Building the Labor Movement with “Workers’ Circles”

DSA members in Vermont are building new unions and strengthening existing ones through a simple but powerful organizing practice.

DSA members in Vermont have recently begun hosting a series of events called “Workers’ Circles.” These are roundtable discussions for people interested in organized labor that center rank-and-file advocacy and democratic unionism. They are currently working on generalizing their model and curriculum so that it may be used by other DSA chapters around the country.

Here, Socialist Forum speaks with Brandon Lawson, one of the organizers of these Workers’ Circles, about the project. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Socialist Forum: How did you get involved in the labor movement?

Brandon Lawson: I was introduced to the labor movement when I started at the Community Health Centers here in northern Vermont, in 2021. This was in the middle of the Covid pandemic, and healthcare administration’s response across the country was very poor. So a lot of workers took their health and safety into their own hands. The licensed staff at our clinic had been organized since 2019. In 2021, I started a campaign to organize the support staff which included everything from medical assistants to the front desk to lab workers. We won in May of 2021 with 84 percent of the vote. We went on to bargaining, and while we were at the bargaining table the AFT, our parent union, offered me a field organizer job.

I stayed per diem at the health center so I could continue bargaining the contract. Then I went and organized another support staff unit at our largest hospital in the area, UVM Medical Center. We organized a unit of 2300 people, the largest single NLRB win in Vermont history, I believe. At that point I decided to come back to the clinic and I was elected president of my union. So now I work as a medical assistant, and I’m the president of our 300 person local.

Socialist Forum: So you work in one of the community health centers that Bernie Sanders has been a champion of?

Brandon Lawson: Yes, we’re considered Federally-Qualified Health Centers. We receive funding from the state to provide healthcare on a sliding fee scale. It’s essentially means-tested free healthcare, which is better than the hospital system or the private system, but obviously it makes us dependent on state and federal funding. So we are uniquely vulnerable, which is why we’ve always appreciated Senator Sanders as an advocate.

Socialist Forum: Was he supportive of the organizing campaign?

Brandon Lawson: Absolutely. Bernie has come to the health centers before. I’m in pretty regular contact with folks from his office who are constantly checking in, making sure everything’s okay. We’re about to start a statewide legislative initiative to push for higher Medicaid reimbursement rates at the state level, and we’re going to be essentially working hand in glove with Bernie Sanders’s office for that, hopefully.

Socialist Forum: Another project you and other DSA members in Vermont are working on is this “workers circles” project. Tell us a little bit about the idea and what your goals are.

Brandon Lawson: The idea developed out of this event that we hosted in the fall that we called the Vermont Workplace Organizing Committee (VWOC). We had Ellen David Friedman, the co-founder of Labor Notes, who grew up in Vermont and has a long history organizing in Vermont. We anticipated it to be like a training session, but she came in with a very different idea. She wanted to do it like round table discussion and make it very democratic, very Socratic, where everybody has their input and we talk about issues as they come up, rather than trying to barrel through a curriculum. It was a really fascinating event, it was such a hit with the people who attended. We had 15 to 18 people at the original event, and it was such a hit that we decided we could make it a recurring event that would be smaller in scale than that original meeting. We realized that that’s something that is missing from a big chunk of labor education. We have this influx of people coming into the labor movement for the first time, especially young folks that have no idea really how it works. They don’t know what is legal, they don’t know what their tools are. They don’t know what kind of collective actions to engage in. There’s kind of a disconnect between people entering the movement and people who have been there for forever. There should be a way to bring them in, and give them support, resources, and training from people who have been doing this for a while.

We have this idea that we can do this pretty informally. Not every meeting that the labor movement has to be a PowerPoint presentation, you know? We decided that every other week we would just sit down for an hour and invite anyone who’s in a union, workers who are trying to organize a union, staff organizers. We have union presidents coming. So we have a whole range of people from those experiencing a union for the first time, to people who have been in the movement their entire lives. We don’t follow a strict curriculum. We have a pretty strict set of ideals that guide things, like democratic unionism and rank-and-file militancy. The idea is that our power as a union is in collective action, not in any kind of centralized bureaucracy. Filing unfair labor practices charges and grievances are all good things that we should do, but our true power is in collective action. People come with specific things they want to talk about, everything from fighting back against managers cutting hours, to dealing with a union grievance chair who isn’t filing any grievances and is really cozy with management.

