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When Bush comes to shove: Unemployed workers see funding cuts, union workers lose rights on the job

labor rally
Burlington rally photo by Jessica K. Kell

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted October 13, 2006

For millions of workers around the nation, including thousands of nurses in Vermont, the October surprise wasn’t the scandal involving the sexual predation of former congressional pages, or an overseas victory in the so-called war on terror.

The “surprise” was a Sept. 29 decision issued by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that reclassifies millions of workers as managers, meaning fewer people will be able to vote on whether to join a union in their workplace.

In less than a week, millions of workers nationwide held rallies decrying the decision, including a small, but feisty, rally in downtown Burlington.

The themes at the Burlington rally echoed those contained in statements by national union leaders.

“Over the last several years, the NLRB has chipped away at [the right to organize] by limiting the eligibility of disabled workers, teaching assistants, temporary workers and others to join unions. Now, at the very time middle class workers need more help, not less, the NLRB is taking a broad swing,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in an Oct. 5 statement.

The NRLB’s decision enables employers to make a supervisor out of any worker who has “the authority to assign or direct another and uses independent judgment.” This means that any worker can be classified as a supervisor if he or she spends as little as 10-15 percent of their time overseeing others. Under current federal law, supervisors are not allowed to join a union.

The immediate implications of the Oakwood Healthcare, Inc., case are “devastating to workers in the health care industry and potentially in other industries where professional employees direct or assign the work of others,” said Sweeney.

It was nurses who took center stage in Burlington at the Oct. 5 rally protesting the decision.

“We won’t stand still as the Bush labor board rolls back workers’ rights,” said Sue Lucas, president of the nurses’ union at Copley Hospital in Morrisville. “This decision will mean that up to eight million workers will be stripped of their freedom to have union on the job — it’s un-American, anti-worker, and just plain wrong.”

An operating room nurse at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington said the decision will have an impact on patient care.

“Why, might you ask, is this a disaster for patient care? Because nurses with a voice on the job are the only advocates patients have when hospitals make decisions that put patients at risk,” said Martha Ahmed. “In an era of a national nursing shortage and hospitals cutting every corner possible to protect their bottom line, union nurses who can speak out without fear of retaliation are the only protection patients have.”

The freedom to join unions isn’t the only impact that workers in Vermont must expect to see from federal decisions.

Quietly, and with little attention in the media, the state Department of Labor is facing federal budget cuts that will drastically change how out-of-work Vermonters will find services in at least six locations: Newport, Morrisville, Middlebury, Brattleboro, White River Junction, and St. Albans.

The cuts are the second in a series of cuts that Vermont has been dealt from Washington, and there are more to come. In the proposed FY 2008 budget, which would take effect next year, the Bush administration is proposing yet even further cuts — another $890,000 in funding cuts is on the table, as are plans to change the way in which unemployment services are provided to workers.

The new cuts are on top of a 2005 move that saw the State Department of Labor (then the Department of Employment and Training) close six of its regional offices, instead creating “sub-regional” offices that were colocated with other state programs.

In each of the six affected towns, services will be scaled back from the current five-day work week to as little as three days. On the other two days, department employees will set up satellite offices in nearby towns to meet directly with workers.

Currently, public serivces help workers write résumés, prepare for job interviews, and more.

For one legislator, the new cuts are part of what she sees as a long-term strategy to get rid of public support for job seekers.

“They started beating this drum five or six years ago and it’s clear to a number of us that it is the federal government’s intent to ultimately and completely defund this program,” said Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, the vice chairwoman of the Joint Fiscal Committee, and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “They believe that the free market ought to be doing job placement for people.”

Earlier this year, the Joint Fiscal Committee approved the department’s plan. Bartlett is hopeful that the new changes will bring services closer to folks who have limited access to reliable transportation.

“I see it as so counter-productive when we are trying to have people get decent jobs and really need a lot of support in getting into the workplace,” said Bartlett. “These [state employees] take people out and get decent clothes for an interview, and help them work on a résumé. It’s not just about filling out a form and applying for a job.”

Commissioner Pat Moulton-Powden, who took charge of the department in August, credits her predecessor, Patricia McDonald, who put together the plan that is currently being put into place.

For example, in Newport, office hours will be cut to two to three days a week with one day a week in Island Pond and another in Barton, and once a month in Canaan.

“This will allow us to go out to the people a little more,” said Moulton-Powden. “And, it allows us to colocate with organizations that we would partner with anyway and this way the public will be able to get access to a variety of services at once.”

Still, she knows that people will have to make adjustments to their old habits.

“It’s a little more user-friendly and, yes, people will have to get used to a more rigid schedule, but the [Department of Motor Vehicles] used to only offer photo IDs one day a week and people could plan around it,” said Moulton-Powden.

The Newport office is the furthest along in making the shift, which Moulton-Powden hopes will begin taking shape this month.

The department is actively looking at finding space in St. Albans, and outlying towns; Morrisville will see satellite offices in Hardwick and Johnson. They are looking at new options in Middlebury to reduce space, and open up satellite offices in Bristol and Vergennes. In White River Junction, too, they hope to reduce their office size, and open a location in Randolph, and perhaps other areas. They are also looking at ways to alter Brattleboro’s hours, too, and branch out into nearby communities.

“We will have set places and a set schedule and we will advertise these changes so people will know where we’ll be each day,” said Moulton-Powden. She hopes that the changes will not affect workers, and also hopes that by saving money on office space, further personnel cuts can be avoided.

In the past five years, the department has trimmed nearly 100 jobs, according to Annie Noonan, the executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association.

She is most concerned because the work sites affected are the ones that are in parts of the state with the highest unemployment rates — including Newport and St. Albans.

In 2003 when the first major cuts happened, six of the state’s 12 offices were given less autonomy, essentially placed under the control of one of the other six offices. Those offices were in Morrisville, Newport, Middlebury, White River Junction, St. Albans, and Brattleboro. Now, those six offices will see their offices shrink in size, and in some cases become colocated with another state department rather than have their own stand-alone office space.

“Federal cuts are always a problem, but we’ve successfully dealt with them in the past and hope they don’t occur in the future,” said Jason Gibbs, Gov. Jim Douglas’ spokesman.

The Bush administration has signaled that it wants employment services to be done by private firms. The administration hopes Congress will approve what they are calling Career Advancement Accounts. These accounts would work similarly to the way that flexible spending accounts work — each laid-off worker would receive a lump sum — around $3,000 — that they could spend on the training, schooling, or services they need to get a new job. Congress has not yet authorized this new approach, nor has it authorized a pilot program in the upper Midwest, home to many automobile-making factories, to test the program.