Laboring for change: Hundreds attend People's Convention for Human Rights, seek to address issues

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Burlington Free Press
Sunday, September 2
By Brent Hallenbeck

Harold Nadeau ran into a conundrum when he tried to find low-income housing after moving to Vermont a decade ago.

He said he was denied housing based on income-sensitivity guidelines due to a bad credit score. Because he was on a fixed income, he was paying more than 50 percent of his income for housing, and that ratio is what led to his bad credit rating.

“Generally it leads to evictions and you need more housing,” Nadeau said, “so it’s kind of a Catch-22.”

Nadeau, from West Charleston, took part in a workshop Saturday at the People’s Convention for Human Rights. The event drew an estimated 500 people inside Burlington High School on a sunny Labor Day weekend to address problems they believe are interfering with people’s rights to improve their lives.

Held on the weekend between the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention, the People’s Convention for Human Rights attracted attendees affiliated with a variety of organizations; Nadeau, for instance, is involved with the Vermont Center for Independent Living and Northeast Kingdom Community Action. The weekend-long event is being presented by the Vermont Workers’ Center in conjunction with several other host organizations.

“This is a culmination of a lot of work that has been happening for years in different organizations realizing we had to come together,” said James Haslam, a director and lead organizer for the Burlington-based Vermont Workers’ Center. “That’s really where the power of human rights is.”

The convention began Friday night with a kickoff event at Burlington College. Saturday’s morning session at BHS had participants break into groups to discuss the problems and potential solutions relating to several topics, including health care, the environment and education.

Nadeau was among a dozen participants in a workshop titled “Housing Is a Human Right.” The group started by discussing what they were aiming for with the weekend’s events.

“We’re all united in the different struggles, whether it’s housing or health care,” said Jaye Goodman of Barre, a member of the Vermont Workers’ Center. “We have to remain united in order to make a difference in the struggle.”

Two moderators from the Vermont Workers’ Center led the workshop and put paper leaves on a paper tree, with the leaves telling some of the problems people have encountered with housing, and the roots of the tree indicating where the problems originate. Nadeau’s story was among several placed on the tree.

“The next step in our process,” said moderator Devon Ayers, a volunteer with the Vermont Workers’ Center, “is working our way down the tree: Why do these things happen?”

Peter Bulterman of Bennington talked about how two or three key landlords in a town can form a “price cartel” that drives up the cost of housing. “That’s the failure of capitalism” when only a few people have control over the economy of all, according to Bulterman.

Politicians aren’t of much help, Nadeau added. “Our government is made up of people who don’t have the same needs,” he said. “Representation of the people has been lost.”

Those at the convention were scheduled Saturday afternoon to discuss how they will get organized on their various topics. Today’s session will include talk about the steps they need to take to make change happen.

It’s no accident that the convention is happening on Labor Day weekend, according to Haslam of the Vermont Workers’ Center.

“The history of Labor Day — of having a weekend, of having an eight-hour day, all of that kind of stuff — is the result of grassroots people’s movements,” Haslam said. “No politician gives (rights) to people. They come from people claiming them.”