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January 31, 2014

On Paid Sick Leave, Top Vermont Dems Are Noncommittal

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John Dubie, owner of Burlington's Pearl Street Beverage, testified against paid sick leave legislation Thursday at the Statehouse.

With a reference to the world of Don Draper, President Obama renewed his call for mandatory paid sick leave Tuesday night in his State of the Union address

"A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship," he said. "And you know what, a father does, too. It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode."

But the president's full-throated support for the idea isn't exactly echoed by Vermont's Democratic leaders. As a committee in the Vermont House takes up legislation that would require businesses to provide employees up to seven days per year in accrued, paid sick leave, top Dems have been hesitant to take a side.

Continue reading "On Paid Sick Leave, Top Vermont Dems Are Noncommittal" »

December 05, 2013

Demonstrators Tell SoBu McDonald's 'We're Not Lovin' Poverty Pay'

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On top of the customary musical accompaniment to their Happy Meals, customers at the McDonald's on Williston Road in South Burlington were serenaded on Thursday with a noontime chant of "Hold the burgers, hold the fries, make our wages supersize!"

About two dozen protesters brought their demand for livable wages into the busy fast-food eatery as McDonald's workers looked on silently — and seemingly stunned. It was unclear how much those workers make; local managers also declined to comment on the local manifestation of a nationwide day of walkouts and solidarity demonstrations at fast-food restaurants in support of a $15-an-hour wage.

The demonstrators weren't at all reticent. One of them led several others in the "mic check" call-and-response popularized by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"On this day ..." the leader shouted.

Her fellow protesters joined in with this chant: " ...Workers in 100 cities/are going on strike/and people like us/are standing with them/to demand McDonald's respect the right/ to work with dignity."

A South Burlington police officer rushed into the restaurant at that point and told the protestors they had to leave. They filed out a couple of minutes later, resuming their chant and sign-waving on the sidewalk for half an hour as several passing motorists honked in response. 

Continue reading "Demonstrators Tell SoBu McDonald's 'We're Not Lovin' Poverty Pay'" »

November 25, 2013

Burlington College Cuts Spark Fears and Student Protests

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Christine Plunkett on the Burlington College campus. (file: Matthew Thorsen)

Budget cuts resulting in the loss of four faculty and staff members at financially shaky Burlington College are sparking protests by students who say they're worried about their school's viability.

Two department chairs at the 41-year-old college — Anna Blackmer (humanities) and Emily Schmidt (fine arts) — recently resigned after being offered contracts that would have made them half-time employees and terminated their health benefits. Blackmer, 63, has been working full-time at the college for 25 years.

Web administrator and veterans' liaison Erin Elliott, who is eight months pregnant, saw her position eliminated.

A third academic program head, Gordon Glover (film), was not offered a new contract. And Mary Arbuckle, a professor in the film department, had her hours cut in half and her benefits terminated. That scale-back sharply constricts the one department for which Burlington College has achieved a degree of recognition beyond its North Avenue campus.

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November 20, 2013

This Week's Issue: Union Drives, Big-Money Developers and a Long Time in the Clink

112013-coverAnother week, another Wednesday, another Seven Days. Here's this week's lineup of news and politics stories:

Pick up this issue in print, online or on the iOS app.

October 25, 2013

Labor Groups Press Schools on Sodexo Benefits Cuts

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Update: At 11:15 a.m. on Friday, October 25, University of Vermont president Tom Sullivan sent an email to the school's faculty and staff with the news that "Sodexo employees will not experience changes in the current definition of employment status and associated benefits until further notice in order for the University to complete its analysis based on a full review of all relevant data and facts."

As reasons for the announcement, the president cited "a very tight timeframe" for affected employees to find health care; the "challenges" and "uncertainties" surrounding current health-care options; "The University’s obligation to complete its review of the proposed changes under the contract with Sodexo"; and the upcoming negotiations over a new contract with Sodexo ahead of the current one's expiration in June 2015.

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When Sodexo revealed last month that it was changing the definition of a full-time employee to someone who works an average of 30 hours per week — according to the rules of the Affordable Care Act — many cried foul at colleges around the state who subcontract their dining services to the multinational company.

Only full-timers are eligible for company benefits, so when the new policy takes effect on January 1, many seasonal employees stand to be stripped of their health and dental insurance, sick and vacation days, and retirement packages. On the campuses of the University of Vermont and the Vermont state colleges, two coalitions of staff, faculty, students and labor groups have sprung up demanding that the schools intervene.

When the UVM trustees convene this weekend, one of those groups will use a public comment period on Saturday morning to present a petition — directed at UVM president Tom Sullivan and vice president for finance Richard Cate, who negotiate the school’s dining services contract — with more than 1000 signatures.

Denise Youngblood, a history professor and president of United Academics, the school’s faculty union, will also address the trustees. In her talk, Youngblood says, she’ll ask the board to urge that Sullivan and Cate take advantage of a clause in the current contract that requires the school’s approval for any change Sodexo makes in its employees’ working conditions. The existing contract will expire after 2015. 

“We believe that UVM should live up to its proclaimed social justice values,” says Youngblood. “Every employee who works on this campus should have a fair benefits package. No UVM employees are being treated the way Sodexo employees are being treated.”

