VSEAs reinstated director charts new course
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | July 28,2013
MONTPELIER — In his first interview since being reinstated as director of the Vermont State Employees Association, embattled union head Mark Mitchell says he’s eager to continue steering the 5,000-member organization in a “new direction.”
Mitchell lost his post in late June when undisclosed allegations leveled by two VSEA staff members prompted the board of trustees to terminate his contract. That decision came after an hours-long executive session Mitchell was barred from attending.
The move elicited sharp criticism from union members. Days later, the board revoked its termination and placed Mitchell on paid administrative leave pending an internal probe.
Last week, the same board that voted to oust the VSEA director welcomed him back, and announced that the two staff attorneys who led the charge against Mitchell were leaving the organization.
“There’s a vigorous debate going on within our union about the best approach to achieve the results our members are asking us to work with them toward,” Mitchell said in an interview Friday at VSEA headquarters in Montpelier. “I think what happened over the past few weeks is the result of that.”
Mitchell said the trustees asked him not to discuss either the allegations against him or the particulars of their resolution. VSEA President John Reese wasn’t available for comment Friday or Saturday.
Mitchell, however, said the episode won’t affect his ability to deliver on an agenda that aims to broaden the reach and power of the state’s second-largest union.
Mitchell said the union had atrophied in recent years as membership plummeted from a peak of 7,000 in 2007, a decline hastened by layoffs under the administration of Gov. James Douglas. As a result, Mitchell said, the union narrowed its focus and turned its attention away from the kinds of workplace issues for which it was originally designed.
“What the VSEA became was a shop that was able to deliver on individual representation of folks that were individually in trouble for one reason or another, or under investigation by their managers,” Mitchell said.
“But if there was an issue of ‘I didn’t get a promotion,’ ‘my boss isn’t being fair,’ ‘it’s too cold in the office,’ ‘we don’t have enough space to spread out our maps to do our job’ — the union did not generally have the capacity to address those kinds of issues that weren’t specifically about a worker being threatened with their job,” he said.
That culture has begun to change, as evidenced recently by Agency of Education employees who went public with their criticism of a move to Barre after management, according to Mitchell, failed to involve rank-and-file workers in the decision-making process.
He credited the union’s newly “enhanced presence” in the workplace with emboldening and empowering employees who previously might not have felt comfortable raising their voices.
“Under my direction and the direction of President John Reese, this union is to be member-led and it is to encourage and foster member involvement,” Mitchell said. “That takes a different kind of work, a different kind of approach to working with members, and I would say a different perspective on union work than what was here before.”
The “activist organizing model” he brings — Mitchell worked with the California Nurses Association prior to coming to the VSEA in late 2011 — isn’t for everyone, as he said he warned people when he arrived here.
“I told the elected leaders of the VSEA that staff is going to step up and participate in this or they’re going to decide that it’s not for them and move on to something else,” Mitchell said. “It’s a new standard of internal behavior, and some people are going to be comfortable with that and some people aren’t.”
Mitchell’s departing accusers, attorneys Abigail Winters and Michael Casey, are leaving voluntarily and amicably, according to a short press release from the board last week announcing Mitchell’s reinstatement.
Mitchell said he doesn’t anticipate that any other VSEA staff will be leaving. But a series of contested elections for positions on the 17-member board of trustees could result in turnover in the union’s governing body.
Mitchell said he doesn’t think internal strife at the union has compromised its seat at the negotiating table, where the VSEA’s seven units are in the midst of contract talks with the Shumlin administration.
“I think we have an administration that is going to listen very carefully to what our members are proposing, and we expect there to be an agreement in relatively short order,” Mitchell said.
Once that’s accomplished, he said, he’ll begin working to swell ranks. The proposed budget to members this September will include a healthy allocation for “external organizing” — courting new members.
In addition to ongoing efforts to enroll deputy state’s attorneys and sheriffs’ support staff, Mitchell said he’ll target the fields of mental health and higher education.
Vermont issues tens of millions of dollars in contracts annually to nonprofit agencies that administer taxpayer-funded programs on behalf of the state. Mitchell said much of that work was formerly performed by state employees.
“Over the years hundreds of jobs have been contracted out at substandard wages with no benefits and no retirement security,” Mitchell said. “So those are workers (to whom) we could bring an immediate benefit, giving them at least a voice at the table and a voice at the Statehouse to make sure those contracts being entered into by state of Vermont more respectfully recognize the work they are doing.”