by Robert Maynard
In 2008 a “Herald of Randolph” piece had the following comment about one of the most visible players on the Vermont political scene: “Vermont Business for Social Responsibility is the largest statewide business association of its kind in the United States. Its 600 members employ approximately 35,000 people in Vermont.” Vermont Business for Social Responsibility has long taken the moral high ground of presenting itself as promoting of social responsibility among the business community. The question that needs to be asked is whether they are simply promoting the notion of social responsibility, or pushing a political agenda.
The effectiveness of their being able to do the latter, hinges on their perception of doing the former. They have been working on building that perception for a while now:
VBSR was founded in 1990 by a group of business people who wanted to pioneer a new focus for business: the multiple bottom line. They believed businesses have as much responsibility to workers, communities and the environment as they do to being financially successful. Initially VBSR was a 501(c)(6) non-profit, independent but affiliated with NEBSR (New England BSR). VBSR continued this relationship with NEBSR to help build strong state NEBSR chapters and regional networking. The other New England states had a different, less independent, relationship with NEBSR. In 1993, the VBSR Board decided to end the affiliation with NEBSR in order to fully focus on building VBSR’s organization and programs, …
By 2006 they had reached the 600 member mark and were touting themselves as a force that would “distinguish Vermont from the rest of the world.”
Today, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) is a force to be reckoned with. Spence Putnam, Executive Director, recently announced that membership passed the 600 mark. VBSR’s 600 businesses and organizations collectively employ over 30,000 and generate more than $4.5 billion in annual revenues. Future membership of 1000 seems not only attainable, but only a matter of time. Social responsibility has taken its place alongside dirt roads, maple syrup, fall foliage, mud, and wacky ice cream flavors as commodities that distinguish Vermont from the rest of the world.
They remained at the 600 + member range until they merged with Local Vermont First in 2009. They gained even more members after an October 16, 2008 order from the Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration (BISHCA). Apparently, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont had set up an entity called the Vermont Health Service Group under which it could offer coverage to participating members. BISHCA forced them to divest because under the law they did not qualify as an entity that could cover member businesses under an “association plan”. The resulting order required BCBS to notify all members to join VSBR by Jan 1, 2009 or lose coverage. (Page 10 of the order) The Vermont Health Services Group now covers member businesses from entities other than VSBR, but the initial order only mentioned that group. This certainly would cause one to at least raise the question of political favoritism. Be that as it may, VBSR went from 600 + members in 2009 to about 1100 as of January 201o and the membership list now includes about 1200. In addition, the group employed 4 lobbyists as of 2010. This compares with 3 for the ASSOCIATED GENERAL CONTRACTORS OF VERMONT and 2 for the Associated Industries of Vermont during the same year.
In short, VSBR has become a significant player in the political arena. A look at their list of public policies supported shows a consistent support for an agenda of higher taxes, more regulation and an ever expanding role for government. Their board of directors contains figures like David Blittersdorf, who are major donors to the Democratic Party and its candidates. There appears to be no major figures with an opposing political viewpoint. In order to take VBSR’s claim of carrying the banner of social responsibility into the business community seriously, one would have to accept the notion that the ideal of social responsibility is defined primarily by the degree of support for the political agenda of the left with its focus on expanding the role of government into all areas of our lives. That is the assumption, which I will explore next time.