When Michael Mulgrew became head of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) this year, he was entering some uncharted territory. As Harold Myserson noted in an August 2009 article about the waning influence of the Irish in the labor movement, the ascension of the Irish American Mulgrew ended “a 50-year succession of Jewish UFT presidents.”
This Wednesday, June 16, Mulgrew turned up the heat in the UFT’s ongoing battle with New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg by spearheading a rally against education cuts at City Hall.
Mulgrew’s rise to the top of the UFT came around the same time Mary Kay Henry was named leader of the West Coast-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents over two million workers.
Henry, 52, was described by the Los Angeles Times as “the eldest girl among 10 siblings in an Irish-Catholic family in suburban Detroit.”
So if, as Harold Myerson suggested, Irish influence in organized labor is dwindling, it’s not going away anytime soon.
There’s one catch, however. These jobs might as well come with a bull’s eye, because unions have become a handy target for angry people and politicians in recent months.
Full disclosure -- I am a member of the UFT. So naturally, I am a little sensitive about some of the criticism aimed at New York City teachers by Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein.
I should add, though, that no one is more frustrated by ineffective teachers than teachers themselves. So it’s not that the UFT is above criticism.
The bigger problem is that, in tough economic times, members of nearly any union have come to be viewed as members of an elite class who are paid lavishly while doing little work.
An article in this past Sunday’s New York Post explored the “long lines” of applicant’s seeking the “cushiest gigs” at a number of local unions. These jobs included spots at Local 246 of the aforementioned SEIU, which represents auto mechanics. There were also applicants seeking jobs with Ironworkers Local 361.
Boy, talk about cushy gigs! What could be easier than learning how an automobile functions from top to bottom and getting the thing fixed.
Or how about those ironworkers! All they have to do from time to time is slice steel with a flaming torch, often several thousand feet above the bustling streets.
I remember less than a month after 9/11 talking to Jack Doyle, head of the heavily-Irish Ironworkers Local 40. Doyle had actually helped build the Twin Towers in the early 1970s, and was vowing to help build again at Ground Zero.
But only after the ironworkers completed the very dangerous task of clearing out the debris. What a cushy gig!
The king of union bashing these days is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. His stump speech for a long time was that New Jersey has “two classes” of citizens, -- “those who enjoy rich public benefits and those who pay for them."
Wow. We’ve certainly come a long way.
In the past, thundering populists and brainy prophets have warned that America was indeed split into two societies -- black vs. white, or the obscenely rich vs. the desperately poor.
Now, according to Christie, the only thing we have to worry about are the folks who dare to have a pension and a little stability. It seems to me we might want to work to get that for more people, not fewer.
Look, I understand that state governments are going broke. Taxpayers have a right to know their money is being invested in sound, productive employees. Unions should roll up their sleeves and help produce solutions.
But there is an ugly side to this. As much as anyone else, the Irish built the American labor movement with blood, sweat and tears. This was no “cushy” task.
Politicians know there is a deep insecurity in America right now. So rather than devise bold ways to alleviate that insecurity, they target “elite” union members and their “cushy” jobs.
Meanwhile, children need to be educated. Cars need to be repaired. Steel must be sliced.
The vast majority of people doing these jobs now do them happily and effectively. Smearing these workers may make the next generation think twice about entering the profession.
But it doesn’t make the work itself any less vital or necessary.
(Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/tomdeignan)