[also published in VT Digger and Bennington Banner]
The response to the devastation of Tropical Storm Irene should make us proud to be Vermonters. Thousands of people volunteered and contributed to efforts to get communities back on their feet. The new “I Am Vermont Strong” campaign has tapped into this community pride with the goal of rebuilding stronger than before the storm. To me, stronger communities means communities where we no longer have policies that leave so many people vulnerable or threaten the livability of the planet.
Even after we recover from Irene, we will still face an ongoing crisis. The economic crisis and the climate crisis both stem from the breakdown of democracy — the health of people and the planet have been undermined so that a tiny fraction of the population can accumulate enormous wealth.
Strong and healthy communities cannot exist in the presence of poverty and extreme inequality. If our neighbors are not safe and healthy, it affects us all. We need bold policies that ensure everyone has access to the health care, safe housing, nutritious food, healthy natural environment, education and child care they need. In the wake of Irene, we acted immediately to make sure people’s needs were met. This same primary goal should guide all our public policy: meet the fundamental needs of the people.
We must also recognize that climate change and severe weather events are upon us and will likely escalate. Vermont must lead the way — as we have begun to do in economic and social justice — by adopting necessary policy solutions to address the climate crisis, end our dependence on fossil fuels and find sustainable energy solutions.
These deep-seated problems need to be addressed at their roots. For too long, our policies have addressed symptoms, not causes, of the problems. For example, our health care system treats health care as a commodity. Some people can afford to buy health insurance while many cannot or are underinsured. The “solutions” have been to expand taxpayer supported programs and attempt to regulate insurance companies. Yet this approach does not solve the root problem. Insurance companies can continue to pocket premiums, avoid paying for care when people get sick, and then shift the costs onto taxpayers. In Vermont, we have realized that the only real solution is to put the health of everybody first — to treat health care as a public good. We can do this by getting rid of the health care insurance companies and other profiteers and by investing health care dollars into healing people and keeping Vermonters healthy.
What’s next? The Vermont Workers’ Center has joined with organizations across the state in a new initiative called Put People First. Put People First means working to realize a universal health care system, fighting for workers’ rights and putting the needs of our communities and the planet first. It includes creating a People’s Budget in which state spending and revenue policies reflect the true values of our communities and are based on the human rights principles of universality, equity, accountability, transparency and participation.
We are demanding that our elected representatives put people first, but policy makers will not be able to stand up against powerful corporate interests until we organize enough people power to give them the strength to do it.
I am asking you to join thousands of Vermonters at noon on Tuesday, May 1, to make our democracy Vermont Strong. Join us for a major statewide march and rally in Montpelier, beginning at noon at City Hall. This year’s rally is also part of an international day of action called for by the Occupy Wall Street movement — “A Day Without the 99%” — for people to come together across all those lines which too often divide and weaken us, to build a better world. Bring your family, friends, co-workers and neighbors as we join together to make Vermont stronger by demanding that our elected representatives put people first.
James Haslam is the director of the Vermont Workers’ Center. More details about the May 1 rally can be found at www.workerscenter.org.