Vermont Workers’ Circles: A Space For Worker Power

A wave of rank-and-file reforms is sweeping through the United States; from the United Auto Workers (UAW) to the Teamsters (IBT) to National Nurses United (NNU), the rank-and-file are taking back their unions. But, with union density at only 10.3% nationally, many workers have had no union experience. Union bureaucracy and the internal politics can be both dizzying and deflating for newcomers. Strategic questions have arisen about how we hold even the best leaders accountable, be it local reformers or national icons like Sean O’Brien and Shawn Fain. How do we continue to engage the rank-and-file when they believe their job is done because they’ve elected good people? How do we raise a movement for and by the workers?

Champlain Valley DSA (CVDSA) is attempting to address this issue in collaboration with the Vermont State Labor Council through roundtable discussions we call “Workers’ Circles.” These meetings, held every two weeks, are open to anyone interested in workplace organizing. A typical meeting could include union presidents, staff organizers, rank-and-filers, and workers in active new organizing campaigns. Discussions are open and follow no set agenda. Workers bring issues they face in the workplace or their union, and we share ideas on navigating and organizing around those issues. 

The idea of the Workers’ Circles grew out of Ellen David Friedman’s “Community Union Organizers” project in Ithaca, NY and a convergence in October with the help of the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC). Although there is no set discussion topic, each session is guided according to the following organizing principles:

  1. Assess power in your workplace. There is an imbalance of power between workers and bosses. The power that bosses and workers have are different. There are key decision-makers for different issues, organic leaders among workers, and key points of production/profit within every workplace.
  2. Identify divisions and build unity. Each workplace has not only divisions based on race, gender, etc but also seniority, hours, shifts, departments, titles, tiers, etc. It’s important to be aware of all the differences among workers in your workplace, how they translate to workplace issues, and find a way to build unity. 
  3. Take collective action. Workers can win and take power through collective action. This is where our creativity as a movement can really shine: from petitions, signing union cards, marches on the bosses, visibility actions, to going on strike and so much more in between. It’s important to consider how actions can escalate as needed and build toward supermajority support. To take collective action, you need to bring people together around issues that are widely felt, deeply felt, and winnable. 
  4. Reflect and repeat. After taking collective action, workers should take the time to reflect on their overall success or lack thereof and any contributing factors. We learn from wins and losses – sometimes more from the latter than the former. However, we can’t learn from them as a movement if we don’t document and discuss.

“Having a place to go and get advice from people who had no vested interest in our campaign beyond general enthusiasm for labor organizing was very helpful,” says Gabriel Meyer-Lee, a member of UVM Graduate Students United (UAW). In the few months that we have been holding these meetings, we have given advice to active organizing campaigns including UVM Graduate Students United, Ben & Jerry’s Scoopers United, and Black Cap Workers United, as well as several campaigns that are not yet public. 

We have also helped union members play more active roles within their own organizations, often becoming stewards or new officers, paving the way for more democratic institutions. Michelle Sagalchik of VTNEA reports, “Workers’ Circle has also helped me process my new role as a steward in my union – I am able to crowdsource helpful tips and get advice from organizers who have been involved in building worker power for much longer than I have.” 

This effort has been a collaboration between Champlain Valley DSA and the Vermont State Labor Council. Since the reform slate United! took control of the Council in 2019, organizing has been prioritized over legislative efforts. The Workers’ Circles offer a unique opportunity for Council officers to hear about workers’ struggles on the ground and support new organizing. The Vermont State Labor Council can then use this information to strengthen its legislative efforts. In addition, these discussions bring together folks from different backgrounds, workplaces, and unions to discuss a shared passion: organized labor. As a result, the space has served as fertile ground for other organizing efforts, such as the VT PRO Act and a Burlington May Day festival. A few have even joined DSA. “As a newer union leader, the community of this group was integral in empowering my decisions and connecting me to broader aspects of organizing in Vermont,” states Rebekah Mendelsohn from Scoopers United.

Best of all, Workers’ Circles require very little to organize and maintain. However, it is helpful to identify a few people with deep connections within the labor movement and experienced organizers to get started. Personal networks greatly assist with outreach, and experienced organizers can offer more in-depth knowledge about organizing and practical insights. Aside from that, all that is needed is a meeting space and outreach, though snacks always help with turnout. Our promotion has mostly been done digitally, through email, social media, and focused text banks, with occasional flyering at bus stops, laundromats, and university bulletin boards. The return on time invested in these events is remarkably high. And with free-format discussion, low turnout is not really an issue–you can have a valuable, productive conversation with just a handful of attendees. We usually have around 20 participants in a circle, which provides a variety of experiences and perspectives and leads to more robust discussions.

The conversation is usually directed by a designated facilitator. Facilitators mentor each other between sessions to share the pedagogy of our peer-to-peer model. This person helps move the conversation along, prevents anyone from dominating the conversation (using an informal version of progressive stack), and has questions prepared if the discussion goes stale, which rarely happens. Prompts and questions usually include the following:

  • What is going on in your workplace, and how could you and your coworkers come together to change it?
  • What do we mean by democratic unionism, and how do we create democracy in our unions?
  • How can we get more people invested in their locals?
  • How can we benefit from collaboration among unions (i.e., cross-union solidarity)?

The goals of our discussions are to support each other in our struggles as workers, encourage participation in unions, and democratize authority within unions. Because the experience level in the room regularly ranges from brand-new to lifelong union members, there are always opportunities for growth, regardless of where the conversation leads. We try to stay focused on organic conversation and workplace issues, starting where the workers are, not where we think they should be. “There’s something really beautiful about seeing a group of people band together in the name of putting power back into the people’s hands. I truly believe that spaces like the Workers’ Circle are where real systemic change gets started.” says Kelemua Summa of Black Cap Coffee.

If we, as a labor movement, want the participation of the rank-and-file, we have to create supportive environments that foster learning, debate, and shared decision-making. Union leaders must listen to and respect the voices of the rank-and-file that elected them. Workers’ Circles are a unique, low-maintenance model that other DSA chapters can adapt and use to create an involved, militant rank-and-file that makes its voice heard by the boss and union leadership.