VWC President's Address, November 2016

The following address was delivered by Vermont Workers' Center president Ellen Schwartz to the VWC's Annual Membership Assembly on November 12, 2016

VWC President Ellen Schwartz

Welcome, Workers’ Center members, to our annual Membership Assembly. I knew that we’d be meeting just after the elections, and that, no matter the result, we have our work cut out for us. But the election of Trump shook me emotionally in a way that elections generally don’t. I awoke on Wednesday with a mixture of fear, sorrow, devastation, and an absolutely renewed commitment to the need to organize poor and working-class people across divides of race, religion, gender, disability, immigration status, and all that is used to divide us.

In the wake of the election, a lot of FB friends posted Joe Hill’s exhortation: “Don’t mourn. Organize.” And my response was: Do mourn. And organize like hell. Mourning is an act of shared support in the face of deep sorrow. I, for one, need to allow myself to feel the sorrow, and the anger. The fear, especially for those among us who are and will be most targeted.

Neither the mourning nor the organizing is easy. The emotional toll is real. And the divisions that have been sown by the right, and capitalized on by people like Trump, have a long, long history. The left, meanwhile, has talked about things like income inequality but not done a good job of connecting with, much less organizing, within the working class, which has left the field wide open to demagogues and their behind-the-curtain backers. This is the terrain we are organizing within.

Today we’re going to be talking about our campaign plan for 2017, as well as some proposed structural changes within the VWC that are designed to strengthen our commitment to being member-run and accountability between the CoCo and the members. I’m sure there will be spirited discussion and debate, which is a good thing. That is the “struggle” part of unity-struggle-unity. As an organization we are emerging from what feels like a fairly long period of internal struggle about our direction. We have harvested lessons from our setback in the healthcare campaign. We have had differences of opinion about the relative merits of organizing around healthcare and organizing around workers’ rights -- and whether there are ways to merge the two, which you will see in the campaign proposal. We’ve talked about how much, or whether, we should be targeting the legislature. And we’ve debated the role of grant funding in an organization like ours. And through this all we have been trying to figure out what it means to be member-run and democratic, how to enact that commitment.

I don’t often make pleas, but I am making one today. I think it is absolutely urgent that we come together in unity around focused campaign work. That doesn’t mean squashing our differences or suppressing dissent, but it does mean having our eyes wide open about what we are up against. I’m reminded of the image of the teeter totter that we use in Solidarity School. You know, the one where the rich and powerful are weighing down one side, and what we have to counter-balance that is the power of numbers if we are organized. Unity means that we need to be on that teeter totter together. We need to commit to wielding our campaign to build a stronger and larger base, to building network power with other grassroots organizations. We also need to commit to having each others’ backs and to understanding the pain that so many people are feeling -- including the pain that led many white working-class people to vote for Trump.

We need to continue to speak out for the rights of all people. Silence in the face of oppression only empowers the oppressors. And, at the same time, we need to be ahead of the beat, rather than reactive, in our organizing. That means that we need to be smart about our campaign strategy. There is a ton of passion in this room. We’re a group of people united in our aspiration for justice and democracy, and painfully aware of the many ways our society falls short of that vision. As we talk together today about our campaign plan and our organizational structure, I want to urge us all to simultaneously be guided by our deeply held values and to do our best strategic thinking about the best way to get there.

We also need to remember that we are not alone in this struggle. We have allies within Vermont, nationally, and internationally. Many of them have been reaching out to us, both before and after the election, about how we can work together. So one piece of strategic thinking is about how we can combine power with our allies to both resist the blowback that will be directed at poor and working class people, undocumented people, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and all targeted communities, and proactively organize for a just transition to a society in which the human rights of all people and the survival of the planet are at the forefront.

This feels like a sober way to welcome you here today. It is, but I also want you to know that I feel both hope and comfort in the fact that we are gathering for this meeting, especially in the face of the election. For me the hope is that we are all here, committed to organizing for change where it needs to start: in our communities and workplaces. It resides, too, in the tremendous dedication of VWC members, all of you who participate in Organizing Committees, work on political education, serve on the Steering Committee, do campaign research and strategy development, participate in fundraising; those of you who talk with the media, make media, and work on social media; those of you who are active your your unions and those who keep us connected with other organizations; those who work behind the scenes to keep the organization running, and those of you who nourish our bodies through the People’s Kitchen--everyone here today, ready to roll up our sleeves and dig in. Let’s do it!