Neither Washington Nor Stowe: Common Sense For The Working Vermonter

A manifesto dealing with the specifics of the Vermont political and economical situation and outline what an anarchist-communist society, based on radical union and revitalized town meeting, could look like locally.

The Green Mountains, 2004 - As Vermonters we are perhaps the most weather conscious people in North America. We feel the winter winds through the drafts of old farm houses, smell the melting snow when collecting our sap buckets, hear the birds of summer while tending our farms and gardens, and see the beauty of fall written across the hills in oranges and yellows. Many of us still work with our hands, be it as loggers, farmers, carpenters, midwives, or crafts-persons. When the leaves fall we still hunt deer, and many of us still cut our own fire wood a year in advance. Even the many of us who live in town still grapple with the dirt roads during mud season, and swim in country lakes during the warm months. We know our neighbors, drink cider and beer around campfires, and during the first Tuesday in March, we still debate and vote at Town Meeting. We, for the most part, have maintained this way of life despite the over development, consumerism, and government centralization that has plagued much of the continent. We maintain this, in part, for reasons beyond ourselves. The rugged terrain of the Green Mountains and near arctic winters limits our potential for certain forms of development, while also shielding us from less hardy outsiders.

Because of this remoteness our Green Mountains often feel a century away from Boston, and a million miles from New York. Yet we are still tangled in the treacherous web of Washington politicians, and the wealthy elite from Wall Street, to Texas, to Stowe. We are our own people, yet we are compelled to mimic the same bureaucratic structures in our government and economic dead ends in our communities that strangle the common working person from California to Maine.

A Peoples’ History

The history of Vermont is one of independence, democracy, and justice. In the 1700s, we, as common farmers, successfully fought our own war of independence against New York, and then, later, the British Empire. In our early years we achieved sovereignty based on a directly democratic, more empowered, Town Meeting system and continued as an independent republic for 14 formative years. We were the first state to guarantee its citizens the right to vote, even when they were not land owners, and we never allowed slavery. From the Green Mountain Boys, to the underground railroad, to those who volunteered to fight against slavery in the Civil War, to those who battled against Fascism during and before World War II, we have never shirked our responsibility in fighting the good fight, when we have deemed it such, and when the call has come. In a word, we are a people who dare to lead both by example, and struggle.

More recently, we have lead the nation on such basic issues as providing healthcare for children, raising the minimum wage, civil unions, legalization of medical marijuana, and mandatory labeling of genetically modified seeds. Being in front of other regions, demanding more for the common good than the poverty of global capitalism normally allows for, is both our birth right, and historical calling. But, being a pace in front of a slow runner is not good enough to guarantee the maintenance of our way of life, nor the emergence of a freer, equitable society beyond the shackles of international corporations and their two national political parties.

In a word, while the goddess of agriculture still looms above the State House, our farms are quickly disappearing. From 10,000 family operated dairy farms a generation ago, to only 1200 today, “free trade” and the corporate take over of agriculture have driven us to fight for the very survival of this dignified way of life. And again, our once powerful manufacturing base, which formally included highly productive machine shops from Brattleboro, to Springfield, to Newport has faded, moving to the super exploited markets of China and Mexico. To fill the void, the tourist industry (ski resorts, hotels, retail, restaurants, etc.) has emerged as a major employer. Unfortunately, this shift has emerged as the mass substitution of dignified, good paying jobs with benefits (the type that you can raise a family on), for those that pay close to the minimum wage, carry few, if any benefits, and demand that us working Vermonters smile, dance, and entertain those upper middle class and wealthy, out of state, tourists who view Vermont as little more then their quaint New England, theme park.

So, the question becomes, where are we now? If we retain our current trajectory will the Vermont we leave to our grandchildren resemble that which we were raised in? Will our hills still be dotted by farms, or will our red barns be replaced with more ski resorts, chain stores, and inns for the rich? If the latter becomes true, we must recognize the fact that future Vermonters will be compelled to get by on no more than minimum wage, little or no healthcare, and the confines placed on our tradition of democracy by corporate control and federal dictates. The bottom line is that we, as the majority, are standing at a crossroads at which we can choose the path of capitalist homogenization, or, rather, lead the way back towards direct democracy, local control, and the social advancement of the common good.

