Human Rights Conference Draws 500 Participants

Conference AttendeesBurlington - Five hundred people participated in the day-long Ella Baker Human Rights Conference held on Dec 13, 2008. The conference was organized by the Vermont Workers' Center and sponsored by forty-three other organizations. [ Video of the main speakers, and more photos ]

Excerpts of Closing Remarks - James Haslam, Vermont Workers' Center

First off, I just have to say thank you to all the people who worked with us to make this event happen. We are very excited about the incredible broad-range of groups who came together for this event, many of these groups and individuals we have worked with for years, and many new groups and new faces, who we are just now getting to know and build relationships with.

... when I first started getting outraged by the injustice and suffering that pervades our society, I got really mad and fired up about it, but it took some time before I made the next big step, and I understood that it was not enough to recognize injustice, get mad and complain about it, that it was necessary to make change, become an agent of change. The myth is that the problems are so big that we can't do anything about them. What I have experienced is totally the opposite, that when people get together, there's an enormous impact we can make. We have seen people who have organized for workplace rights and won, very soon start wanting to organize for bigger things, for healthcare as a human right, to end domestic abuse, to end racism. As we learn that together we can take collective action to fight injustice and win improvements in our lives, tremendous amounts of possibilities unfold. At the Workers' Center we have been doing a tremendous amount of organizing with very few resources, and I believe we are only now scratching the surface for what is possible.

The other thing that I have come to learn is that it does start here with our own struggle for justice, our own family, our own neighborhood, our own community, but that we are all connected. Vermont is small, and this planet is actually not that big, the chain of activity that sustains and reproduces is a chain of interdependence. We have realized that we cannot only struggle for livable wages and organizing for rights on the job. The same interests that exploit workers, exploit the planet, make healthcare and anything they possibly can into a commodity to profit from.

So we started asking who benefits from the fact that healthcare is not a human right? Who benefits when workers are divided by race and immigration status? Who benefits from racism and other forms of oppression? It was only a few years ago that after Vermont passed civil unions, and afterwards the right-wing was able to use homophobia to get thousands of working class Vermonters to vote against their own economic interests. Increasingly, those same people will be pitting white Vermonters against undocumented Latino and Latina workers for jobs. We can't let them divide us. Right now public services and public sector jobs are in jeopardy because of budget shortfalls, and people like Governor Douglas will blame unions and public sector workers have it too good and are the problem. Meanwhile we continue to spend $700 million dollars a day on a totally bullshit war in Iraq. That is why we are committed to building a movement for fundamental change, one that is based on human rights, on human needs and ultimately that is based on solidarity.

At the Workers' Center we use that word a lot, solidarity. We have felt that solidarity is at the core of the labor movement, and I think ultimately to build a broad-based movement, solidarity is what it is all about. Solidarity and unity. We have inherited a world which is based on greed and the endless search for profit, and which is based on competition, selfishness and individualism. And right now, we are witnessing that this path is literally threatening the capacity to continue human life on the planet and we are possibly studying our own extinction. The parents we work with at Barnes Elementary School in the Burlington Livable City Coalition recently put up a quote on a mural outside the school that says "Sustainability is another word for Justice". I am motivated in working with you all to build this movement for fundamental change in our community because I believe that is critical for our kids' future. I was also thinking about that word community, we use that a lot too. I thought of what Gandhi once said when he was asked one time about what he thought about Western Civilization, and he said he thought it was a good idea. I think much of that is true about the word "community". Because how can we have a community when people are subjected to live in poverty? How can it be a community when people are divided by racism and homophobia? How can we call it a community when people do not feel safe, when people regularly suffer from domestic abuse and sexual violence? How can we have a community where kids from low-income families are growing up in rental housing that infested with toxic lead paint that creates permanent brain damage? How can we call it a community when healthcare is not a basic right to everyone, but a privilege to some?

That is why it is so important that we have come together for this conference, that we have learned about the broad range of struggles that we face and the justice we need to fight for in order to make our communities live up to that name.