Continue reading "Labor Groups Press Schools on Sodexo Benefits Cuts" »

October 03, 2013

AFSCME Wins Vote to Represent Vermont Home-Care Workers

AFSCMEVermont's labor landscape shifted dramatically Thursday as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees won a vote to represent the state's newest and largest collective bargaining unit.

By a decisive margin of 1412 to 566, Vermont's newly empowered home-care workers voted to be represented by the national labor union. The collective bargaining unit was authorized by the legislature last winter and will include roughly 7000 home health workers who provide care for the elderly and disabled.

While the outcome was significant, Thursday's vote tally was hardly a surprise. AFSCME spent months battling the Service Employees International Union for the right to organize the new bargaining unit, but the latter group dropped out in July after failing to gain traction. Mailed-in ballots counted by the Vermont Labor Relations Board Thursday morning included just two options: yes to AFSCME or no.

Continue reading "AFSCME Wins Vote to Represent Vermont Home-Care Workers" »

September 24, 2013

Seasonal Workers and Airport Vendors are Issues in Livable Wage Hearing


PhotoJust moments after the Burlington City Council voted on a new redistricting plan last night, its members dove headfirst into an even thornier issue: the city's livable wage ordinance.

For the last several months, the council’s three-member ordinance committee has been consulting with employers, city agencies, nonprofit organizations and the public to hammer out a set of amendments to a city law originally passed in 2001, ordinance committee chair Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) explained last night.

As envisioned, the ordinance was meant to guarantee a livable wage to employees of the city or any company with which it contracts. Right now, Burlington defines “livable” as $13.94 an hour for companies that offer health insurance and $15.83 for those that don't.

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September 06, 2013

Senator Urges Action On Sodexo Complaints

BaruthWhen Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) walks around the University of Vermont, where he is also an English professor, it’s not unusual for people to approach him with their complaints. He’s the majority leader in the Vermont State Senate, after all.

But the number of complaints spiked to around “10 times the normal rate” last week, the senator says, and the constituents approaching him weren’t students; they were employees of Sodexo Food Service, the French multinational company to which UVM and other Vermont colleges contract their dining services.

The workers, Baruth says, were complaining that Sodexo had informed them it would be cutting back many of their hours at the end of the calendar year, resulting in the loss of their health, dental and other benefits. They also alleged that the company had warned it would terminate any employees who went public with their complaints.

“They were told, pretty straight up, that they were going to lose health benefits and retirement,” Baruth says, suggesting that the Sodexo workers approached him in person out of fear the company might be monitoring their emails. 

In response, Baruth wrote a letter to Vermont Commissioner of Labor Annie Noonan requesting an investigation into the complaints.

“If true, these allegations would represent a very serious infringement on the rights of Sodexo workers not just on the UVM campus — where the company holds an exclusive contract for food services — but on various campuses of the state colleges as well,” Baruth said in the letter.

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August 27, 2013

BREAKING: Nuclear Expert Says It'll Take At Least 20 Years — and More Money — to Clean Up Vermont Yankee


GundersenIn the end, it wasn't the attorney general's federal lawsuit, the Vermont Legislature, the Public Service Board or any of those pesky enviros nitpicking about underground tritium leaks and collapsed cooling towers that shut down Vermont Yankee.

It was the invisible hand of the marketplace.

On Tuesday, New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation announced plans to close the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vernon by the end of 2014. Praising Vermont Yankee's talented, committed and dedicated workforce, Entergy chairman and CEO Leo Denault called it "an agonizing decision and an extremely tough call for us."

Denault touched on some of the economic forces that compelled Entergy's decision, including a "transformational shift" in the natural gas market that has driven down electricity-generation costs, high maintainence costs on the 41-year-old trouble-prone plant and "wholesale market design flaws" that have kept energy prices "artificially low" throughout New England.

So what happens next? Presumably, the plant spends the next decade or more decommissioning the plant and cleaning up the radiation. According to Entergy's press release, the Vermont Yankee decommissioning trust has a balance of $582 million, in excess of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's minimum financial assurance of $566 million for terminating the plant's license.

But one nuclear-engineer-turned-industry-watchdog isn't comforted by that figure. Burlington-based Arnie Gundersen was the first to raise a hue and cry in 2007 about projected shortfalls in the VY decommissioning fund.

Continue reading "BREAKING: Nuclear Expert Says It'll Take At Least 20 Years — and More Money — to Clean Up Vermont Yankee" »

July 31, 2013

SEIU Drops Bid to Represent 7000 Home-Care Workers, Clearing Way for AFSCME

SEIU.logoOne of the nation's most powerful labor unions abruptly abandoned its fight to represent 7000 Vermont home-care workers Wednesday afternoon.

The Service Employees International Union, which claims 1.9 million members nationwide, cited the cost, divisiveness and long odds it faced in its battle to represent what will become the the state's largest collective bargaining unit. 

With the SEIU out of the running, its sole opponent — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — is almost certain to prevail in an election scheduled to conclude in early October. AFSCME will then be charged with negotiating state subsidies and benefits for independent contractors who provide in-home care to elderly and disabled Vermonters.

"We were having a difficult time getting our message to be as well-received as we would have liked," explains Matt McDonald, who ran the SEIU's organizing campaign in the state. "You know, I think we were highly disadvantaged by the fact that we don't have members here in Vermont."

Continue reading "SEIU Drops Bid to Represent 7000 Home-Care Workers, Clearing Way for AFSCME" »

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