The Yoke of Washington and Wall Street

The United States of America, and much of the remaining world, operates, above all else, according to the rules of capitalism. Under capitalism, the basic goal of society becomes the private accumulation of wealth for the elite few. In other words, the major institutions of society value the production of goods and services that are capable of generating a maximum amount of profit. What is best for the common good is often obscured by what is considered best for economic consumption. With such, working people (who are by far the vast majority of the population) are seen simply as a necessary resource for corporations and private owners. Instead of viewing workers and small farmers as equal members of the broader society, they, in the eyes of the owners and bosses, are relegated to objects of exploitation. Their labor is used not as a means to up lift society as a whole, but as a tool to make a select few very rich. On the job, we are often compelled to work under the near dictatorship of the boss. Even when we work for ourselves, we are still dictated to by the wealthy who hire us, as well as the ebbs and flows of the capitalist economy. In short, we are compelled to engage in work in order to create a massive overall profit that we will never see, and if we don’t like it, and we speak up, we face the likelihood of being fired. The schools teach us that this is democracy. For forty to sixty hours a week we live under a dictatorship, in our workplaces, and this is acceptable?

Insofar as social and economic policy is concerned, the federal politicians, who are usually bought and paid for by the rich, don’t ask what we think or what we want. Instead they take into account the “needs” of the owners. They pass legislation that makes the rich richer, and the poor poorer, and adopt trade agreements that translate into the foreclosure of family farms and the relocation of factories to countries and states where workers have even less rights, and where wages are even lower then they are here. And again, these politicians write laws which help allow the rich to skip out on paying their share of taxes, and instead rely on the working class to foot the federal bill. And what do we receive in exchange for such taxes? Healthcare? Affordable housing? Free higher education? No. Our money is used, by and large, to subsidize the corporations, and to build bombs and tanks that are deployed at the whim of the President and in the interests of the elite.

The federal government demands that we provide them with money, send our children to die in their wars, sacrifice our rights for the profit of the few, and to do so without complaining. This is the directive of Washington DC and Wall Street, and this is the yoke which is placed over the neck of the working people of both Vermont, the rest of the nation, and much of the world. So do we learn to live with this yoke, or should we seek to break it –once and for all?

The Yoke Within

If it wasn’t enough to have the federal government and big business on our back, we also have foes closer to home. The greedy capitalists that run the resorts, the yuppies that we have to wait on, managers that run the factories –these are the daily reminders that we’re forced to work within the confines of U.S. economic machine.

For example, let us take a look at the case of Stowe. Nestled on the busy thoroughfare of Rt. 100 and in the shadow of Mount Mansfield, this quaint village represents, to many of us working Vermonters, what is wrong with the current set up. Million dollar second homes for the wealthy of Toronto, Connecticut and beyond dot the hills. Workers from Morrisville, Hardwick and Elmore make the daily trudge to labor in the quaint shops that line Main Street, to staff the ski resorts, to manicure the lawns of the rich and wait on them hand and foot at their catered parties. This Vermont theme park for mostly rich out-of-staters has grown so large in its scale of operation that hard working people of the surrounding towns cannot perform all of the necessary labor to keep the lazy rich bastards content. Hard working people from Jamaica and other countries are recruited to staff the tourist industry, young working people, who travel around the country working at resorts just so they can afford to ski or snowboard, sell themselves into a glorified form of indentured servitude for a season. Working people from around the country who immigrate to our green mountains for their beauty and quiet end up facing the ugly crowds of the tourist busses and their shrill chatter while ringing them up at the register.

In this poker game we see the workers whose cards leave them with only their wits to play the game, the wealthy flatlanders always with a royal flush in hand, but there is another character whose hand is at play and who shuffles the cards to keep the deck stacked against the common Vermonter. That is to say, there is the local elite who own the hotels, the restaurants, the big landscaping companies, the real estate firms, the car dealerships, the chains of quaint antique and craft shops which are all made to appear unique but, in fact, are all part of the same business. There is a local status quo in power in Stowe and Montpelier, in Brattleboro and Killington, and throughout Vermont who profit off the maintenance of this system of exploitation and inequity. While they play real hard at trying to maintain the image of regular good ol’ Vermonters just like everyone else, their interests (and profit margins) lie more in tune with the wealthy, both here and out-of-state, than with us workers, be we Vermont born and raised, or recent arrivals to the Green Mountains.

Here is the picture. A small dairy farmer signs off on the foreclosure of a family farm as old as the independent republic of Vermont while Mark, an entrepreneur in Stowe, celebrates the acquisition of a new shop at which common Vermonters will labor for poor wages to make him richer. A Vermont national guardsman in Iraq gets blown up by a bomb while a member of The Cody family (owner of several area car dealerships among other businesses) sits comfortably and safely behind a desk as a four star general in the US army. A carpenter hitchhikes to the jobsite, because he can’t afford to get his car fixed until next week while “Caring Capitalists” Ben and Jerry make a shitload selling their company to the multi-national corporation Unilever. Our good ol’ boy governor Jim Douglas gives 350,000 of our tax dollars to the ski industry to subsidize their advertising costs while he scolds dairy farmers asking for a 500,000 investment to buy their own dairy processing plant. The liberal-led government of Burlington does some remodeling to bring in department stores and fancy boutiques while a family in the old North End has to sell off their home because yuppies have driven up the property taxes.

