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Labor Day

09/01/05 12:00AM By Ellen David Friedman
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(HOST) The last big summer holiday of the year is almost upon us, and commentator Ellen David Friedman has found a rather unusual way get ready for it.


(FRIEDMAN) This past Saturday was glorious in Burlington - clear and warm, a fabulous day to be outside with a dozen friends in the Old North End, making preparations for Labor Day.

For some, Labor Day means stocking up on hot dogs, calling the relatives to remind them about the barbecue, or cruising for back-to-school gear. But our preparations were of a different nature.

We had clipboards, leaflets, and map routes. And pairs of us - volunteers from the Vermont Workers Center and the Vermont Livable Wage Campaign - got ready to go door-to-door talking about, well, talking about labor. Then we fanned out and went right for the heart of the Labor Day holiday by putting ourselves on people's front porches and saying to them: You know, workers are important. Workers have rights, and deserve dignity in their workplace. We know it doesn't always happen just like that, but we believe in the value of workers and we want to find others who agree with us.

Well, that was the general thrust. We also put a little local meat on the bones of this idea and that helped conversations flow pretty nicely. First we asked people if they knew about the Workers Center. Some did. Certainly some had heard about the recent fight over the closing of the Specialty Filaments Plant on Pine Street. What a shame, they'd agree, that the owner was shipping the work to China and hardly willing to give any severance pay at all to workers who'd been there twenty or thirty years. Well, we said, by rocking the boat a bit, demanding fairness and respect for the workers, holding rallies and confronting the owners, things changed. The workers ended up winning a much better severance. That's good, people would nod, even if you can't keep the factories from going to China. Still, the workers got to fight back and gain something in the end.

We'd go on. What do you think about all those Burlington school workers who don't make a livable wage, we asked? You know, the kitchen ladies and paraeducators who mostly make three dollars an hour less than the livable wage? And right here in Burlington, too, where the city workers have been guaranteed a livable wage by the City Council for years? Yes. that doesn't seem right, we heard back. Will you sign a petition, we'd ask, to urge the school board to pay a livable wage? Sure. Happy to.

But what really grabbed just about everyone was not even directly related to work and wages, but about their lives in this working class community. At every door, we asked about the superintendent's recent threat to close the two elementary schools in the Old North End - the Barnes and Wheeler Schools - and that made everyone indignant. Some because it had been their own school, or their kids' school. Some because the schools are anchors in the community. We handed out leaflets and encouraged residents to come to the next school board meeting, to defend their community's identity and to speak up as working people who are too often voiceless. And we thought, okay, this is a good way to usher in Labor Day.

I'm Ellen David Friedman in East Montpelier.

Ellen David Friedman is Vice-chair of the Progressive Party and will be marching this Monday in the Burlington Labor Day Parade. You can find this commentary and more information at VPR.net.

Related link:

www.workerscenter.org
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