through theater: A May Day participant portrays Kate
Mullany, a leading labor organizer, as part of the theater
production Four Who Dared. Photo by: Teri Currie
Did the Work?
Day event encourages greater focus on labor history
Mullany is not as familiar a name as some think it should
be. She was the organizer of the first all-woman labor union
in 1864 and was the first woman to hold office in a national
labor union.Yet Paul Cole, executive director of the American
Labor Studies Center, an organization that collects materials
on labor history in an effort to give it a greater emphasis
in the k-12 curriculum, guesses the average student wouldn’t
recognize her name as easily as they would John Rockefeller
or Andrew Carnegie. Many participants at this year’s sixth
annual Hudson Mohawk May Day celebration, which honored Mullany
and at which Cole spoke, agreed that the labor movement and
its history deserve more attention.
The Hudson Mohawk May Day event has been held in Troy for
the past six years, and one of its goals is to stress labor
history and its significance to the area. This year’s themes
included free speech and the rights of working people, and
featured keynote speaker Staughton Lynd. “The emphasis is
to educate people that this is an American holiday and that
it grew out of the struggle for an eight-hour day,” said Art
Fleischner, who is on the planning committee, adding that
Troy and Cohoes were centers in the industrial movement.
Andor Skotnes, a history professor at Russell Sage college
and a member of the May Day planning committee, thinks the
American Labor Studies Center is a much-needed organization.
“The lack of education around labor is absolutely true and
we need to solve it,” he said, adding that students need to
be educated in this history to understand how the world works.
“Students are going to leave and get jobs and they won’t understand
their rights or be involved in a union. . . . Knowing something
could make a difference.”
Cole, who is also secretary-treasurer of the New York state
AFL-CIO and a former teacher, created the ALSC two years ago
because he believes that many Americans are uninformed about
the labor movement and that what they do know isn’t coming
from the classroom. “It’s not unusual in other countries to
find that labor is a large part of the curriculum,” he said,
adding that in Canada and Northern Europe this subject receives
Cole stresses the ALSC’s goal is not to change the existing
educational curriculum because it already allows teachers
to intergrate more labor history if they choose. “The idea
is to get teachers to choose [labor] materials over a variety
of others. It could be as simple as when it’s time to do a
biography, choosing someone like Mother Jones or Kate Mullany,”
Rachel Bliven, a historian who shared her findings on Kate
Mullany at the May Day event, also feels that labor history
education is essential. “It’s important because it’s real
people’s history. . . . Many of the history books will tell
you about the one man that owned the mill, but that mill wouldn’t
exist without people who worked in it everyday,” she said.
“What you learn in school tells you what’s important and when
you only learn about the importance of the first person to
invent something then you’re missing half the point. . . .
The reality is things get done by a group, and that needs
to be recognized in the classroom.”
She said that Mullany’s death in 1906 received significant
media attention, with many newspapers covering her funeral,
which was unusual at the time for a woman. She has had difficulty,
however, finding information from other points in Mullany’s
The ALSC will soon be moving into its first formal offices
at the Kate Mullany house on Eighth Street in Troy, which
they purchased last year and are now renovating. An effort
is also underway, including legislation pending in Congress,
to have the house designated as a national historic site.
a court-mandated deadline looms, the legislators appear to be
dragging their feet on resolving New York’s public-education
most accounts, figuring out how to fix the state’s broken
system of funding public education is the issue in
New York State politics this year. Commissions have met, reports
have been released, editorials have been written and a court-mandated
deadline that once seemed so far off looms ever closer on
the horizon. That’s not to say that you should expect a solution
Last June, New York’s highest appellate court upheld a decision
saying that the state of New York was providing inadequate
resources to fund public education in the New York City school
system. The suit, brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity,
a coalition of parents, teachers and educators from New York
City, determined the state’s current formula for funding education
failed to provide students in New York City with the opportunity
to receive a “sound and basic” education, as mandated by the
Since that decision last June, the group’s initials, CFE,
have become synonymous with correcting what has long been
considered one of the biggest dilemmas in all of state government:
how to find a fair and equitable solution to funding education
in New York.
The current system—consisting of roughly 50 funding formulas
and legal twists and turns spanning well over 90 pages of
the state’s constitution—is so convoluted and inadequate,
and has been so politicized and gerrymandered over the years,
that only a handful of people in state government actually
understand how it works. Its complexity aside, education administrators
have long complained that the system’s inflexibility makes
it difficult for school districts to provide the constitutionally
mandated “sound and basic” education.