There are, in fact, two Vermonts. One of wealth and privilege, and one of hard work and sweat. If Vermonters have any chance of success against the forces of Washington and Wall Street, the battle must start in our own backyard against the business and political elite of Montpelier and Stowe. We must guard against the sly maneuvers of both the conservative and the liberal status quo in Vermont, and fight to win more power for ourselves in our towns and workplaces. Could our efforts ever cultivate a harvest hardy enough to withstand the strong, cold winds of Washington and Wall Street if we do not till our fields first? Can you start a good sugaring season without first cleaning out of your sap buckets? The answer is no. There will be no victory over the enemy without before there is victory over the enemy within. For it is the privileged and powerful locally and their dupes who will stand as the first serious line of defense for the privileged and powerful classes in general. So do we bow our heads, mutter curses under our breath, and continue to subsist on the scraps they throw to us- or do we dare to struggle and dare to win against the local elite?

A Second Vermont Revolution

So, what is to be done? We can choose a different way; a way that will allow our grandchildren to experience the independence, democracy, self sufficiency, and natural beauty that was the gift handed down from our common ancestors. If we choose this path to freedom, we can set our course in such a manner that our future will not be, simply, a still life of the past, but one that reflects new possibilities for equality, further democracy, and social stability. There is no reason in the world that we cannot both honor the past, while paying homage to a future wherein all Vermonters are allowed free access to healthcare, higher education, housing, childcare, and decent jobs. This is the trick. Remaining true to our roots, while capturing the spoils of technology and the potential of social cooperation. So what would such a Vermont look like, and how do we get there? Well, the seed of such a place is already in our hearts, and through such, has already begun to show signs of germination.

Back in the 1700’s, before Vermont was a state, we practiced a form of direct democracy through an empowered Town Meeting system. Imagine for a moment that the legislature didn’t meet in Montpelier. Imagine, in fact, that there is no legislature at all. Instead envision a system working throughout all the Green Mountains where by all major decisions are made through local Town Meetings. Now of course one, or two, or even 30 Town Meetings don’t have, nor should they have, the power to impose their views on all of us. However, would it not be more representational of our collective general will if a majority of towns voted to pass a certain regulation, law, or resolution? Well, that is how the early years of Vermont were defined and that is how the great American revolutionary Thomas Paine believed it should be. In other words, we used to all get together in our different communities in order to discuss, debate, and publicly vote on all the big issues that affected Vermont as a whole. And if a majority of towns passed something, it was considered a done deal. And again, the way in which they tallied votes was to have representatives of every town meet in order to report what the majority of their community felt was best. These people, unlike our current State Representatives and Senators, were not voted in, and then allowed to vote however they, their political Party, or the interests behind them, chose. Instead they were bound to simply relay the mandate of their community.

Of course, Vermont is a different place than it was back in 1776. No longer are the majority of us small farmers, and therefore our own bosses. Today, Vermont is a place where most of us work for someone else, and where the remaining farms have to struggle to remain viable in the larger capitalist world. In short, Vermont, like nearly everywhere else in the modern world, is a society divided by economic classes, and again by the interests of the large population centers, like Burlington, as opposed to the small rural communities. Therefore, the rebirth of our tradition of direct democracy would have to take these factors into account.

Town Meeting

Since the 1980s, we have witnessed the slow reinvigoration of our Town Meeting system. What began as towns passing resolutions against the perceived dangers of nuclear power, has grown into a widespread movement of communities taking stands on any number of issues. Now a days it is common for us to pass resolutions for or against any number of issues; be it against GMO foods, for or against Vermont Yankee, against nuclear weapons, in support of the Bill of Rights (and against the USA PATRIOT Act), in favor of wind power and other renewable energy sources, etc. These resolutions have been declared “non-binding” by the state government and are viewed by some simply as a way for common people to make their views known to the General Assembly. On the other hand, the statewide debate over Act 60 (the law which is intended to provide poorer children as good an education as rich children) witnessed a remarkable chain of events. During the height of the debate, a small number of wealthy towns (West Dover, Stowe, etc.) voted to withhold their property tax money from Montpelier while they were fighting to restore the old system. These rich towns were generally motivated by self interest and greed (not wanting “their” money to be spent on text books for poor children in Hardwick, etc.), but, at the same time, their actions demonstrated a new emerging resolve among towns to reassert their own sovereignty over that of the Capital.

The future re-establishment of direct democracy in the Green Mountains, will, in a large part, rely on the extension of the power of Town Meeting. But how will this be achieved? One thing is clear, the politicians in Montpelier will not simply hand it to us. Our only chance at winning will be through the coordination of a statewide movement, based in the towns, which seeks to extend our local authority, with or without the approval of Montpelier.