It’s almost like a brainstorming session. We just talk about what they can do and why they can do it, and we always try to bring it back to collective action and rank-and-file democracy. The end goal is always to activate and excite the members, to organize around an issue. It’s very much based on Jane McAlevey’s ideas about organizing. We’ve used Secrets of a Successful Organizer as a guide for where to take these conversations. A lot of the time it comes down to things that are considered pretty traditional concepts in the labor movement, like how to pick an issue to organize around – it’s gotta be widely felt, deeply felt, and makes your union stronger. It’s basically an opportunity to take these big principles we talk about in the labor movement and help people apply them to their specific situations.

Socialist Forum: How exactly is DSA involved in organizing these circles and bringing people into meetings?

Brandon Lawson: We are doing it in collaboration with the Vermont AFL-CIO, we’re very lucky here to have a pretty radical state labor council as opposed to just about anywhere else in the country. The entire leadership board of the council are members of our DSA chapter. So there’s a lot of overlap in both membership and events and activities, but from the beginning it was and continues to be a DSA event. We started doing it when I was the labor chair for the chapter, and we did all of the planning within the confines of the labor working group.

Most of our attendees were DSA members at first, until people started bringing friends and coworkers, and it expanded. The AFL-CIO helped us pay for snacks and spread the message, because one thing the AFL-CIO has is a huge member roster. They put it out in their newsletter and stuff like that, but as far as the actual putting together of the event, it was all DSA.

Socialist Forum: Has this cooperation with the state federation helped you reach an audience that DSA wouldn’t have been able to reach on its own?

Brandon Lawson: The people who are coming in through DSA are a lot of Workers United groups, like at Starbucks and Ben and Jerry’s, and they just organized another store called Black Cap Coffee. So those who come through DSA are involved in more “progressive unionism” stuff, while a lot of the people who come in through the AFL-CIO are linked with trade unions. It’s helped with increasing the diversity of conversation, but I would say that typically most participants come in through DSA.

Socialist Forum: It sounds like this is bridging the gap a bit between workers in largely unorganized service industries and those in other sectors with more established labor unions. Is that a fair description of the dynamic at work here?

Brandon Lawson: Yeah, absolutely. The folks who are coming in for the first time, those involved in the Workers United style of organizing, are very active on social media and are very attuned to the ethics of organizing – for them it’s a very moral cause. Whereas the “old guard” of the labor movement, you might call it, tends to view things in more pragmatic, less political or less philosophical terms. They tend to have more actual organizing going on, but they’re not great about being publicists. They don’t feel the need for people to get a look inside what’s going on in their union. But they’re doing actions and turning people out all the time. So we’re trying to find a synthesis between these two different approaches, where the political project grounded in moral appeals and social media helps get the community on your side, but backed up by a solid basis in organizing. We want to take what both parts get right and synthesize it into a more holistic model of organizing.

Socialist Forum: Are you running into any disagreements or tensions along these lines?

Brandon Lawson: I think we’re pretty good at keeping things from getting into the personal realm, because that’s very important. We all have the same end goal, which is a powerful labor movement that takes power away from the bosses and gives it to workers. The question is just how we get there. I think the more established labor activists tend to be a little resistant to change, and a bit skeptical of the new folks coming into the movement. On the other side, which also tends to be younger, there tends to be some criticism of the older folks or more established unions for either being inflexible or less involved in the community. More established unions have kind of siloed themselves away from the community for a long time. That manifests itself when an issue crops up at work and the veteran activists think that the best way to do it is through your chief steward, through the grievance process, through these more bureaucratic institutional methods that we have. Whereas the younger activists coming into the movement are much more about getting all the workers on board and organizing around it. Of course, the true answer is you can and should do both.

