Celebrate workers and workers' rights this Labor Day

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As we approach this Labor Day let's remember to celebrate the worker and the hard won rights that workers have fought for and won over the years, such as the right to a living wage, safe working conditions and an end to sweat shops and child labor in our country. Let's celebrate the opportunity for all workers to build a better future for themselves, their families and their communities; and the fundamental human right to earn a living with dignity, free from coercion, intimidation and economic insecurity. It's also an appropriate time to think about where working class Vermonters are and could – or should – be.

First, I would like to share some good news from the 2016 Legislative session. Both the House and Senate approved Act No. 157 (H.868), an act relating to miscellaneous economic provisions. In it, the Agency for Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) was authorized to allocate up to 10 percent of Vermont Training Program (VTP) Funds toward work-based learning programs, allowing students to better align their workforce skills against employment needs. This was a wonderful step in the right direction for Vermont business and labor opportunities.

Here is an example of what the program does: In 2015 the GW Plastics plant in Bethel was visited by delegations from the House Commerce and House Transportation Committees who came to observe the company's work with students from Randolph High School. It was a multi-step program. First, participating students took courses at the manufacturing facility and then went on to internships. Following graduation they continued school at Vermont Tech. At the end of the program students could move back to GW Plastics, or other companies, with the assurance that their years of effort would be rewarded by a better-than-market total compensation package.

GW Plastics pioneered the idea, but it isn't alone. House Members learned that other companies such as our local Bennington County manufacturing company Mack Molding in Arlington, were starting up similar programs. The goal of these initiatives is to help bridge the gap that separates employers looking for a qualified workforce and workers seeking good jobs.

The new legislation is intended to be a gentle prod to encourage companies to engage in building their own workforce. This is smart legislative policy because it focuses on advancing opportunities that serve the needs of both employers for skilled labor, and employees for safe, secure jobs that allow any woman or man in this State the right to earn a decent salary and benefits. That's very good news.

The not so good news is that the old, 19th and 20th Century industrial production jobs that were the cornerstones of the American middle class are never coming back, at least at sufficient scale. Throughout the state of Vermont, manufacturing plants that housed industry for over a century of expansion have been abandoned, retrofitted, automated or made into apartment buildings and condominiums

Some people worry about immigrants taking American's jobs. The reality is that, for decades, robots have been doing much of the work that our mothers and fathers, grandparents and great-grandparents did. Ironically, over time, our efforts to make labor more humane have led us to a point where work is becoming – quite literally – dehumanized. Manufacturing simply doesn't need as many unskilled or semi-skilled workers as it once did, regardless of where they were born.

This year there has been a lot of political talk – and talk is all it really is – about repatriating jobs that have moved "offshore" in pursuit of cheap labor, tax breaks, and other economic incentives. If you listen to the political rhetoric it all seems so simple. Just slap employers on the hand, make them bring those jobs back home, and the Middle Class will be restored.

Well, first of all, there is this pesky little thing called globalization.

And, as we have discussed, if – by some miracle – those jobs did return, many of them would, without doubt, be automated as soon as possible

So, what does that mean when we say that manufacturing jobs will not make a comeback? Does this mean that our children and grandchildren are doomed to minimum wage jobs flipping burgers or below minimum wage jobs waiting tables?

Of course not!

This is America and we are Americans. The nation and people who hammered out the strongest Middle Class in history on the anvil of the Industrial Revolution have gone on to launch the Technological and Digital Revolutions. At our heart we are people who are the best problem solvers the world has ever produced, especially when we choose to work together.

No, those old labor-intensive, often unskilled jobs will be replaced by other, skilled jobs in an emerging digital economy, provided our young – and perhaps young at heart – workers have the strong technological skills these jobs require. The Digital Economy has produced almost incomprehensible wealth. It just hasn't been distributed very well. There is no reason why a student in rural Vermont should not have access to the same level of technological training and education enjoyed by children anywhere in the world. The good news is that it is possible. Coding can become a fundamental part of every Vermont school system's core curriculum, because the digitalization of our society allows information to be shared and work to be done anywhere (or at least that's what we are told).

As a society we cannot afford to perpetuate the obscene gap in income distribution that rewards the few at the expense of marginalizing the many. If Vermont embraces digitalization perhaps we will find the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs coming out of Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland or Sandgate.

But, make no mistake, this isn't only about technology.

Every Vermonter ought to have access to the highest quality education, training and support, regardless of how they chose to make their living.

Those who run businesses know that high quality, skilled workers are a necessity for operating any successful enterprise. The cost of replacing skilled and trusted workers is astronomical. It is in their best interest for owners to do all in their power to retain outstanding workers. Good policy establishes how this can be done in ways that reward the owners and the workers.

The Vermont Training Program is one step in the right direction toward creating a better business climate in our State. But we can't stop there. We need to reward our businesses that create local jobs and invest in training Vermonters for the jobs of today and tomorrow and who will make Vermont an ever better place to work and live.

One final note: As you go off to enjoy this Labor Day Holiday take a moment to think about how far American workers have come since the days of child labor, unsafe – and unregulated – work environments and inhuman and unjust working conditions. The hard fought battles of generations of American workers are part of the reason that we can enjoy our picnics and softball games this Labor Day.

This Labor Day, I am going to take time to remember their sacrifice and their wonderful spirit of hope for the future.

The future owes a debt to the past, and it is a debt we should proudly and gladly repay. Given the sacrifice of the workers who came before us, and understanding that the nature of work is undergoing a radical transformation in so many industries, it seems the least we can do to carry their vision forward in time, ensuring that no Vermonter ever has to know what economic insecurity feels like.

State Rep. Steven Berry represents District 4 in Bennington County.


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