Imagine if you will a statewide effort to place a resolution on the majority of Town Meeting agendas which declared that “When and if fifty percent, plus one, towns representing a majority of Vermonters pass any given resolution, all local revenue and cooperation will be withheld from the state government until such time as that resolution becomes the common practice of the land.”

It will be through such an effort that we will begin to reclaim our democratic traditions which have been obscured through 200 years of capitalist centralization, and upper class domination of the political system. In order for us to do this, we must begin to bring such self empowering resolutions to our various Town Meetings. We can do this individually, town by town, or through the formation of a large non-sectarian coalition of those networks of Vermonters (GE Free VT, the anti and even pro Vermont Yankee groups, and the anti-Patriot Act organizations) which are already mobilized and capable of getting resolutions placed on a good many Town Meeting agendas.

Would such an empowered Town Meeting system translate into a direct democracy in and of itself? Given the modern basis of our economy, as well as the diverging interests of the remaining farmers, and other working class people, it would seem reasonable that such an empowered town system would only be one part of the equation. If we are to truly and honestly help build a freer and democratic Vermont, we would do well to find ways to extend this direct democracy to the farm and the workplace.

The Farmers

Agriculture has always been a part of our culture. Let us remember that the legendary Green Mountain Boys, who were the scourge of New York authority, and the British at Ticonderoga, were no more then small farmers themselves. In our past it was the farmers who, when needed, banded together to fight the good fight for the common cause. Today their struggles tend to be against the large capitalist agribusiness. Where they once fought red coats and sheriffs, they now fight against the unfair trade policies of NAFTA, the FTAA, and federal and state politicians who time and again sell them out to their capitalist underwriters. Only one thing remains the same…they are still fighting for their free existence.

While we have lost many farms throughout this long fight, those that remain have begun to organize. To date, over 300 farms have band together to create the Dairy Farmers of Vermont (DFV). This group represents a staggering eight hundred and fifty million pounds of raw Vermont milk (or one third of all that is produced in the state). DFV, which was formed in an old barn in the Northeast Kingdom, is presently fighting for the rights of Vermont farmers generally, the establishment of a farmer controlled Vermont processing plant, and, with the aid of organized labor, for higher wholesale prices. In line with our traditions, they operate according to directly democratic principles. In other words, no decisions are final until they are brought before a vote of all the members. And here the rule is one farmer, one vote.

While it is way to early to know what victories DFV will win, and while we cannot say for certain how this organization will grow in the coming years, we can say this; the more farmers are organized, the more power they will have when confronting corporate America. In the past, when most Vermonters grew crops and kept live stock, we could count on Town Meeting to voice their unique concerns and interests. However, because of the changing economic landscape, we cannot do so now. Today, many farms are isolated in communities that increasingly rely on tourism and other industries for jobs and revenue. Therefore, farmers’ voices are often drowned out in the multitude of other perspectives. For this reason we need to support such democratic farmers’ groups as DFV. As long as we value this important link to our past, and as long as self reliance remains a Vermont ideal and goal, we must support those emerging institutions that fight for the preservation of local, small, agriculture. And besides, if one of our goals to provide healthy food for ourselves and our children, should that food not, when possible, be cultivated right here where we can both watch it grow and take pride in knowing those who produce it?

While we may agree that all this is desirable, how does it relate to the broader picture of a more free and democratic Vermont? Well, the present course of the DFV, and other like minded farmer groups, is similar to what we see happening in the Town Meeting movement. These groups are the nucleus of democratic change, and, by virtue of their existence, demonstrate the potential for expansion. It is conceivable that the DFV or a future organization will extend their membership to other farmers (not just those in dairy). And imagine, if you will, that after winning some concrete gains they were to reorganize themselves into local, countywide, sections. Each one meeting several times a year and operating, like Town Meeting, according to directly democratic principles. Let us imagine that such an organization began to develop strong means of communication with the Town Meeting movement. Could we not expect such an organization to eventually run and regulate agriculture on a local and statewide basis the same way that an empowered Town Meeting system would give voice to the concerns of the residents of local communities? From this stand point, the answer must be a hardy yes!

The Workplace

When most Vermonters were farmers, many of us belonged to the local Grange. Today, most Vermonters work in other industries, and many of us belong to unions. Right now tens of thousands of us are union members. More then 10,000 state workers belong to the VSEA. 10,000 more belong to AFL-CIO unions including many iron workers, plumbers, writers, factory workers, communication workers, carpenters, nurses, and public utility personnel. The independent United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) claims hundreds of members across these mountains, and the National Educators Association (NEA) claims thousands more. All this in a state that has a total population of just over 650,000. In a word, large sections of working Vermonters are organized across the region in numerous sectors. And again, for the last six years, many of these unions have come together in the spirit of mutual aid by becoming members of the Vermont Workers’ Center coalition.

