Op-ed: Start putting people first, right here

[This article was originally published in Bennington Banner, VT Digger, Rutland Herald along with other VT media outlets. ]

Start putting people first, right here

In 1967 in his Christmas sermon, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "I still have a dream that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized, and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda."

In 2011, Put People First! a new statewide grass-roots organizing campaign calling for a People’s Budget, was started by the Vermont Workers Center. Three years earlier the VWC had launched the Healthcare Is A Human Right Campaign to change what was politically possible for winning a universal healthcare system based on human rights principles. In this process we learned a lot about how public policy decisions get made not just on healthcare, but more generally.

We saw who was and who wasn’t at the table setting public policy priorities. We can report that the 1 percent and their corporate lobbyists are over-represented in their ongoing efforts to maintain the status quo. If we are going to have a real functioning democracy the rest of us (the 99 percent) have to work in solidarity to demand new ways of setting public priorities and policies.

Since the launch of the People’s Budget Campaign in the spring, the 99 percent movement was born and has taken root all over the country. But before the Occupy Wall Street movement began, flooding had just destroyed or severely damaged thousands of homes, farms, and businesses across the state and washed out so many roads and bridges. Vermonters then stood together in solidarity saying, "I Am Vermont Strong."

This movement of thousands of community volunteers, state and municipal workers tirelessly labored to make sure people were safe and had housing and food. The responses showed how people deeply care about one another. We also found that the families that were hardest hit by this flood crisis were those already struggling with the crisis that is poverty. Irene had deepened and exposed an existing crisis.

So let’s ask ourselves -- what can we do about all this in Vermont? These are big-time problems. Poverty in Vermont is linked to the current global economic crisis and our nation’s position as home to the greatest wealth inequality in the history of the world. More and more people are experiencing first hand the impact of extreme weather and historic flooding. These disasters are connected to the climate crisis caused by global warming which threatens the survival of our species.

We desperately need to take action on addressing these crises on a national level, but since the federal government is almost entirely run by the 1 percent and their corporations, we need to take action where we can win. Just like in the struggle for universal healthcare, Vermont can lead the way in putting people first and establishing a People’s Budget.

The state budget is a moral document, indicating what our values and priorities are. The People’s Budget Campaign is about Putting People First. It calls for a transparent, participatory, and accountable budgeting process which prioritizes resources to meet the needs of our communities and is based on human rights principles, including actions to protect our right to a healthy environment and a livable planet.

The 1 percent has done an impressive job getting people to focus their dissatisfaction with the current system on "the government." Occupy Wall Street has helped turn the attention to the real forces who are in the driver’s seat. Instead of saying we need less government so that corporations can run the show, the new movement of the 99 percent is saying "no" to corporate rule and "yes" to real democracy. It is saying that with so much wealth there is no excuse people have to choose between feeding their families or being able to buy the medicine they need, or heating their home.

Dr. King was also famous for saying "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." The arc bends toward democracy, because we can’t have that justice without democracy. But these arcs don’t bend on their own and politicians don’t bend them for us. From Tunisia to Egypt to Wisconsin to Vermont to Zuccotti Park, we have seen people’s movements bending them by struggling for real democracy and human rights.

On Tuesday, January 3, 2012 there was a Put People First Legislative Kickoff Rally at the Statehouse in Montpelier, as we demanded democracy and a government focused on its responsibility to its people and the planet instead of just the private interests of a few.


James Haslam is the director of the Vermont Workers’ Center.

A report and background information about the People’s Budget can be found at www.workerscenter.org/peoplesbudget.