I want to take a few minutes to let everyone know about some Workers' Center campaigns that I hope you can join us in. We've spent a lot of time thinking about how to do our work in a strategic way that facilitates convergence between our struggles and other struggles.

Of course, we must build a movement to guarantee the right of workers to organize, calling for passing the Employee Free Choice Act, and [supporting] the Fletcher Allen Techs [as they organize a union], their struggle like the nurses before them is one which is not only a workers' rights struggle, but their victory will mean safer patient care and a better hospital for the community...

One thing that we ask all of you to do, is join us in the Healthcare Is A Human Right Campaign. This campaign is not just about winning a single-payer universal healthcare system, though we believe that that is necessary. This campaign is about a vision of healthcare based not on profits, but on solidarity and community. A vision that encompasses not only the right to see a doctor when you need to, but the right to a comprehensive public health system that ensures that our homes are free of toxins, that we have access to mental health and recovery services when we need them, that victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence are given the support and safety that they need. This campaign is also about building enough power to make the changes that are necessary to realize that vision. The only way to build that power, and to change what is politically possible, is to have an enormous amount of people involved. We are planning on building a statewide network capable of winning and making HC a HR. In building this network, we have called for a major statewide rally on May 1st at 12 noon on the State House steps in Montpelier. We are asking each on of you to sign up today to come to that rally and help bring people with you. We will organize vans, busses, car pools, everything we can to bring as many people there as possible. Together we will have so many people at the State House people will no longer say that change is not politically possible, and we will have built a network of us connected throughout the state that will keep organizing until we have that system in place and we will keep organizing to make sure it works and stays working. We need to build a mass movement for healthcare as a human right, and all human rights for all people.

One of our major projects is to do that in here in Burlington is the Burlington Livable City Coalition, which works to make this community truly livable for all of its residents. For us it started with struggling for livable wages and workers' rights, with the concept that it made sense for for family supporting jobs and quality public services. We are working with the unions to act in solidarity, to support each others' struggles, to have nurses, teachers,UVM Service & Maintenance workers and UVM faculty, Howard Center, City Market workers all who are in difficult contract negotiations this year, to stand together. We are also working with a group of parents, tenants and educators to win real change on how the City addresses the lead paint that is still poisoning children, especially children of working-class parents in the Old North End. Ultimately, this campaign is about building power for the people who don't traditionally hold power in this city -- workers, tenants, people marginalized by race and class -- to win justice in every aspect of our lives; in the motto of the environmental justice movement, "justice where we live, justice where we play, justice where we work."

In our campaigns we talk a lot about building power. The process of how we build that power becomes an end in itself. This is the organizing tradition of Ella Baker, of leadership development, consciousness-raising, and intersectionality of issues and oppressions. The slow, patient, undramatic work of relationship building. Dealing with all the misdirected anger that exists between different parts of the community. This is why we have put a major effort over the past several years into popular education. In January and February we will be holding our third annual Solidarity School, a three-day intensive workshop for emerging labor and community leaders, which covers organizing, tactics and strategy, people's history and movement-building. This past year the Workers' Center also did a series of one-day workshops on Anti-racism & Building A Social Justice Movement. We had one hundred and seventy people participate and it was so successful that we are going to do it again in 2009, most likely in the fall.

A lot of temporary coalitions are put together for limited goals, such as a good contract or a change in public policy. We believe that we all need to be thinking about our coalition and alliance-building terms of how do we use this struggle as part of an overall strategy to build power? How do we begin to re-conceptualize our own work in a way that incorporates the goals of others, making us all stronger? How do we build a movement where we don't just support each other, but we work together strategically towards a shared vision of justice and human rights, one that is based on solidarity and community? We hope this conference has been a useful contribution to that process. So again, please sign the EFCA cards, make plans to join us on May 1st, and, most importantly, we hope everyone continues the dialogues between organizations and movements that we've had today.