How Union Reformers Passed the PRO Act in Vermont

The pro-union PRO Act is stalled at the national level. But in Vermont, union reformers took over the AFL-CIO and used it to win their own version of the bill.

Vermont AFL-CIO president Katie Maurice (L) holds a banner, along with the organization's executive director, Liz Medina (R). (Courtesy of David Van Deusen)

If you’re a fan of unions, there’s been a lot to get excited about lately. Strikes and militancy are up, public support for labor is peaking, and the prospects for new organizing are better than they’ve been in decades.

Unfortunately, even with all this good news, labor’s legislative fortunes remain dim. If passed, the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would arguably represent the most comprehensive labor law reform since the 1940s. The bill includes a slew of measures to make it easier to form a union and negotiate a first contract. But the PRO Act is stalled in Congress, and it’s hard to see a world where the Democrats can muster a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate anytime soon.

This hasn’t stopped the labor movement in Vermont, bolstered by new reform leadership of the state’s AFL-CIO, from winning their own version of the bill. On May 9, the Vermont Senate passed the PRO Act, and it now heads to the governor’s desk with a veto-proof majority. While not identical to the federal version, the Vermont legislation is a resounding victory for the state’s workers.

The Vermont PRO Act (S. 102) bans captive-audience meetings, a well-worn employer tool for spreading anti-union propaganda and intimidation. Public sector workers will be able to organize with card-check neutrality, allowing them to skip the often unfair and unnecessarily lengthy union election process by getting a simple majority of workers in a bargaining unit to sign union cards. Importantly, the bill will also extend collective bargaining rights to domestic workers who have been historically excluded by US labor law.

This victory was the product of years of work by union reformers, which precipitated a paradigm shift in the way the state’s labor movement engaged with politics. The Vermont labor movement has offered a master class on how activists can turn their state labor councils into hubs for organizing and vehicles for deep legislative reform.


The passage of the Vermont PRO Act cannot be separated from the project of reforming the Vermont AFL-CIO, which activists have pursued over the last five years. In Insurgent Labor, author and Vermont AFL-CIO president from 2019–2023 David Van Deusen describes the moribund state the council existed in for years.

Most union members didn’t know the state council existed, while meetings and conventions were sleepy affairs. After hearing that the 2017 convention contained only twenty delegates, barely enough to fill up one banquet dinner table, Deusen decided to organize a slate for new leadership.

The United! slate was formed around a platform that prioritized new organizing, involvement of rank-and-file union members, more selective support of elected officials, and a Green New Deal. In 2019, fourteen United! candidates were elected, winning all the top officer jobs and a majority on the executive board.

The newly empowered reformers got straight to work in a flurry of activity that helped build relationships for the future. When the International Association of Machinists Local 2704 went on strike right after the election, the council mobilized support in a big way. The local hadn’t participated in the 2019 state council convention, but after this experience of strike support, they sent delegates to the 2020 convention.

The board voted to take money traditionally devoted to hiring outside lobbyists and put it toward a bench of part-time organizers. This new organizing staff helped the council lend meaningful resources to campaigns run by unions like United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459, American Federation of Teachers Local 3203, and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 1674. In the wake of COVID-19, the rejuvenated state council took the lead in organizing car caravans to resist municipal-level austerity.

Though the building trades had a reputation for being more conservative, the progressive United! leadership was able to build trust and credibility by championing local campaigns important to them. They successfully partnered with the trades to pass responsible contract ordinances in three cities. These laws require contractors to pay a prevailing wage on all major city construction projects, giving union contractors an advantage in the bid process.

Coalition building outside traditional unions was also central to the state council’s new vision. The Vermont AFL-CIO partnered with Migrant Justice, an organization representing the state’s undocumented dairy farm workers, on their Milk with Dignity campaign targeting the Hannaford supermarket chain. They also skillfully walked a delicate line of supporting local climate groups while making clear their commitment to maintaining good union jobs in the energy sector.

“No More Politics as Usual”

Perhaps the most transformative change that the United! leadership instituted was a rethinking of how the state’s labor movement engaged with electoral politics. In 2019, a political summit was called to evaluate the council’s inability to move the legislature on labor’s key priorities, rallying under the banner “No More Politics as Usual.”

After a frank and generative discussion, the council passed a resolution outlining three legislative priorities: card-check neutrality, a $15 minimum wage, and robust enforcement of worker misclassification laws.

Boldly, the resolution also stated that any political party that did not support these priorities would face a two-year endorsement moratorium of any candidate in the Vermont House and Senate. While progress was made on a living wage and worker misclassification, the Democratic leadership did not move on card check, thus triggering the moratorium.

In the years that followed, the Vermont AFL-CIO allied with the democratic socialist–oriented Progressive Party, endorsing its entire slate for the first time in the 2020 general election. This daring move sent a clear message to Vermont Democrats that they could no longer rely on labor’s support if they didn’t actively push labor’s agenda.

With the establishment of a broad labor-oriented coalition and a political class on its back foot, the state council was ready to fight for card-check neutrality as part of the Vermont PRO Act.

The Pass the Vermont PRO Act coalition was formed with the support of most of the state’s labor movement, along with community organizations like Migrant Justice, Rural Vermont, Central Vermont DSA, and 350 Vermont.

Elected state council leaders attended local union meetings in person to stress the importance of helping nonunion workers through this bill. Workers descended on the capitol for lobby days and press conferences, featuring the testimony of nonunion workers who experienced captive-audience meetings while trying to organize. Teamsters Local 597, though not part of the AFL-CIO, mobilized its members to send letters and make phone calls.

But the council also got creative. Organizers promoted the legislation at contra dances, a type of folk dancing event popular in Vermont. The Vermont Green FC, a local soccer club, hosted a labor night with the state AFL-CIO. A movie night was organized at the statehouse showing Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses.

Predictably, the local business class mobilized in an attempt to defeat the bill, with the Chamber of Commerce testifying three times against it. But they were on the defensive without credible arguments that could resonate with the public. As Vermont AFL-CIO executive director Liz Medina describes in her op-ed, the Chamber advanced the laughable idea that the Vermont PRO Act would prevent employers from being able to hold diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings.

The passage of the Vermont PRO Act has set the stage for the growth of unions in the state. Vermont has already increased its union density in recent years under the United! leadership, something very few other states have managed to do.

Vermont’s labor movement has demonstrated that despite the stagnation of national-level politics, substantial opportunities for change exist at the state level. Just as we’re witnessing the reform of once-dormant unions into militant fighting machines, state labor councils can also be transformed and weaponized to take on the corporate elite and win big for working people.