Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Tale of Two Michaels: UFT and Mayor Bloomberg - Who is more undemocratic?

We are waging a two front battle against major powers - the millions of our own union leadership and the billionaire mayor.   

NYC Teacher Seung Ok on NYCEDNEWS listserve:

The NY Post, no friend to the teacher's union, has the following to say about the public relationship between the Mayor and the UFT president, Michael Mulgrew:

"Even though they're often in adversarial positions, Mulgrew has a good relationship with the mayor and the two men rarely clash in public."

"Loeser said the only time Bloomberg spoke to Mulgrew about Black was right before the appointment, when the mayor pointed out that Mulgrew had met her once before.

Mulgrew declined comment.

"Michael Mulgrew and Mayor Bloomberg have private conversations. We do not comment on what might or might not have been said in private conversations that might or might not have happened," a UFT spokesman said."

So the biggest enemy known to public education in New York, and to veteran teachers advocating for what's best for their students has a friend in Michael Mulgrew. No wonder teachers are losing the battle for public opinion. We are waging a two front battle against major powers - the millions of our own union leadership and the billionaire mayor.

On closer inspection the two Michaels seem to have more in common than not. Both run their organizations with the guise of democratic proceedings. It was not democratic for Bloomberg to bribe and coerce his way into a third term.

For those who are unfamiliar with UFT proceedings, let me say that watching it live as a delegate - I imagined this is how so-called democracy is run in countries such as Afghanistan, Russia, and Nigeria.

The UFT has about 3000 delegates, 2200 of whom, can not fit into the small meeting space at 52 Broadway. This is done so that any vote taking place is always dominated by union personnel and Unity party loyalists. They meet for two hours each month and the majority of the time, Mulgrew uses up in the President's speech - which is as long winded as a Sunday sermon. Apparently Mulgrew saves his vehemence against the mayor in these closed meetings.

After that, comes the ceremonial guest speakers, awards, and placards of appreciation to some organization or people (usually a tug-at-the-heart cause that not even the political opposition can help but clap for). In the one year I was attending meetings, these ceremonies included: UFT sending 1000 dollars to the Honduran Teachers Union, the factory strikers at Stella Dora, the NAACP anniversary, a teacher who finally won a grievance for a medical transfer, etc.

Then, finally, when about 20 minutes are left - the floor opens up to the motions that have been already set forth by the Executive Board (sort of like the Senate of the UFT). Good luck trying to get a motion brought forth from the rank and file - because in order for it to be put into next month's New Motions list, it has to be voted on by a majority of those 800 (mostly Unity brethren) sitting at that assembly.

And good luck ever getting to the microphone, because there microphones set up in the aisles. Specifically breaking UFT union and Rules of Order procedure, Michael Mulgrew hand picks who gets to receive roving microphones handed out by, you guessed it, Unity union workers. And they have the ability to shut off any one of those microphones whenever Mulgrew deems it necessary. In most other unions, microphones are set up in each aisle, and the president must address the first member that asks for the floor.

Even if, after all these roadblocks, a member manages to get in a motion to be heard and voted on at that meeting (requiring 2/3 vote), there are further undemocratic hurdles to overcome. Let me give a specific example of an instance where these abuses had important implications.

In the last mayoral election, a member stated a motion for the UFT to support Bill Thompson for mayor. The whole floor was enthused, as evidence by the unanimous clapping in the room - a rare instance of the majority and minority in agreement. After a period of debate, a member asked for the motion to come to a vote.

Again breaking UFT and Rules of Order procedure - Mulgrew stepped into the debate (which is not allowed by the president) and basically took the floor from that member's motion right for a vote. He proceeded to continue the debate by calling on his cabinet to argue against voting for Thompson. After the Unity loyalists basically got the message that Mulgrew wasn't pleased - the eventual vote was unanimous against supporting Bill Thompson.

Now remember the results. Thompson lost by only 5 %. Had only 3 % of the votes shifted, or had not even shown up to vote for the Mayor, public education would be safer today. Had the UFT, sent out its people, like they did for Tony Avella, and mobilized it's full voting membership - we would not be dealing with Mayor Bloomberg.

The main error that both Michaels perpetrate is the notion that they know more than the democratic voice of the populace. And in a little defense of the two Michaels, the problem goes beyond the egos of these two men - but the very system that allows men like this to come into power. It's a problem that democracy has faced since its infancy.

Remember that when the constitution was ratified, only 10 to 16 % of the population (white men with property) were allowed to vote. It's an endless struggle between the interests of the rich and the interests of the majority. Let us remember that this vision of an equitable and free public education is only 60 years old. Like a new democracy, it has to be fought for and nothing is assured. True public education was born of struggle, and nothing short of struggle will keep its ideals alive.

Seung Ok
- Teacher

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