Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reclaiming Vermont’s Untold History


The Frayed Page Collective had become a local organizing nexus in Burlington by 1976. Steve Cram and Wendy Curran worked closely with the Clamshell Alliance, mobilizing Vermonters to protest at Vermont Yankee and the Seabrook nuclear construction site. My wife made inroads with the women’s community and worked with me on the development campaign. “Women Loving Women,” a Spring issue of Public Occurrence featuring her artful cover drawing of a naked embrace, became our most controversial to date. The Catholic Tribune dropped our typesetting deal, but the dispute led to Associated Press coverage.

Another typesetter took us on in time for the most ambitious issue yet, a special bicentennial edition called Vermont’s Untold History. Bob Mueller, then a radical scholar, later a successful labor lawyer and author on the West Coast, came up with the idea. As the opening line of the book-length “people’s history” explained, “Bicentennial history, like most of our schoolbook accounts of America, tells the story of a privileged few. It ignores our story.”

With Bob’s socialist analysis of early Vermont history as a starting point, I researched and finished the overall narrative and asked others to contribute sections on labor and women’s history. Roby Colodny, a talented young oral historian, produced an eloquently documented essay, “Labor in Barre: 1900-1941.” Additional funding from the Haymarket People’s Fund made two editions possible, first as an issue of Public Occurrence and then, with an index and new cover, a stand-alone version for sale. Thousands of copies were distributed during the bicentennial year.

“Vermonters who wanted to escape King George’s system of exploitation rallied to the battle cry of ‘Property Rights’,” our story began. “The leaders of the battle were, naturally enough, the people who owned the most property – people like the Allens.”

We told the story of Ethan, Ira, Heman, and Zimri Allen, “charter members of the emerging Vermont capitalist class that ruled the state for the next two hundred years.” We talked about the Native American tribes who had lived and hunted along Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River before the Europeans arrived, and how they had lost their birthright. We chronicled social movements like temperance, anti-slavery, and the anti-masons, deconstructing popular myths and celebrating workers’ struggles to resist corporate expansion.

By the mid-1970s, we noted near the end, almost all major manufacturing plants in Vermont were out-of-state owned, several of them controlled by the Chase Manhattan Bank. Strikes had become rare, and were often met with government indifference and union-busting tactics. Recession was hurting almost every part of the economy except trades and services. We also discussed Liberty Union, an alternative political party that had run slates for several years, taking up the fight for social change. Its candidates, including strong speakers like Bernie Sanders and Michael Parenti, took radical stands on utility rates, union fights, human services, and the needs of the poor.

Parenti, one of several UVM faculty members purged for their political views, talked about community control, worker self-management, and public ownership. When asked if this was socialism, he’d reply, “We call it democracy.” Sanders was an equally dogged campaigner, fighting for equal time, building bridges with unions, and challenging the often-empty statements of his major party opponents. Yet they and other third party candidates rarely received more than 10 percent of the statewide vote.

We concluded with a review of the recent international recession and the rising poverty, unemployment and cost of gas, food and fuel it was causing:

The reason for Vermont’s poverty was becoming clear. As Michael Parenti, Liberty Union candidate for Congress in 1974, put it, “The poor subsidize the rich by working for low wages and paying high prices and by carrying a disproportionately greater share of the taxes.” To make matters worse, Vermont workers continued to subsidize capitalists with their health and lives. Forty-three workers died in Vermont between 1973 and 1974. They were crushed, electrocuted, burned and broken for the benefit of their employers. Many more continued to report cancer and other illnesses which are frequently job related.

The idea of an “independent Yankee” Vermont had begun to wane at the beginning of the 20th century. By the 1970s it had become a myth. The reality was a State dominated by a small ruling class, which paid low wages to the workers who created Vermont’s wealth. By 1971 the State ranked 42nd in Per Capita income. Out-of-state, monopoly interests controlled stock even in Central Vermont Public Service Corporate and Green Mountain Power.

In Montpelier, lobbyists for the utilities, the Associated Industries of Vermont, recreation and land development interests, the Wholesale Beverage Association, the Federated Fish and Game Clubs, and Green Mountain Racetrack in Pownal congregated at the capital to make certain that lawmaking suited their taste. In Burlington, a Canadian development firm named Mondev was demolishing a neighborhood to make way for a hotel, office building and underground shopping mall geared to the new tourist economy.

Corporations such as GE, IBM, Textron, Litton Industries, Goodyear, Gulf and Western, John and Johnson, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, Standard Register and Simmons Precision controlled employment and industrial development. Vermont’s banks and investors, fearful of competition with these huge corporations, were investing in the tertiary sector – in tourism, retail trade and real estate, or in low risk stocks and bonds with big corporations. All this was making Vermont a net exporter of capitol, a situation that is common in underdeveloped countries.

The “Playground of America” had become another playground for capitalists, and workers were footing the bill. Businessmen said the “climate” for investment was good, due largely to the State’s stiff laws restricting strikes, picketing and boycotts, its low unemployment compensation rate and meager workmen’s compensation benefits. The climate for workers, however, had become as severe as Vermont’s winters.

It was highly rhetorical, and more influenced by a Marxist perspective than I personally preferred. But this wasn’t just a history. It was also part of a campaign to project a different awareness and set of values. Vermont wasn’t a colony is the same sense as Puerto Rico but it was part of the international capitalist system. A strategy for change needed to press that point rather than, as we saw it, “retreating into a petty localism.”

Things were going well indeed. In less than two years I had gone from being blacklisted by state bureaucrats to organizing a political movement with the potential to throw a monkey wrench into major corporate plans. To be fair, many people were just as engaged and instrumental. My contribution was mainly to reach beyond the inner city base, “connecting the dots” between bread and butter problems like housing and the overall thrust of development.

Next in this series: From Vermont to Haiti

Thursday: A special report on Vermont’s secession movement and thinking outside the empire box

To purchase a copy of Vermont’s Untold History, Go to Maverick Media on Amazon.com

 Vermont’s Untold History: Table of Contents

Labor and Capital in the Green Mountains
*Vermont Heads toward Revolution
*Native Americans Meet the White Man
*Revolution … And Betrayal
*Development and the Fight Back
*Farmers under Fire
*Capitalism Matures
*Workers and Owners
*Farming Declines, Tourism Takes Hold
*From Boom to Bust
*Capital Conquers Vermont
*From Yesterday to Tomorrow

Beyond Midwifery and Motherhood

Labor in Barre: 1900-1941
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