The Workers’ Center, like the Dairy Farmers of Vermont, and in the tradition of Town Meeting, operates as a democratic organization. Affiliated members (unions, some social justice groups, and individual working class people) have a vote on a steering committee which sets the priorities, and political positions of the center. [*Note: In 2003, the major Vermont unions, through the Workers’ Center, passed a resolution condemning the invasion of Iraq] Here, under one big tent, working people are able to come together in common cause in order to fight for that which the capitalist economy is loath to grant them. Better pay, more democracy at work, and social justice has become not just the struggle of isolated people, or separate unions, but the common fight of an increasingly united working class. And as this spirit of solidarity has been kindled among worker organizations, it has had a reverberating effect upon the elected union leadership. In 2003 the Vermont AFL-CIO elected a reform, pro-democracy, candidate to serve as state President.

However, as Vermont’s manufacturing base has eroded due to corporate greed and the federal policies of free trade, this sector has been increasingly replaced by low paying service and retail jobs. And here, union concentration (and decent wages and benefits) has been seriously challenged. This shift in the economy of course presents a unique set of challenges to the Vermont working class movement.

In response to this the Vermont Workers’ Center in cooperation with the UE helped to launch a historic citywide union drive aimed at the 800 service and retail workers of the capital city. In 2003 the Montpelier Downtown Workers Union (UE Amalgamated Local 221) was formed, and today the union has won contracts in two shops, is promising two more by the fall, has members in more than a dozen other shops, prints a monthly newspaper for area workers, and has established a citywide steward system and grievance procedure.

Like Town Meetings, and the Dairy Farmers of Vermont, this young and innovative union has organized itself as a truly democratic voice in the community. Instead of taking the dictums of the bosses at face value, they have begun to create a directly democratic space through which workers are free to hold meetings of their own, and therefore begin to decide how they think things should be run. The days of politicians, the rich, and the Chamber of Commerce calling all the shots may be numbered after all.

This past April, the union held a Workers’ Town Meeting at which union members from more than a dozen different city shops participated. At the meeting, the working conditions of the area service and retail sector were discussed, as was various strategies for how they could advance their social visions and economic demands. It was there that members debated and then democratically voted to establish the citywide grievance procedure, and to form a Workers’ Defense Squad. These facets of the union are now beginning to be utilized by workers across Montpelier as a means of building further democracy, fighting the bosses, and gaining social respect. Tellingly, the Defense Squad, which in principle is the direct action wing of the union dedicated to supporting the grievance procedure, is made up of not only members of the Downtown Workers’ Union, but allied members of other area unions such as the Carpenters, the Teamsters, the Nurses, the NEA, and the Printers (all of which are members of the Workers’ Center coalition).

While this new union still has far to go on the road to the empowerment of the Montpelier working class, it cannot be stressed enough that their initial successes carry positive ramifications for workers across Vermont. As word of their victories spread throughout the hills, it is possible that workers in other cities and towns will follow suit. And as they begin to build such democratic unions across the state, there can be no doubt that the voice of the common woman and man will begin to eclipse that of the politicians, landlords, and wealthy.

OK, so the question again becomes, exactly how does the building of new democratic worker organizations, and development of inter-union solidarity relate to the over all task of transforming Vermont for the better? Aside from the fact that unionized workers have job security, better pay (on average), and more democracy on the job than their nonunion counterparts, the above discussed developments in the labor movement seem to point to a broader trend. First of all, the more established unions are becoming open to more internal democracy. Second, the example of the Montpelier Downtown Workers’ Union shows the potential for building new, directly democratic unions among the ranks of low paid workers. And third, the emerging sense of organized class solidarity would seem to allow for a more dynamic labor movement then could previously be expected. These three developments point to new possibilities.

Even so, could it not be argued that when and if the Town Meeting system is further empowered, that workers will no longer need the protection of labor unions? This, in that they, as the majority class, will be fairly represented through their communities. While it is true that workers are the majority, it is also true that many towns, like Stowe, entail hundreds of workers who do not, and currently cannot, live where they work. Therefore, in order to give a voice to those, who by their labor, make the functioning of that community possible, we must recognize the absolute need for the integration of worker organizations with the Town Meeting system. Union plus Town Meeting equals democracy!

In addition, it is hard to imagine a situation where the power of Town Meeting and farmer organizations are effectively expanded without the further maturity of the Vermont labor movement. In a sense, for any one of these interests to have a chance at superseding the power of the rich and that of the General Assembly, they must all develop together, as supporting beams of a united and popular movement. While the towns have the power to withhold cooperation with the centralized government, and the farmers the strategic ability to control local food production, the workers, through their organizations, have the all important ability to withhold their labor. Without the workers’ participation, NOTHING in Vermont, or the world for that matter, other then the rising and setting of the sun, could continue to function. Without our participation capitalism and the system of government which has come to underwrite it, would crumble.

