Workers Of Montpelier Unite!

While Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean pays lipservice to the struggles of working people around the country, workers are taking matters into their own hands in the capitol of Vermont. In the city where Mr. Dean once reigned as governor, retail and service workers are busy organizing a citywide union that would unite workers in restaurants and retail operations and build working class power on the job and in the community.

The United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE)
in collaboration with The Vermont Workers' Center have, for months, dilligently worked to bring the city's unorganized workers into a union that woulde represent cooks alongside cashiers, servers together with movie theater concesion stand clerks and bartenders next to coffee house workers. The organizing drive seeks to gain union representation in every single shop in this small capitol city of 8000.

Rank and file workers in well over a dozen downtown shops have come together in an organizing comittee to bring the Montpelier Downtown Workers' Union
into existence. To date a majority of workers at J Morgan's Steakhouse, La Pizzeria, State Street Market, Charlie O's, Karma Imports and the Savoy Theatre have signed up with the union. These workers have demanded that their employers recognize the union and sign a contract that entitles the workers to a fair grievance procedure, a fifty cent an hour raise, and a "just cause" standard for disciplne and firing.

Recognizing that National Labor Relations Board elections are just another tool in the hands of the boss, organizers have refused to file for elections. The elections which often take months to occurr, give management ample time to create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear at the workplace. Instead of allowing for employers to stack the elections, organizers have decided upon an approach where Montpelier Downtown Workers' Union will ask for voluntary recognition in shops where a majority of workers have signed up with the union. If they refuse to recognize the union, a concerted campaign of action and pressure will convince the boss otherwise.

In an interview with Catamount Tavern News (a publication of The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective), Vermont Workers' Center Director James Haslam laid down the facts, "The bosses and employers are well organized. They have the Chamber of Comerce and the Downtown Business Organization. With this in mind the workers need their own organization. When workers form a union, they are able to have the space to get together to figure out how to address issues which affect them. In Montpelier, they are starting to not only discuss specific workplace issues of fairness and equitable treatment, but also things that transcend these specifics, like healthcare, parking for workers and affordable housing."

Of the six aformentioned shops where workers have demanded union recognition only one, The Savoy (an independent movie theater and video shop), has so far voluntarily recognized the union and signed a contract. It's clear that the unionization of the entire city of Montpelier will not be won without a struggle.

At J Morgan's, an upscale restaurant which employs over 40 people, management has gone great length to combat the efforts of their workers to win union representation. The Bashara family, owners of J Morgan's and about half a dozen other Central Vermont businesses, have intimidated and harrased workers, threatening them with dismissaif they joined the union, offering bribes of meals and pay increases if they opposed the union drive, and coercing them to reveal the names of union organizers and prospective members. They have fired at least one server to date, Val Tofani , for her unwavering pro-union stance and have awarded pro-union employees with the worst shifts and hours in an effort to break their morale. In addition, they have aquired the legal services of a notorious union busting firm based in Burlington, Galagher and Flynn, which specializes in "union avoidance."

The actions of the Bashara family and J Morgan's management are not unique in their intent, but rather are a reflection of the attitude many downtown business owners and the area's upper middle class in general. Owners of businesses who were considering recognizing the union, recieved phone calls from peers who told them, "Don't you dare sign that contract." Workers at several area cafes were told they couldn't speak to a union organizer while on the clock, even if they weren't talking about the union. After the anouncment of the citywide organizing drive the mayor of Montpelier, Chuck Karparis, immediately chimed in with a few condescending comments on the matter. "I think a citywide union is totally unnecessary for this community," he said. "Yet again, we're drawn into something that is being proposed that will absolutely have a negative effect on businesses downtown."


While some workers have responded to the backlash with silence or apathy, many of the workers of downtown Montpelier have stepped up to the union bashing activities of bosses and politicians with solidarity and determination. In response to Mayor Karparis' attempt to whip up fear and resentment towards Montpelier Downtown Workers' Union, rank and file workers circulated letter in responsea to his comments that was eventualy published in a local paper.

On November 12th, over fifty workers and community members, held a candlelight vigil in front of J Morgan's demanding the Bashara family to recognize the union and give Val Tofani her job back. One week later over thirty individuals participated in a clandestine "coffee-in" to turn up the heat on management a little. Union supporters filled up nearly all the tables of J Morgan's during the friday dinner rush and ordered nothing but coffee for almost two hours. One waitress, not known for her pro-union stance, later remarked that it was one of her best night in tips ever.

Over a two week period downtown workers and volunteers with The Vermont Workers' Center knocked on doors and made their way around downtown, collecting over 700 signatures in support of the union drive. One canvaser and member of the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective, spent an afternoon talking to folks in the working class neighborhood of Barre Street about the unionization effort. When all was said and done only three people declined to sign the petition. Recently the Vermont Workers' Center took out a full page ad in the local weekly paper, The Bridge, listing the over 700 signatures in support of the union.

