Fighting for the Wages We Deserve

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On May 18, the Burlington City Council endorsed a non-binding resolution calling on HowardCenter to pay its workers a living wage. The resolution passed in a contentious 6-to-5 vote.

Before the meeting, about 40 HowardCenter workers and community supporters marched down Church Street, holding signs saying, "I love my job. I wish I could afford to stay." They held a speakout in front of City Hall where workers and supporters talked about the need for better pay and working conditions.

Although purely symbolic, the resolution is significant because it takes place during ongoing contract negotiations between HowardCenter and AFCSME Local 1674, representing the roughly 700 direct-care service providers at the agency.

In what are likely the longest and most contentious negotiations in HowardCenter's history, direct-care workers have been working without a contract for almost a year. As a result of an ongoing effort to build union membership and a growing layer of radicalizing workers, the union is demanding that HowardCenter finally begin addressing many of the workers' longstanding grievances.

HowardCenter claims that it is doing everything it can to look for ways to increase compensation for its employees, but that budgetary constraints stand in the way. But their actions reveal that this is simply a lie. In 2013, the Vermont state legislature passed a bill that increased funding from Medicaid by 3 percent. The legislation explicitly stated thatHowardCenter was to use the additional funds "to provide a commensurate increase in compensation for direct care workers."

Although the Medicaid providers distributed the funds, HowardCenter has only allocated a portion of this funding to its workers. After its repeated calls for the funds to be dispersed to workers were ignored, the union filed a lawsuit against HowardCenter in an effort to hold the agency accountable for its blatant theft of workers' wages.

In addition, HowardCenter has gone to great lengths to undermine workers' ability to organize at the agency. Last year, AFSCME began putting resources into building the size and strength of the union. In response, the president of HowardCenter began sending out e-mails referring to organizers as "outside agitators" and encouraging workers not to talk to anyone from the union.

Furthermore, despite claiming serious budgetary shortfalls, the agency has somehow found tens of thousands of dollars to hire a union-busting law firm out of Boston for negotiations with the union.

THE CITY Council was divided on support for the resolution. Most of the Council members who voted against the resolution hid behind the claim that support for HowardCenter workers would be inserting themselves into ongoing contract negotiations. City Councilor Joan Shannon, for example, justified her vote against the resolution by saying, "Are we going to get involved in every labor contract in this city?" Similarly, City Councilor David Hartnett said, "I don't believe we should be interjecting ourselves into this. That's why you have a union."

This stance is disingenuous. If the City Council isn't there to represent and advocate for the citizens it claims to represent, then what is it doing? In reality, those who opposed the resolution did so because they oppose organized labor. They have no such reservations when it comes to business-friendly legislation.

Councilor Tom Ayres, who supported the resolution, put it well when he said, "It's primarily to me about standing for the principles that underpin us as a democratic society. It's about properly valuing the contributions of social workers and other mental health professionals not just at the HowardCenter, but throughout our community."

The workers who attended the City Council meeting were quick to point out that the fight for a living wage is about more than money: It is about securing the best possible care for HowardCenter's clients. As Nolan Rampy, a clinician at HowardCenter pointed out:

We don't pay enough to be able to be able to hold onto the best and most talented [workers]...HowardCenter is largest mental health care provider in the state of Vermont, and I guarantee that every single one of you have people in your district whose mental health care is suffering because HowardCenter does not pay livable wages.

WITH MORE than 60 locations and an annual budget of $85 million, HowardCenter is the largest mental health care agency in the state of Vermont, providing developmental, substance abuse, and child, youth and family services to approximately 15,000 people each year.

Direct-care service providers are working with the most vulnerable and at-risk populations in the state such as children with complex trauma, often involving physical and sexual abuse. Because of the high level of skill required, most of the direct care positions require a bachelor's degree.

Despite the demanding and essential nature of the work, direct care providers are paid as low as $13.08 an hour--less than Burlington's official living wage of $13.94.

During the City Council meeting, Aaron Fiore, a behavioral interventionist, spoke about how he is moving into an RV because he can no longer afford his rent, which amounts to 40 percent of his income. He said of the hardships that have resulted from low wages: "I never thought I would have to move into a converted U-Haul to give myself a raise. I already don't have a car. I'm now moving into a mobile home. What's next?"

The low pay and stressful working conditions have created a staffing crisis across many of the departments within the agency. Although HowardCenter employees often report loving the work they do, many leave because they don't earn a living wage. It is not uncommon for people to move on to jobs, such as waiting tables, that don't require the degree they earned.

As a result, many of the 15,000 clients that HowardCenter serves each year are not receiving the best care possible. Many HowardCenter employees talk about the negative effects this has on HowardCenter's clients. For example, at one of the residential facilities where children live while the team works to reunify them with their family, so many staff have been lost that the children have begun to ask if the staff leave because they don't care about them.

Periodic pickets are continuing around the negotiations, but thus far, HowardCenter shows little sign of moving on the principal demands of the union, including a living wage and better working conditions. It could be that HowardCenter is hoping its employees will get tired of fighting and give up. But workers are sending a clear message that they are going to see this through to the end.

This story was originally published on Socialist Worker.


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