With this being said, after the Downtown Workers’ Union reaches a further level of maturity, it should seek to develop further ties with the rank and file of other unions also located in the city. Maybe this will be partially achieved through the ongoing inter-union work of the Defense Squad. Maybe this squad will eventually develop into an action committee which does not confine it to the struggles of local 221. It is possible that it will emerge as committee which is prepared to take direct action in defense of all Montpelier workers, those from different unions, and those that are yet to belong to a union. And again, as such relations of mutual aid develop, however they come about, is it not possible that some crucial worker related issue will come to the surface which compels all the unions of Montpelier to come together in one great workers’ council? For the moment, the eyes of Vermont are on these workers, and it is up to them to set the example for struggles that are yet to have not yet risen to the surface.

As the fight goes on, we shall see what will happen. But one way or another, workers, all across the Green Mountains would do well to come together in such organizations. In a word, if you work in a nonunion shop, talk with your coworkers and form a union. If you are already in a union, get involved with it, fight to make it more democratic, and if it hasn’t already become a member of the Workers’ Center, propose to your membership that you join today. And of course, while we struggle to win mid-term bread and butter victories for our class, we must seek to integrate unions into local and statewide networks of mutual aid; capable of making political decisions, engaging in effective strategies, and nurturing internal practices consistent with direct democracy. If we achieve all this, could we not assume that it will be the workers themselves who one day will be in a position to self manage the sectors of the economy they already know so well? Just as we must struggle to create farmer organizations that are capable of coordinating Vermont’s basic food production, we must do what we can to bring more workers into the organized fold, while transforming our existing unions from within, into bodies which are capable of holding production together without the exploitive presence of corporate owners, and thick headed bosses.

In summation, a good union is no different than Town Meeting; only it is a form of Town Meeting which is daily reinforced through activities on the shop floor, and finds its larger expression through the integrated efforts of workers across industrial lines. When we were all farmers we met in Town Hall to decide our own fate. Today, all that has changed is that we now work in hundreds of different jobs, often in towns where we do not live, and the communal place where we go to make decisions has come to include our Union Halls. As the fight to regain our democratic freedom comes full circle, we must recognize that it is impossible to recreate the past; one cannot step in the same river twice. Our world has changed, and with it the directly democratic process of Town Meeting must come to include countywide farmer organizations, and integrated worker councils. It will be through these three pillars of democracy that we will again come to know the dignity and privilege that comes with a truly free and empowered people.

Freedom and Unity

Town Meeting, democratic farmer organizations, and worker councils; these are the three building blocs of a free and prosperous Vermont. Each of these organizations, both at a local and regional level, would stand for the organized interests of the people. But in and of themselves these organizations do not necessarily translate into a functional direct democracy. If we cannot find a way to tie them all together, we will be left in the quagmire of having three separate, though popular, institutions. If this were the case it can be assumed that they would inevitably compete with each other for overall sovereignty, and in the process they could fail to surmount the powers of Washington, Wall Street, and the State. Let us recall that in a divided house, the tyrant remains king.

Therefore, we must find ways through which all three are integrated into one functioning system. Ideally, each body would represent one vote. For any decision to be made, we could require that two out of three of the bodies vote in its favor. In other words, if a single town, or a small number of adjacent towns sought to pass a resolution which would only affect those communities, we could require that both the farmer organization(s), and the worker councils that exist in those communities also debate and vote on the issue. If two out of three vote in favor, then it should be done. Conversely, the farmer organizations or worker councils could also bring issues to the fore which the related Town Meetings would have to vote on. And again, when decisions have to be made on a broader level, we can require that all three bodies vote on the question at hand during something akin to a greatly empowered Vermont wide Town Meeting Day. Of course all members of society will have two votes; one through the town where they live, and the other either in their local worker council or county farmer organization. Therefore, in order for such big decisions to be democratically made, the general meetings of these bodies would have to be staggered. For example, on the second Tuesday of every March, all the towns would hold their meetings. A week later the farmers would hold their county meetings. A week after that, the worker councils would hold their meetings. If a majority of towns, which represent a majority of Vermonters passed a given resolution, then it would register that the towns, collectively, voted yes. If a majority of the county based farmer organizations, representing a majority of farmers, passed a resolution, then it too would be considered a yes vote. And again, if a majority of worker councils, representing a majority of workers, passed a resolution, then it would be counted as a yes vote. There are several options for how resolutions would become law. A Vermont-wide resolution could be considered law if a majority in two out of the three bodies voted in its favor or ,perhaps, a free Vermont would require a majority in all three bodies for a resolution to pass.

