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Education 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

Who Did the Work?
May Day event encourages greater focus on labor history

Kate 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 greater emphasis.

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,” he said.

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 life.

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.

—Liz Healy

Finish Your Homework
As a court-mandated deadline looms, the legislators appear to be dragging their feet on resolving New York’s public-education funding crisis

By 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 anytime soon.

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 state’s constitution.

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.

“Maybe 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.

“If 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.

“We’ve 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.

“We 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 this.”

—Travis Durfee or 463-2500 ext. 144

Honestly Weighing the Options
Local food co-op struggles with the way forward as its regional buying club dissolves into a national organization with a focus on business

On 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.

“A 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 major concerns.

“It’s always a moral issue for us,” said Lynn Lekakis, board president. “That was decidedly absent from what they were proposing.”

“We 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 the meeting.

“It 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.”

When 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 options.

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.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute
Miriam Axel-Lute is an HWFC member. She abstained from the vote in question.

Is It So Much to Ask?
Photo by: Teri Currie

Six 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.”

—Ashley Hahn

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