On December 6th, a day of worker justice prevailed amidst a blizzard that shut down much of the Northeast. Over 200 rank and file workers, union organizers and activists made their way to a statewide labor conference and later participated in a fierce rally against the boss aggression of J Morgan's management. Under cover of heavy snow demonstrators screamed out, "Working class under attack, what do we do? Act up, fight back." With a few anti-union J Morgan's workers in the background three J Morgan's employees and other downtown workers spoke out in favor of the union.

After the rally around fifty folks continued on for a round fun solidarity activities. Union supporters and members had a pizza party at La Pizzeria to send a message to the boss, that were not going anywhere and he might as well recognize the union, because it'll be better for his business in the long run. Afterwards the crowd made their way to the local working class bar of Charlie O's for union happy hour (OK, so it was actually 2 in the afternoon, but happy hour starts early when theres a blizzard on). There workers and supporters drank beer and whiskey to warm up and got into a couple spirited debates with folks on the bar stools who were in some way opposed to the downtown union effort. Afterwards some union supporters went to the Savoy for union movie night (or to pay off the fines on their rental accounts), while others continued to get their drink on into the early hours of the morning. All in all, it was a beautiful day of cameraderie and struggle, with amazing energy and turnout amidst the first truly big storm of the season.

The following wednesday a busload of fifty folks got on the bus for Boston to take the struggle for a downtown union to another level. A rally had been sponsored in Boston by the AFL-CIO against the NLRB and their workplace election scam. There around 7,000 trade unionists rallied for "card check recognition" which would eliminate NLRB elections in favor of a system by which unions would be recognized if over 50% of a workplace signed union cards. From the Montpelier Downtown Workers' Union, Val Tofani gave a moving and emotional speech ffrom the stage at the rally. It was the first time to our knowledge that she had spoke in front of a crowd let alone a crowd of thousands and she provided a moving example to all Montpelier Downtown Workers. Instead of being pressured into silence and submission by the union busting at J Morgan's she is determined to take the struggle further, even doing things that would normaly scare the crap out of most of us like speaking in front of thousands of people.

Througout the holiday season, we've kept up the pressure. During the height of the holiday shoping spree, a feisty group of carolers belted out a unique assortment of class struggle themed Christmas carols in front and inside J Morgan's, to the dismay of management. However management found that rable rousing carolers were to be the least of their worries when none other than Santa Claus showed up a few days before Christmas. Old Saint Nick made an appearence during a busy lunch rush to give the Bashara Corporation, "The Grinch of The Year Award" and to drop off a gift wraped package of coal. The manager on duty was infuriated and physicaly acosted Santa while informing Father Christmas that he would "drop him" outside. Santa then went on to give out candy to all the good workers and small business owners who are supportive of the union. We always suspected that Santa dressed in red and black for a reason!


While many inspiring (and amusing) actions have taken place in support of the union, the road to success is ,by no means, free of obstacles. This winter will be a decisive time for the city's working class to move the project forward. Much work remains to be done to build the organizing committee into a more solid group, to cut through the atmosphere of intimidation and fear that some area bosses have worked hard to create and to to sign up new workers and shops with the union.

To these ends, The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective (Vermont-NEFAC), has thrown our lot into the struggle. We published a leaflet titled, Union + Town Meeting = Democracy: A Statement From The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective , and distributed hundreds of copies around Central Vermont. As a collective, we individualy play different roles to support the struggle, organize and agitate. Some of us volunteer with the Vermont Workers' Center while one of us is a rank and file member of the union and another is a mother of two outspoken downtown union workers. We have no illusions as to the centrality of our importance in the organizing drive. Rather than seeing ourselves as some sort of self-apointed vanguard we just see ourselves as a group of people who can coordinate needed support work and organizing efforts while advocating for the anarcho-communist ideals of direct democracy and socialism. As both anarchists and life long members of the working class we understand that it will be the working class itself who forwards its own struggle for liberation. Our role is simply to act as agitators, educators and organizers towards those ends.

On the horizon there are several exciting possible developments. Recently UE has filed a slew of unfair labor practices charges against the Bashara corporation and J Morgan's steakhouse. An NLRB agent has come to Monpelier to investigate the charges and within the next week we hope that they will make a ruling penalizing management for their union busting activities. As well, with the first shop, The Savoy, signing the union contract, we hope to see a few others follow suit now that they don't have to stand out as the first business to sign the contact. With an organizing drive this ambitious in a city that is this small you never know what will happen next! Keep your eyes posted to the NEFAC newswire for new devlopments and exciting news about the struggle to build working class power in the Green Mountains of Vermont.


Class Struggle In The Green Mountains: The Vermont Workers' Center By Lady (GMAC)

Union + Town Meeting= Democracy: A Statement From The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective
">Montpelier Downtown Workers Organize Union(Burlington Free Press)

Workers At 5 Businesses Eye Union Drive(Times Argus)