Labor Celebrates Gains On May Day and Links Struggles Together

Around 100 labor union members, organizers, and activists gathered at Burlington’s Battery Park to celebrate May Day, also known as International Workers Day, marking the occasion by highlighting labor victories in the state among its union workers in the past year and committing to continue the labor struggle at home and abroad.

Celebrated annually on May 1, its origins trace to Chicago in 1886. On that day, a general strike was called by unions, leading to rallies that culminated days later in the Haymarket Affair, in which a peaceful protest turned violent after a bombing from an unknown source resulted in police opening fire on striking workers, killing four and wounding dozens of others.

Yesterday’s event featured speakers from Vermont AFL-CIO, Teamsters Local 597, Burlington Education Association, Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America, UVM Support Staff United, UVM Graduate Students United, and Howard Center’s AFSCME Local 1674. It was one of many organized events in Burlington on Wednesday: hours earlier, five unions at the University of Vermont and Medical Center rallied to support one another in their struggles to earn living wages and fight for worker rights campus-wide.

Within the last year, Vermont saw a 20% increase in union worker representation, rising from 14th in the nation per capita to 8th, according to Liz Medina, Executive Director of Vermont State Labor Council AFL-CIO. Among the workplaces organized within that time frame are Ben & Jerry’s Scoopers United, which ratified a landmark contract in January for the downtown Burlington location, the first scoop shop operating under a union contract, plus UVM Medical Center Support Staff, Central Vermont Medical Center Nurses and Technical Staff, and UVM Graduate Students United

Speakers from various unions addressed the constant need to push forward for livable wages, healthcare for all, more workplaces to organize, and demonstration of labor solidarity across issues and workplaces.

“We as union members across the country are becoming bolder than we have been in decades,” said Michelle Sagalchik, a teacher and member of the Burlington Education Association. “And we need to continue to support each other to be bold enough to say out loud what we need and to fight for it.”

Theo Wheeland, a union member speaking for the local DSA chapter, said, “Without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn. The elections that will change the world are union elections. Vote yes to unionize with your fellow workers. Vote yes to democratize our unions. Vote yes for class struggle.”

In addition to organizing workers and growing the labor movement among the entire working class, Medina and Curtis Clough, President of Teamsters Local 597, also pointed to S.102, Vermont Protect the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), which passed out of committee at the statehouse on Wednesday and will now go to the Vermont House for a floor vote. The PRO Act aims to study granting collective bargaining rights to agricultural and domestic workers, protect employees from political and religious coercion through captive audience meetings, and simplify union elections in the public sector through card checks.

Medina also highlighted a call from UAW President Shawn Fain that, if widely adopted, could prove explosive: that unions schedule their upcoming contracts to expire on the same date: May 1, 2028. Such timing across sectors of the economy would provide a potential opening for the closest thing the U.S. has ever come to a general strike.

Tying the labor struggle in Vermont to an international one, members of Vermont Labor for Palestine also spoke, answering the call from Palestinian trade unions who have urged labor unions across the United States to take action against Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza. Helen Scott, a UVM professor and member of United Academics, said:

“Palestinian labor built Israel on land that was stolen from them, and yet have been denied the most fundamental rights of citizenship. As labor activists, we must go to the root of the problem, which is U.S. support for Israel. Get your union to sign the Apartheid-free Community Pledge and beyond that, work toward boycott, divestment, and sanctions on all companies profiting from Israel’s war crimes. On this May Day, as we watch riot police haul away peaceful protesters, let’s remember the words of Haymarket martyr, August Spies. He said, ‘If you think that by hanging us you can stomp out the labor movement, then hang us. Here you will tread upon a spark and everywhere flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.”

As the speeches ended and the crowd enjoyed live music and food via The People’s Kitchen, for many, the day of solidarity did not end there. Some returned to the Palestinian solidarity encampment at UVM. Others headed off to Hannaford in Williston to join the day-long picket organized by Migrant Justice in its ongoing campaign to get the supermarket chain to sign on to its Milk with Dignity pledge.

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