Despite that, a solution from the Capitol doesn’t appear to
be coming anytime soon. In fact, the three most powerful men
in state government can’t even agree on when, or if, they
should try to resolve the matter. The state Legislature was
ordered by the court to offer a plan for fixing the system
by July 30, and failure to do so by that date would force
the judge to appoint a “special master” who would come up
with a solution. And despite the fact that legislators and
the governor have said since the beginning of the year that
CFE was the big issue to deal with in 2004, real negotiations
between the three most powerful men in state politics didn’t
begin in earnest until last week. Following a meeting with
Gov. George Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-NYC)
last Wednesday (April 29), Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno
(R-Brunswick) appeared ready to throw in the towel.
we are just going to have to recognize that we’re just not
going to get there . . . and let the courts who created this
situation take a look at what they see is appropriate,” Bruno
said after the leadership meeting. Following another brief
meeting the three held yesterday afternoon, negotiations didn’t
appear to have progressed much. Despite comments by Bruno
following the meeting that a budget could be completed tomorrow
were a decision on CFE agreed to, Silver is holding his ground
that CFE be included in the state budget, which is late for
the 20th straight year.
I were a betting person, I would be starting to think that
it won’t be until late July before the budget is passed,”
said Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters.
But getting a budget passed in late July isn’t the worst possible
scenario if it means that legislators have crafted a plan
for addressing the state’s education-funding nightmare. Many
observers agree that the worst possible scenario would be
legislators and the governor allowing the deadline to pass.
Should legislative dithering in Albany force a special master
to take over, he or she may choose to craft a solution based
solely on the facts in the case, which only relate to New
York City. Observers fear that a decision only relating to
New York City could lead to a flood of cases from other cities
and even rural regions across the state.
been telling groups around the state not to pursue individual
lawsuits, but if this goes to the courts you’re going to see
20 more lawsuits. If this goes back to the courts, it will
go into this vicious legislative-judicial cycle with year
after year of litigation,” said Regina Eaton, executive director
of the Alliance for Quality Education. “The best way for this
to be resolved is for the governor and the Legislature to
come up with an agreement for the state as a whole.”
Brandon Gordon, executive director at the Midstate School
Finance Consortium, a group working on school-aid reform and
representing 280 upstate school districts in Central New York,
said what’s been missing from the debate is how fixing the
state’s system of funding public education will benefit students.
The CFE decision could lead to smaller classroom sizes, expanded
pre-k programs and better facilities for students in districts
with poor tax bases throughout New York state. But of late,
Gordon notes, all of the talk coming out of Albany regarding
CFE is focused on the politics.
keep hearing that it is difficult because of political reasons
and what is that? What does that mean? I don’t care about
political differences—I care about kids,” Gordon said. “I
wish we would find out why they are all so tight-lipped about
or 463-2500 ext. 144
Weighing the Options
food co-op struggles with the way forward as its regional
buying club dissolves into a national organization with a
focus on business
April 18, the room the Honest Weight Food Co-op had reserved
at Sage College in Albany for its annual membership meeting
was overflowing, with people sitting on window sills and in
the aisles, fanning themselves in the new spring heat as staff
ran around offering glasses of locally produced cider.
It was an unusually large turnout, said staffers, and one
of the main issues that brought so many people out was a proposal
from the National Cooperative Grocers Association to dissolve
its 11 regional associations of food co-ops and re-form as
one large organization. Those regional organizations have
primarily served as buying clubs, negotiating volume discounts
and sale offerings with natural foods distributors.
Several cooperative distributors have closed in recent years,
leaving one, United Natural Foods, Inc., as a near-monopoly.
Natural-foods supermarkets like Whole Foods, and natural-foods
sections of regular grocery stores are also providing increased
competition to local co-ops. In light of these challenges,
NCGA decided that a national organization would provide more
bargaining power for its 94 local co-ops.
So far, so good. But as members of Honest Weight’s board began
to look at the details of the proposed reorganization, they
got very worried. After raising their concerns through the
10-month feedback period, they still arrived at the voting
deadline recommending that the co-op vote no.
Chief among the concerns was that the new national organization
was not sufficiently cooperative or democratic in its structure.
Two voting board positions are to be appointed by the board,
and other nominations will be made primarily by a nominating
committee, rather than open nominations. The annual membership
meeting will be advisory, and the proposal did not specify
which decisions, if any, will actually go to the membership
for a vote.
century or more of experience with formally democratic organizations
has shown clearly that unless deliberate steps are taken to
forestall it, the result of such a concentration of power
and authority in a small executive group is always oligarchy
and a growing separation of interests between leaders and
members,” wrote the board in a letter to other co-op boards
explaining its concerns.
