Saturday February 2, 2013

Something very different happened at the Vermont State House when this session opened. More than three hundred members of various statewide organizations joined in a historic show of unity to kick off the 2013 legislative session. We were at the State House again before the Governor’s Budget Address presenting our own People’s Address, describing an alternative vision from what we expected to hear from the administration. And a very different vision it was. Many were left speechless as the governor proposed a budget which gave with one hand and took away with the other. In its attempt to divide people against each other, this budget proposal represents a turning point in the administration’s striking out against the poor. It represents the regressive and divisive policies that deny an adequate standard of living to all and thus put our shared human rights in question.

How can we combat policies that threaten people’s basic dignity? We must be united in humanity, not divided by differences. Whether we’re working for universal healthcare, fighting for drivers’ licenses for all, or safeguarding the rights of people with disabilities, human rights crises facing our communities have a root cause. That root cause is the government’s refusal to recognize human rights. Our dreams, our families, and our fundamental needs are not put first. Instead profits, money, and power are the priorities.

The Put People First movement is raising awareness of the root causes of our human rights crises -- poverty, the growing disparity of wealth, lack of a true participatory democracy -- and developing a new vision of what our communities should be. In our vision people live in homes -- are not homeless. They have good dignified work, not part time jobs paying poverty wages. In this vision each of us is allowed to fulfill our full potential through free and universal education, while providing our families with healthy, secure lives. In this vision, we set a national example by allowing access to driver’s licenses for all Vermont residents, regardless of immigration status. In this vision there is one movement for people and the planet, where our earth is respected and cherished - an earth that we together preserve and protect.

We have this vision in a time when unimaginable wealth exists side-by-side with poverty that leaves our children hungry at night and many of our elders without homes or healthcare. The problem is not scarcity. The problem is that a few in our society hold great power despite the suffering of the vast majority. The majority of us -- working and poor people -- know and see this suffering daily, and we know that it can and must change. Those who hold power say that this change is not politically possible and that we can’t accomplish our vision. Put People First supporters know that the people of Vermont have changed what is politically possible before. We will continue to do so by building a statewide movement turning the vision of human rights into reality in Vermont. We must not balance our budget on the backs of those who are most vulnerable, but should instead share resources based upon the principle of equity.

Apparently, the governor thinks it is time for Vermont not to lead, but to step back. He suggests that we should follow those states who think they can gain prosperity by cutting public programs and public financing. We disagree with Governor Shumlin. Vermont is again in a position to lead the country. We were the first state to abolish slavery and were proud leaders in the Underground Railroad. We turned the tide of the Civil War at Cedar Creek. Vermont led the way in allowing freedom to marry and banning fracking. Now we’re on a path to become the first state to mandate universal, human rights-based healthcare. As Vermont has led the way historically, we must continue to lead in the era of human rights.

In a time of national crisis, when states are trapped in a cycle of austerity feeding growing need, we can be different and we can make a difference. Let’s be the state that boldly addresses the root causes of the crisis. We cannot tiptoe on the surface, but we must lead by concrete steps this legislative session to create better, smarter systems that put people first.

Mary Gerisch of Bennington, is president of the Vermont Workers’ Center.