So how would resolutions be placed on all these agendas? After all, if we are to coordinate all the functioning of Vermont ourselves (without the centralization of the General Assembly), we will have to see to it that certain basic issues are addressed, in every local body all at once, and in a timely manner. With well over 200 Town Meetings, an equal amount of worker councils, and 12 farmer organizations, it is not practical to think that a few committed individuals will be capable of getting enough signatures in each locality to get any single issue on all the local agendas. Furthermore, such a task would have to be performed once, twice, or even four times a year! Assuming that such dedicated individuals did mobilize, is it not likely that dozens of similar, yet competing resolutions would also be placed on the agendas, piecemeal, across the Green Mountains? How could Vermont smoothly function given these inherent difficulties?

First of all, we have to remain vigilant that we do not begin to dismantle the democratic rights of individuals and groups, in the name of efficiency. Therefore, as is the case now with towns, people should always be allowed the option of privately getting signatures in their communities in order to get things placed on their local agenda. And if other organizations wish to have specific issues addressed in multiple towns (or for that matter in the farmer groups or worker councils), they should have the right to attempt to do so. However, these means of expression are not enough to guarantee the practical operation of running all of Vermont. For this reason, we should seek to build a system through which any one Town, worker council, or farmer group has the right to ask that a proposal that they, on the local level, endorse, be placed on all the agendas across Vermont. And in order to synthesize redundant proposals, the Vermont wide bodies of the three organizations should annually elect a coordinating committee, who would all work together and whose job it would be to make it so. Such a committee would not have any legislative powers. All they would be empowered to do is rationalize the various proposals which are presented for debate across these hills. In order to discourage the concentration of duties, and partisanship of interests, such persons should not be allowed to be elected onto multiple seats. In other words, a person should not be allowed to run as both a Town Meeting and farmer or labor coordinator at the same time.

While such a system seems to solve many problems inherent in directly democratic systems, one operational question remains. As has been alluded to above, free market capitalism, under this system, would be replaced with a more socially responsible and equitable self-management system. Food production will be rationalized and coordinated through the united efforts of the Farmer organizations, and production and services will be carried out through the directly democratic labor unions. One may ask, exactly who within these groups would be responsible for coming up with such a complex and integrated plan? With the farmers, considering that their overall numbers, and local bodies will be relatively few, the solution is comparatively easy. During their regular Vermont wide meeting days, the general membership would be free to set the general goals and direction of such production. After this, an elected, statewide farmer select board will be responsible for the formation of specific plans on how such membership directives will be carried out.

In relation to industrial production, transportation, services, all else in between, the answer is a bit more complex. While the workers as a whole, through the local worker councils, should be democratically allowed to express their general vision, specific issues within specific industries will have to be addressed by those who labor in those capacities alone. For example, while the general membership of the combined worker councils (in collaboration with Town Meeting and the Farmer organizations) may vote to increase Vermont’s reliance on renewable energy sources, it will be up to all relevant workers who will be carrying out the project (utility, construction, etc.) to come up with the exact plan on how this will be done. While workers will be brought together in geographically organized councils, it will also be necessary to retain a parallel trade union structure in order for specifics to be worked out. In essence, this reality is akin to a group of people deciding that they want to have a house built. While the decision to build, and the general features of such a house would be left to them, the actual blue prints would have to be drawn up by an architect. In a word, the people as a whole will give direction, and the expertise of the related workers will find a way to make it happen.

And again, as with the other popular bodies, these parallel trade based bodies must operate according to directly democratic principles. Finally, as is the case with the farmers, the workers will have to elect Vermont wide worker select boards both at the council level and the individual trade level in order for the general directives of the combined membership to be carried out according to a detailed and coordinated plan.

The last problem that such a directly democratic system would have to solve is how disagreements are resolved between these bodies, and how voting deadlocks could be overcome. Imagine a situation where an important decision has to be made. Let us assume that the nature of the decision does not allow us to simply vote no, but rather that one way or another we have to take some kind of action. Say that the proposal that is intended to address the issue is voted down by both the majority of Town Meetings, and the Farmer organizations. If this were to occur, we should require that elected delegates from all the towns, farmer organizations, and worker councils meet in order to discuss the positions of their communities. Such a body would encompass roughly 500 total delegates. While these delegates would not be empowered to make any binding decisions, they should be expected to discuss, debate, and propose compromises to the issue. In turn, they should seek to come to a commonly accepted position, which they could bring back to their local bodies where it could be again voted on. [*Note: This power dynamic would be the exact opposite as it is today, where the decisions of Town Meeting are considered non-binding, and the decisions of the assembly are considered law.] Of course such a system does not guarantee perfection. There should be little doubt that heated arguments, and impasses will arise. However, we are not trying to describe a utopian kingdom. Rather, the system that we are sketching is simply a real democracy. And with democracy, despite all its potential flaws, the maxim that more than half the people will make the right decision more than half the time is a great improvement from the money driven bureaucracy that we currently struggle with.

