution programs are costlier to manage and provide far less certainty that the state and retired employees will see a good return on their investment. The wisest public pension policy is one that guarantees retired public employees dignity in retirement and funds defined benefit public pensions annually at levels called for by program actuaries.
Do you support sustaining defined benefit public pensions?
Again, addressing only the question and borrowing from my response to the Vermont NEA:
I admit that I am not an expert on this particular issue, but at a shallow level, I support funding the pension plans. If the current system of funding seems to be working, I am not inclined to change it without cause. If the current system does need changing, I am not sure that I support the state (and its taxpayers, in turn) bearing this burden exclusively. I suspect that there are probably creative but effective steps that don’t require dramatic increases in taxes or dramatic decreases in benefits. I admit that I don’t know what these steps might be, and will continue to educate myself about this issue.
Would you support annually funding the amounts certified by the state’s actuaries as necessary to meet the pension commitments made to Vermonters who devote their careers to public service?
As I noted above, I support funding the commitments already in place, provided that this system of annual funding seems to be working.
Misclassification of Workers and Its Consequences
Workers are afforded certain benefits and protections under the law by being classified as employees – that is, they work for an employer. In some cases, employers attempt to shirk their responsibility to their employees by misclassifying them as “independent contractors.” As a result, misclassified workers are not entitled to overtime, Social Security protections, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, the right to organize, legal protections from discrimination, and safety and health violations, and possibly other benefits (e.g., health care coverage, vacation and sick time, employer pension plans) that would be afforded them if they were correctly classified as employees. These bad-acting employers also illegally deprive our state of millions of dollars a year in income tax revenue and employment tax revenue and put law-abiding employers at a competitive disadvantage.
Would you advocate for greater enforcement of Vermont’s laws against misclassification in a collaborative and coordinated fashion across state agencies?
Addressing only the question: If Vermont has laws against misclassification of employees/contractors, I support enforcing those laws. In my time in the IT field, I saw many instances of “contractors” and “employees” doing the exact same job with the contractors (possibly) earning a slightly higher hourly rate than employees, but without health care coverage and other benefits.
States across the country have strong prevailing wage laws that assure local contractors, who uphold prevailing rates of pay in a geographic area, a fair chance to compete for government construction projects without being undercut by firms using cut-rate labor. A strong prevailing wage assures that construction activity does not undercut community wage standards and protects us, through our government, from companies seeking to win contracts by paying wages too low to attract competent craftsmen. It also ensures a livable wage for all workers throughout the State setting a floor for acceptable wages. Vermont’s prevailing wage law is currently very limited, ultimately hurting those businesses that are attempting to provide fair wages to their employees.
Would you support efforts to improve Vermont’s prevailing wage laws so they ensure a reasonable livable wage for workers and apply to more government construction such as road, bridge, rail, energy, school and other projects?
This is another topic that I have little experience with, but would be happy to learn more about. In general, I personally support a livable minimum wage, and think it’s reasonable to tie that minimum wage to a geographic or industry “index” (for lack of a better term).
Health Care: Continuing System Reform
Vermont labor unions have long supported health care reform ensuring everyone has access to affordable, high quality health care and severing the connection between employment and health coverage. Within the current system and over decades, unionized working Americans have negotiated with their employers for good health care and have openly sacrificed wage and benefit gains in order to obtain and retain it. As the State moves forward with reforming its health care system, it is important to protect employees generally – those protected by unions and those without union protections – not from reform itself, but from inequitable treatment that could occur if the State does not recognize their past sacrifices in the transition to a new system.
In the context of state health care reform efforts, would you support the continued right of employees to negotiate with their employers regarding matters of health care?
Addressing only the question: yes – there is no obligation under Vermont’s single-payer system, as far as I can tell, for employers to provide supplemental coverage beyond that provided by the state. If it was in their interest to negotiate with employers to include this supplemental coverage, workers should maintain that right.
Would you support including with health care reform legislation transitional provisions insulating employees from economic loss that might otherwise occur without them?
Not at present. As I wrote previously:
The costs of the statewide health care system are still in doubt. To offer preemptive compensation or benefits to offset *possible* future coverage reduction or cost increases seems somewhat premature. If these coverage reductions or cost increases become reality, I would support maintaining current benefit levels and costs.
Sick Leave With Pay
The capacity of an employee to be absent from a job to care of himself or herself or a loved one when ill without loss of needed income is part of the fabric of every civilized society. In Vermont law, we currently offer employees only unpaid leave. This issue is part of reforming our health care system: every person who reports to work sick is a potential patient requiring greater care and is a potential risk to the health of coworkers and others at his or her place of work. The issue is important to older Vermonters, Vermonters with disabilities, and Vermont’s children whose care when ill goes inadequately met if close relatives are forced to choose between helping them meet their care needs and taking time from work with no pay. The true interest of the business community lies in addressing this issue: regardless of knee-jerk responses by some to the obligation to pay for time not worked, there is no doubt that overall employee productiveness increases when employees know they can take reasonable time from work to care for themselves or close relatives without sacrificing pay.
Would you support legislation that allows working Vermonters to take reasonable time from work without loss of pay to care for themselves or family members when they are ill?
Yes, I support paid sick leave.