Taking on the Right over Healthcare Reform: Lessons from Vermont

On Saturday, August 15, hundreds of people converged on a U.S. Senator’s Town Hall meeting in Rutland, Vermont, with healthcare reform on their minds.  Despite the fact that Rutland had seen a 200-person-strong “Tea Party” rally less than two months before, and that various right-wing radio stations has been ceaselessly promoting the event for weeks, this event turned out very differently from town hall meetings held elsewhere in the country in recent weeks, where Democratic representatives and senators were largely cowed by large, well-organized and disruptive crowds.  Instead, the audience, physical space, and media coverage of this town meeting, and a similar one held later in the day in the town of Arlington, were dominated by the red placards and t-shirts of the “Healthcare Is a Human Right” campaign of the Vermont Workers’ Center/Jobs with Justice.

Anti-reform speakers got their share of time at the microphone but were unable to be disruptive because of the large Workers’ Center mobilization, and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders — a long-time supporter of a single-payer, national healthcare plan — remained in control of the room, challenging the lies, disinformation, and contradictions that came from some of the right-wing speakers.

Media reports attributed the lack of disruption to Vermont’s tradition of civility during debates at annual town meetings.  While this, along with the relative weakness of Vermont’s right wing, no doubt was a contributing factor, the real reason was good old-fashioned grassroots organizing: dozens of volunteers making hundreds of calls to a base built over more than a year of the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign.

The Vermont Workers’ Center/JwJ believes that there are important lessons to be learned from our success in turning back the right wing.

Putting Policy Reforms in the Context of a Values-based Campaign

Since the Workers’ Center launched the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign in April of 2008, we have begun our organizing with each new person with the question: “Do you believe healthcare is a human right?”  Over 95% of the thousands of Vermonters we have spoken with agreed, and this is the basic point of unity on which our campaign is built.  While we have promoted single-payer bills in the state legislature as the best option to achieve recognition of this right, basing the campaign on a commitment to this basic value has allowed us to build a larger and more engaged base than a policy-based campaign could have.  Furthermore, it provided a certain amount of inoculation against the disinformation and scare-mongering of the right.  While many, if not most, of the people we turned out to the town hall meetings may not have understood the ins and outs of “public options” and other policy issues, they were committed to the notion that healthcare is a human right and understood the talk of “death panels” and such as a right-wing campaign against that right.

Understanding That This Is a Struggle over Power, Not a Debate over Policy

Throughout our campaign, we have been clear with our base that winning real healthcare reform will require serious struggle from the grassroots, regardless of how many Democrats get elected.  While our campaign is focused on state legislation, we mobilized our base for these town hall meetings with the message that this was a critical battle with an opposition that has access to friendly media and unlimited resources from the insurance companies.

Placing the Voices of People Most Affected Front and Center

A central part of the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign has been raising the voices of those most affected by the healthcare crisis.  At Human Rights Hearings held around the state in the fall and winter, a wide spectrum of Vermonters — from union members with “good” health insurance who had been denied care, to uninsured loggers who live with daily fear of accidents, to women who stayed with abusive husbands out of fear of losing health insurance — shared their stories about the broken healthcare system.  We collected this testimony, as well as results from our survey of over 1,400 Vermonters, in a report and video “Voices of the Vermont Healthcare Crisis.”  In the town hall meetings, this kind of powerful personal testimony stood in sharp contrast to the shrill rhetoric of the right wing.

Leadership Development

Too often, campaigns are so focused on winning policy goals that we neglect to develop the skills and leadership potential of the people who we are organizing.  During the course of the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign, the VWC held daylong organizer trainings around the state, and also brought campaign leaders to our 3-day intensive leadership development program, “Solidarity School,” held every winter.  Both the workshops and the Solidarity School are based on the participatory principles of popular education that build from people’s own experience.  As a result, at the town hall meetings campaign leaders were prepared to speak up, explain the goals of our campaign and why they got involved, especially the powerful voices from people who have suffered under the current system and nurses who see needless suffering everyday.

Taking on Right-wing Beliefs about Government

Finally, it was important that the senator who had called this town meeting — Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist” — was willing to defend not only Obama’s proposed reforms, but also the role of government itself.  Instead of defensively trying to clarify that the Obama reforms are neither the single-payer system nor government-run healthcare that the right wing calls them, Sanders challenged the audience on these points, asking how many people would want to get rid of Medicare, “a single-payer system” or the Veterans’ Administration, a system of “government-run healthcare” (only a few people raised their hands).

The Vermont Workers’ Center/JwJ chose healthcare as our major campaign not only because it is an issue that affects all sectors of the working class, but also because it offered an opportunity to engage people in a discussion about social values and a vision for a different society.  We don’t believe that progressive forces can win policy debates if we accept the values framework of neoliberal capitalism that markets are inherently more efficient than government and that individuals are on their own to provide for their own welfare.  By challenging these values with a vision of a caring society, in which communities take collective responsibility for the general welfare, we hope to contribute to building a movement than can win universal healthcare and a just society.

Jonathan Kissam is a rank-and-file member of UE Local 203 in Burlington, Vermont, and a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Vermont Workers’ Center/Jobs with Justice.  More information about the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign can be found at workerscenter.org/healthcare.