A Peoples’ Bill Of Rights

The achievement of the above directly democratic system would, in and of itself, shine like a light for all the farmers and workers of the world. But does it guarantee that which capitalism presently denies us? With democracy would we all have healthcare, housing, jobs, higher education, etc.? Not necessarily. Such a democracy only guarantees an equal vote and equal voice. It does not mandate equal treatment outside the Town Hall, Union Hall, or Farmers’ Hall. For this reason, such a society would have to include a basic bill of rights that sees to it that the wealth and opportunities created by the combined efforts of the workers and farmers could not become monopolized by any one group of citizens. Just as we must all put into society, we must all have equal access to the fruits of that society. Therefore, such a peoples’ bill of rights must guarantee the following: 1.) ample food, 2.)decent housing, 3.) jobs, 4.) free healthcare, 5.) free higher education, 6.) and equal and integrated rights and treatment for all persons regardless of profession, sex, race, (dis)ability, religion, or sexual orientation. These six points must serve as the basic unalienable rights of the entire society. If we are to truly deliver a free Vermont to our grandchildren, these rights must remain non-negotiable, and the basic guiding principles of all our collective endeavors.

Unlike under our current economic system, there can be no artificial debate about whether or not a free society can afford these guarantees. For once we liberate ourselves from the exploitive relations of capitalism, and once our productive forces are self managed through collectively controlled means, we will be able to reap the benefits of a rationalized economy; one that is geared towards the betterment of the people as opposed to the accumulation of private wealth. And again, when our economy is self managed, our collective resources will no longer be siphoned off by the bosses. There will be no more over paid CEOs, and no more union busting lawyers. Together we will create a more socially productive economy. One that serves the needs of the people, and not the irrational desires of the wealthy.

Lastly, let it be known that the ultimate victory of working Vermonters over the abstract forces of capitalism will be reached through a new, equitable, form of exchange. No longer will such a system make a daycare provider work 150 hours in order to get one hour worth of dental care. No longer will a farmer have to bust their ass the entire year just to be able to keep the electricity on. The new basis for a free and equitable system of exchange will be “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. No longer will corporations and owners force us into creating products for the wealthy that we, ourselves, could never afford. When the yoke of Washington, Wall Street, and the rich is broken, the rule will be that an hour of labor will be worth an hour of labor. When we achieve real democracy, we will have the power to extend our social equity not only into politics and the workplace, but also to the economy itself.

Vermont As A Northern Star

While we struggle for freedom right here among our Green Mountains, we must understand that we are not alone. Millions of others, throughout the continent and beyond, are fighting for similar aims. Commonly such aims, direct democracy, farmer and worker self management, and the guarantee that all people have access to the basic necessities and social services, is referred to as a libertarian form of socialism; namely that of anarchism. In an anarchist system, there is no longer a ruling class. Instead all people have an equal say in the direction of society. And again, this system differs from capitalism in that the products of labor are not geared to the interests of an elite few, but rather the common good of the whole.

As Vermonters, we must also recognize that the fight to win such freedom does not start and stop at our boarders. As we write this document, millions of workers and farmers, in every corner of the continent and the world beyond, are struggling to achieve similar victories in their distinct regions. We would do well to support their efforts, as our fight is linked to theirs as long as we are engaged against the common enemy of greed, bureaucracy, centralization, capitalism, and the rich. The final defeat of capitalism will only come when its chain of oppression is broken at many links.

And again, when we achieve our victory, we must be prepared to extend our hand in friendship and cooperation with those farmers and workers beyond our mountains. We must do so in order that we, together, forge a new means of cooperation that seeks to achieve a broader society in which all people are free to experience the world without the deadening weights of poverty, and alienation.

The Vermont Spring

As working class and farming Vermonters, we owe it to our cultural past, the future of our grand children, and ourselves to seek the fulfillment of our common dreams and aspirations. We can no more accept a future where our mountains are further masked by the two dimensional trappings of capitalism, then we could a world without seasons. Before consumerism, bureaucracy, and centralization obscured our culture of independence and equality, we must come together in order to reassert that which is just. For this we must continue to build the popular organizations that will inherit our hills, and we must build them so as they face the proverbial south. And for us, that is toward direct democracy, socialism, and creativity. In a word, we are a people who continually look to the end of winter, and friends, with a little hard work the spring will find us.

- Green Mountain Anarchist Collective, (NEFAC-Vermont)

July, 2004