Emotional discussion at the meeting also focused on a line
in the proposal that specifies that the national organization
should put its own interests before that of member co-ops,
and the fact that staff and board are supposedly prohibited
from discussing internal debate until a final and unanimous
decision is reached. Lack of clarity on the business plan,
the possibility of substantial risk to the co-op’s equity,
and no commitment to values beyond good prices were other
always a moral issue for us,” said Lynn Lekakis, board president.
“That was decidedly absent from what they were proposing.”
appear to be asked to commit to a business with no firm plan,
no track record, no credit record, no checks and balances,
no contractual commitments, no control by its presumed beneficiaries.
. .” HWFC’s board wrote in its memo to the membership before
seemed like [proposal proponents] were saying the organization
was too large to be democratic,” noted Cindee Lolik, HWFC’s
operations and administrative coordinator.
Robynn Shrader, NCGA’s executive director, disputed some of
these concerns. She said that the new board’s nominating committee
was charged with offering “contested elections.” She said
the membership would “absolutely” vote on big decisions like
bylaws changes and equity contributions, as in most individual
co-ops, but that input and guidance from members on program
design made more sense. As for the specifics of the relationship
with UNFI, she said none of it had been firmed up before the
vote because they had to “balance how much of the members’
assets you want to spend developing something detailed . .
. you don’t know the members will support.”
it comes down to details of the buying club, such as whether
co-ops will find themselves pressured to carry specific products,
Shrader said “the fundamental protection they have is that
it’s voluntary. . . . [joining that program is] not a requirement
of membership in NCGA.”
Nearly all of the other 94 co-ops in NCGA were expected to
vote yes (in fact only one other voted against), but Honest
Weight members voted strongly against the proposal (94-6).
Honest Weight is one of relatively few, it appears, that actually
brought the decision to its membership, rather than having
the vote cast by a general manager. This, however, was a theoretical
vote, since members knew that their regional organization
was going to come out in favor (most co-ops had already voted),
and Honest Weight would be included in the new national organization
despite its no vote, unless it specifically opted out.
So it was the second vote on the topic—whether to remain in
the new organization—that stirred the most debate. The board,
after discussion with staff, was recommending yes. At the
meeting, staff members in charge of purchasing pointed out
that the value of the discounts and sales the co-op currently
gets through its regional purchasing agreement roughly equaled
the store’s profit margin for 2003.
Despite what many present said about the heart of the organization
being in its local produce and bulk options, grocery manager
Nancy Reich noted that the grocery items that come from UNFI
are still the bulk of what customers buy at the co-op. She
and other member-workers argued that it would be best to try
to change the new organization from the inside, or at least
participate for a year or two to buy time to research other
Most of the members who spoke, however, wanted the co-op to
stand up for its principles and refuse to participate. You
don’t deal with scoundrels, even temporarily, one noted, while
another said the proposal wouldn’t stand up to legal scrutiny.
One member noted that voting against it in theory but participating
anyway more or less negated the power of the no vote. We shouldn’t
vote our fears, several said. We can afford to lower our profits
for a little while, they argued, as we figure out how to join
up with the dozens of co-ops that have never joined this organization.
In the end, the membership did vote 56-40 to participate,
with six abstentions.
But the board heard the concerns, and is more or less considering
this a temporary move. Lekakis said the board has formed a
committee, which already has 6 to 10 interested members, to
research other purchasing options. “We’re all pretty interested
in looking at different ways of doing things,” she said. But
“it would be onerous for the staff to do all that work, so
it’s going to have to be member-driven. . . . We’re figuring
it’s going to take a year just to gather the information.”
Axel-Lute is an HWFC member. She abstained from the vote in
It So Much to Ask?
Photo by: Teri Currie
same-sex couples and their supporters went to
Albany City Hall last Friday, trailed by reporters,
with $40 and driver’s licenses in hand to ask
for marriage licenses they knew they would be
denied. But when the city clerk, John Marsolais,
wished them well and politely declined to issue
licenses to the first couple, Rex DeVoe and David
Booth, and by extension the rest of the couples,
the tables turned. An impromptu “straight couple,”
Booth and Nora Yates (center), who also had shown
up with her same-sex partner, asked for and got
a marriage license.
Booth and Yates had just met and told Marsolais
that they did not know or love each other. Yates
even interrupted the discussion to ask Booth his
last name. (To get even domestic-partner benefits,
same-sex couples have to prove six months’ cohabitation
and financial interdependence.) Both Booth and
Yates were disappointed that they still can’t
get licenses with their life partners.
Couples and supporters wanted to show they believe
marriage is a right that should be open to everyone
regardless of orientation. Steve McCarthy, who
came with his partner, acknowledged that the event
was more “symbolic than practical or legal,” but
added, “You never know what can happen.”