The other thing that comes up in terms of conflict is optics, because that’s something that we’re having to deal with now. I think a lot of the trade unions think that internal union affairs should be internal, and the world doesn’t need to know about them. Whereas Starbucks or Ben and Jerry’s workers are very public about everything they’re doing. They’re doing rallies, they had Bernie Sanders come out and speak at Ben and Jerry’s recently. Then again, those seem like differences but when you dig in a little bit more it makes sense. The Workers United groups are organizing in the service industry, so by making their activities as public as possible they’re appealing to people who are consumers of those businesses. That is more impactful than if a group like the pipe fitters were to do the same thing because it’s not going to have the same effect. There is no one size fits all solution or approach. Dealing with tensions usually just involves digging a little bit deeper into why groups are doing what they’re doing because there are usually good reasons for them.

Socialist Forum: The workers’ circles project is relatively new, but have you won any successes or victories yet?

Brandon Lawson: I can come up with more than one already, which is remarkable, I think. The Ben and Jerry’s Union got a lot of national attention because they’re the first to unionize Ben and Jerry’s. They came to us during their organizing drive when they were still private. They hadn’t gone public yet. They asked Jaz Brisack from Workers United in Buffalo to come to our Workers’ Circle to talk about their issues and how to organize around them. Ben and Jerry’s does a Free Cone Day where every customer gets a free cone, and management took their tip jar on that day.

There’s another shop on the same street as that Ben and Jerry’s called Black Cap Coffee. The folks from Ben and Jerry’s brought a couple of them to the next meeting and they came to the Workers’ Circle. Within one week of that workers’ circle meeting, they had every worker in the shop sign a union card, 34 workers in one week, and they filed with Workers United.

Another big one is the UVM graduate students. They started trying to organize over a year ago. They lose people every semester because of graduation, and they constantly get new people. They come to almost every workers’ circle we’ve had so far, and we’ve talked a lot about ways they could strengthen their campaign. They changed up their mission statement. They started doing list work, they changed the way their organizing committee operated. They have finally reached a critical density of organizing, and they’re going to move cards in the fall semester when they come back, which no one thought they would be able to do. As evidence of their newfound momentum they just affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW). Now they’re at a point where they have momentum and they have a parent union to back them up. So I would say they’re probably our biggest success story so far.

Socialist Forum: What’s your advice to DSAers who might be interested in emulating the workers’ circles project where they live?

Brandon Lawson: The secret of success for this project so far has really just been talking, it’s been the conversation between all different kinds of labor activists. You can have a productive conversation with 15 people, you can have a productive conversation with just three. Some of the best meetings we’ve had have been some with our lowest turnout. I think a lot of people are geared toward the idea that it’s only a successful event if a bunch of people come out. That is very much not the case with something like this, because if you have a productive conversation it’s valuable. Even if you have just one or two other people come out, you can have a productive workers’ circle.

Having a designated meeting space is really the only thing you need, and snacks never hurt. People love snacks. We’ve also found that it’s helpful to have our labor working group meetings immediately after Workers’ Circle in the same place. This allows us to do a self-critique of how we could improve the Workers’ Circle each time, but a lot of people also just end up staying and hanging around. So we ended up growing our labor working group from people who had just been coming to Workers’ Circles.

As far as the structure and content of the conversations, we try to always “affirm, answer, and redirect.” When someone has a concern, especially when it’s one that other people might not agree with or that could lead to conflict, you want to affirm how they’re feeling. You never want people to walk away from a conversation feeling like they got shut down or told that they were blatantly wrong. If there is an answer to their question or concern, you want to give them an answer and then keep the conversation moving. You don’t want to get bogged down on one point for too long, because if you keep talking, things will keep coming up. You want to have a sense of where you want the conversation to go, and for us that’s always collective action. I’ve said that over and over again, but that’s where we try to end every conversation.

If someone starts going on and on about this one problem they’re having with their boss, affirm their feelings. Say “yeah, that sucks, your boss is an asshole.”  Then give them the answer. “Here is what you and your colleagues could do to organize and fight back.” The redirection to collective action is key because that’s why this matters. Our power is in our collectivity, not in any bureaucratic process or in our individual strengths.

I want to stress to anyone reading this just how easy this can be. We found a space that we could do a standing reservation every other Wednesday here in Burlington called Democracy Creative. It’s just a room in a large warehouse with like a couple couches. So all I have to do is pick up pizza and a big thing of seltzer waters on my way in, and while I’m driving I think of what we’re gonna talk about. What we’ve gotten out of what we’ve put into the project so far is truly remarkable.