University of Vermont

Green Dorm

Earth Week event: "Land & Labor: Building Solidarity through Shared Stories"

by Sophia Hoffacker '17, Sustainability Outreach Intern

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Organized by Global Studies sophomore Caroline DeCunzo, “Land & Labor: Building Solidarity through Shared Stories” was an informative and intersectional addition to UVM’s 2014 Earth Week event lineup.

(Left: Panel organizer Caroline DeCunzo.) 

DeCunzo brought together Addison County landowners, affected by the proposed Vermont Gas pipeline, to discuss their personal struggles and the connections between themselves and the environmental movement. In addition, the panel included a bus driver fresh off the recent and victorious CCTA strike and a UVM staff member advocating for a staff union. While the panelists certainly had many differences, they were clearly united by their shared value of a fair, equitable, and sustainable future for the labor movement.

(Right: Sarah Goodrich speaking about staff unionization

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Sarah Goodrich, a UVM staff member working in the Plant Biology department, shared her experiences attempting to unionize the approximately 2,000 non-represented staff working at UVM. While UVM faculty, police, custodians, and trades people are represented by a union, non-represented staff are vulnerable and unable to represent themselves during contract negotiations with senior administration. Simply put, Goodrich believes UVM staff want to form a powerful union with their best interests at heart to ensure they are treated fairly as workers.

Goodrich has high hopes at the possibility of non-represented staff forming a union in the near future. In a poll conducted last year, 60% of staff said they wanted to join a union. However, they were split between joining a large national union and an independent union formed by and for UVM staff. This resulted in no union forming. This year the campaign to unionize is being run by the UVM-based group, United Staff. Goodrich feels confident UVM staff will be able to file their union cards as early as September 2014.

Jim Fouts, of Teamsters local 597, was fresh off the heels of the recent CCTA bus drivers strike that rattled Chittenden County for nearly a month and ended with a victory for bus drivers and organized labor in Vermont. Fouts said of the strike, “we lit a fire here...There’s not a lot of victories for organized labor, so we need to move forward with this.” To keep the fire going, strike organizers are forming the Vermont Community Alliance for Public Transportation (VCAPT). VCAPT’s goal is to provide transit workers and users alike with a voice in the future of public transportation in Vermont. Fouts remarked, “I don’t want this momentum to stop and I don’t want this movement to stop. The community assisted us and we’re going to assist them.”

(Left: CCTA bus driver Jim Fouts at the panel)

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Fouts provided an energized and compelling case for continuing to build solidarity between the Burlington and UVM community as well as Vermont organized labor. At the end of his talk, Fouts urged audience members to attend the May 1 Rally for Health and Dignity in Montpelier. The intent of the rally is to build a worker’s rights movement in Vermont. His main reasoning behind why folks should attend is that, “if we sit idly by while other workers suffer, we’re not fighting for workers.” In other words, sharing victories such as the bus driver strike victory is vital, but it is also important to build solidarity through shared struggle.

(Right: Addison County landowners Nate and Jane Palmer)

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Nate and Jane Palmer are angry. They are angry because Vermont Gas is attempting to build a pipeline carrying fracked natural gas through their farm in Addison County. They are angry because Vermont Gas is marketing this pipeline as a “clean, cheap alternative” despite the fact that fracking itself was banned in Vermont in 2012 due to environmental concerns. They are angry because the gas from the pipeline will be benefitting a paper mill in Ticonderoga, NY, not energy users in Vermont. Most of all, they are angry because the Vermont Public Service Board ruled the pipeline as a “public good”. This decision was made despite the fact that 96% of the nearly 2,000 people, who wrote to the board about the issue, were not in favor of the pipeline. They are angry at the audacity of Vermont Gas to demand to drill under their farmland. In Nate’s words, drilling will “trash the soil.” He went on, “we don’t want to damage farmland! we don’t want ours damaged and we don’t want our neighbors’ damaged.”

On the subject of labor, the Palmers are angry that the pipeline is being marketed as a job creator for Vermont. This is despite the fact that the majority of jobs will be in construction and granted to out of staters. Jane said, “if we’re going to have a pipeline we at least want it built by local land workers but instead it’s all about profit and screws over the landowners.” The Palmers believe it is not only their duty, but their “obligation to come out and tell everybody what’s going on.” They urged the audience to show their solidarity with Addison county residents affected by the pipeline by attending a public hearing in Shoreham at 7 PM on May 7.

I was deeply moved by the unshakeable spirits of all four panelists. As an Environmental Studies major and an activist, it was not difficult for me to connect the dots between sustainability and livable jobs, improved public transportation, and the obvious moral issues surrounding the proposed fracked gas pipeline. I was also struck by how eager the panelists were to build connections with UVM students. Fouts was adamant that as a major ridership demographic, students should have a say in CCTA policy and management. Goodrich urged students to support staff in their quest to be protected by a union and get the right to fair contracts. The Palmers insisted they want to work towards a world my generation can actually live in, which means they feel a duty to oppose projects like the Vermont Gas pipeline. At the end of the day, all of the panelists brought together by DeCunzo are working towards a better future for my generation, and future generations. Their passion and gusto has inspired me to show my solidarity with their struggles as a student by educating other UVM students about these issues, attending the May 1 rally in Montpelier, and attending the May 7 public hearing about the pipeline in Shoreham.