VSEA’s Howard under fire from within

MONTPELIER — A unionized group of staffers for the Vermont State Employees Association has voted to express “no confidence” in Executive Director Steve Howard as internal conflicts continue to brew inside the union.

The Staff Alliance, which represents about 20 staff members within the VSEA, recently voted on whether they support Howard, according to a letter from the Staff Alliance to union leaders and members that was obtained by the Vermont Press Bureau.

irmY8HhD“Having the benefit of fifteen months of experience working under the leadership of Director Howard, Staff Alliance is now prepared to share our professional judgment. Following serious deliberation, the Staff Alliance has voted overwhelmingly to cast a vote of no confidence in the leadership of VSEA’s Executive Director,” the letter states. “This is not a decision we take lightly, however it is our mutual belief that the current level of distrust between Staff and Management, under the direction of Director Howard, is unsustainable and detrimental to the membership at-large.”

The letter includes a litany of accusations against Howard, a former Democratic state representative from Rutland and the former chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party. Howard, according to the Staff Alliance’s letter, “has adopted a management approach that hinders meaningful cooperation.” And, “Howard has been defensive and condescending when staff has provided opinions that differs from his own,” it states.

“The director’s unwillingness to listen, consider and thoughtfully discuss the opinions of his staff, without fear of retaliation or personnel attack, have the potential to serious undermine the staff’s creativity and ability to represent our members,” the letter reads.

Steve Howard

Steve Howard

The letter was presented to the VSEA’s board of trustees last Friday by Staff Alliance President Adam Norton. Although Staff Alliance is looking to oust Howard, the trustees opted against taking any action for now. The board is scheduled to meet again early next year and consider whether it will renew Howard’s contract, which is set to expire in June.

Howard declined to comment. VSEA Doug Gibson also declined to comment on what he called a “personnel” issue.

“We’re not going to get into this. This is internal,” Gibson said. “The parties are working together to resolve it.”

People familiar with the internal strife at VSEA, who did not wish to speak openly on the record, say the furor over Howard is about the future direction of the union. Howard is viewed as a moderate, politically-connected voice in Montpelier.

Howard succeeded former VSEA Executive Director Mark Mitchell, who was fired by the trustees in June 2014 following staff complaints but reinstated shortly after. He departed on his own terms in May 2014.

Some people within the union are again seeking a more radical approach to the union’s dealings with state government, sources said. The recent efforts to undermine Howard, insiders say, as an attempt to move the union in a direction that more closely resembles the tactics of the Vermont Workers Center, which attracted significant attention after the group organized a protest at the State House that disrupted the third inauguration of Gov. Peter Shumlin in January.

Friday’s trustee’s meeting coincided with the resignation of Kristin Warner, now the VSEA’s former organizing director. She offered her own criticism of Howard in her resignation letter, including reneging on a promise to create “a meaningful partnership with those staff who had significant skill and history in the labor movement.”

“This engagement has not occurred. In fact, I would say that those of us who carry the most experience working within unions have been marginalized and dismissed. At present, the experience of an outside consultant is trumping the experience of those of us on the front lines with members,” Warner wrote.

She stated in her letter that she did no longer felt she could work effective at VSEA.

“I have chosen to leave VSEA because it has become increasingly clear, under the current staff leadership, that I am no longer able to do the work in this union that I was brought here to do. The progress made over the last three years stands in great jeopardy,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, the no confidence vote by Staff Alliance comes on the heels of an internal labor contract dispute between VSEA and the Staff Alliance that could end up in court if the two sides cannot resolve it internally.

Norton said in September that the dispute involves a disagreement over the process of resolving a grievance filed by a staff member. Both Norton and Howard have declined to provide information about the original grievance.

VSEA is also engaged in a high-stakes negotiation with the Shumlin administration on a labor contract for about 3,000 non-management VSEA members. The union has called for mediation and the administration has said the union has refused to budge from its initial salary increase request.

Howard’s position appears to be safe until at least January when the trustees meet again.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read the Staff Alliance Letter:

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