Saturday, May 24, 2014

"Vote Yes!" (Act I: 'Rage!')

Act I; 'Rage'
Act II; 'Mulgrew's Minions'
Act III; Growing Pains

This is the first of three posts about the process of convincing members to vote for the new proposed UFT contract. All three are based on observations I've made of some of the key players involved. I'll post the second tomorrow and the third on Monday. 

This professionally designed 'Vote Yes'
avatar has suddenly surfaced
 throughout the Twittersphere
If you would have seen the swagger of UFT President Michael Mulgrew at the May 5 Executive Board meeting, you might have concluded that no sane New York City teacher could have possibly been disappointed with the proposed contract he had suggested to members just days earlier. It was as if all of the anger that was felt and expressed by teachers since the May 1 announcement at City Hall simply didn't exist. It couldn't have! How could it with a demeanor was so confident and a tone so self-assured as his. If you didn't like the contract, and you saw him speak to the UFT EB that night,  you might have come away with the feeling that you were the only one on Earth.

"Did you see any weakness there at all?" one leading member of the MORE caucus asked me just after the meeting had ended. "Because I didn't" he said.

"Nothing" I replied and shook my head with confidence. "No weakness there at all".

"Me either."

Yet, there were signs of fragility surrounding Mulgrew that sort of stuck out. When I, as a non-member of the Executive Board, asked a question, and deliberately skipped a few formalities  (something I often do to as a way to gauge the general temperament of the person with whom I am speaking) he flew off the handle with a verbal reprimand that lasted several minutes. "Now wait, wait..." he began. "I'm trying to be flexible here" he said with his arms stretched out like a Osprey getting ready to flap. "I'm trying my best to be flexible ... I'm trying ... but this", he said, "is an Executive Board meeting .." (the last part was stated so loud that a guy across the street might have been able to hear him). When he realized his tongue lashing was being greeted by me with a smile (something else I do just to get under a person's skin), it seemed to upset him all the more. Later in the meeting, when someone told him a person was "...recording my voice!?!..." he seemed to almost lose it again. All in all, the episodes were typical of a union gathering that takes place around both people you know and trust and people you don't (you'd have to be a union man to truly understand a dynamic like that) but something about the president was extremely unsettled that evening. A closer look at his swagger led me to come away with the feeling that he had all the allure of a guy who was wound up just a bit too tight and sitting far too close to the edge for his own comfort. Certainly this was not a guy taking a victory lap. Sure he wanted folks to believe that. But his edginess and hyper-defensiveness revealed a guy who was far more concerned than he was happy. 

In the weeks since that meeting, I have come to realize that teachers all across the city are angry over this contract. Throughout May, I've spoken with people from no less than twelve schools, many of them brand new to unionism, who have expressed that emotion -all in different ways and some with words so colorful that I could never share them in public. When I delivered the details of the proposal to a group of teachers at one mid-week happy hour event that was organized by MORE, the union's new caucus, the (very excellent) organizer said he was expecting less than ten people. Closer to forty showed up -all of them angry before I even began- and that wasn't even the largest event that that union caucus sponsored in May. 

From my somewhat distant perspective, it seems that new teachers and chapter leaders are making contact with the caucus through social media (or in person) than ever have before. If growing MORe had been the goal of the caucus (which is was NOT), then this contract proposal would represent a real boom for it. In addition to that, Facebook pages urging teachers to 'Vote No' have popped up all across the social media (one page had 1,000 likes in three days) and none of those are from MORE at all. The sheer breadth and depth of that anger (expressed by people who are typically very apathetic toward their union) has taken me and a great many others by complete surprise. What's more is the anger has not dissipated all that much since the deal was announced. That anger is most evident in social media. The edu bloggers I communicate with inform me that every blog post about the contract is resulting in thousands of hits. One post, revealing only details about the contract (nothing more), generated so many hits (and likes on one 'Vote No' Facebook page) that even the seasoned blogger who published it was taken aback. 

The process of getting to a
yes vote has been divisive 

Mulgrew had good reason to be concerned that night! Leadership must have known they'd have to pull out all the stops -scare tactics, smoke and mirrors and even a few underhanded stunts- to convince the membership to vote yes to a contract with which many would be less than pleased. They must have realized, as I have since come to understand, that the road to a 'yes vote' would be a bumpy one -one that further pulled the union apart. They must have sensed that some Unity people would defect (I count three public defections since May 1) and that the NA and MORE caucus' would emerge stronger than they were before. 

The president must have known these things on May 5 and not liked what was in store. In the weeks since, he's done things that he'd never done before. He's had posts published on sites where only teachers read. He's sent ill prepared representatives out to every school in the city (something they didn't even do during the previous election) and he's hosted his first ever 'Town Hall' meeting that was as awkward as anything I can remember seeing from my union. The organization beneath him has acted as an animal responding to the whip. Some have cheated. Some have risen to the occasion and actually strengthened their little corner of the UFT and many have just gotten by doing just enough to avoid being fired. The only conclusion worth reaching is that just beneath the surface of the interviews and speeches, the published articles and school visits, is a dramatic story of a disorganized union trying, at times desperately, to pull itself together. I can't wait to tell the rest of this story! 

In tomorrow's post, I'll share some observations I've made about leadership's 'Vote Yes' campaign. 


  1. superb insights which I never see -- it takes someone like you with fresh eyes. i think i may have been the one who said that to you. i was bending over backwards to give him the benefit of the doubt. only after we all met afterwards did i begin to see the holes. How about that response to my question about people exonerated being allowed to go back to their schools instead of being put in ATR pool? Only at the DA 2 days later did Jeff Kaufman tell me about the 2000 dollar fine limit. I was interested in how New Action acted at that meeting -- calling for a postponement until more info but asking no substantial questions which all came from the 15 MOREistas present.

    1. That was indeed you! While I was just as happy about sending ATRs back into the class, it took a day or so (until the actual details were released) before I saw the truth behind it. That's the problem with pulling apart mistruths; it takes so long! If MORE were just that much bigger, this contract would be going back to the table.

    2. You could see it in the face of UFT staffers who are going to schools. They themselves don't fully back it. I heard a lot of "we are still getting the details"

      The webcast was uncomfortable. Maybe there was an off camera sign that read NOD NOW

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