Michael Mulgrew and the Idea of Listening Instead of Hearing

Jose Vilson Jose

Michael Mulgrew with Comptroller John Liu

It might have been the sweet potato fries or the classic cuban sandwiches, but today marks the first time I ever believed my union president word-for-word.

Today at Havana Central Upper West Side, Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), spoke in front of a capacity  crowd of strictly District 6 (Harlem and Upper Manhattan) teachers over a few appetizers and drinks. Normally these events don’t have much pomp and circumstance. School representatives just stick in their own lanes, say hello to a few people they recognize in their own neighborhood, and take cheesy pictures of each other for no apparent reason. Some of this was the case with the exception of the UFT representatives who got around to a few people. Then again, these people come straight from school.

At first, the usual stream of representatives spoke to us about the value of teachers and our job’s higher calling. We were introduced to people whose names have appeared in the midst of the spam I usually receive as an NYC educator.

Then, they introduced Michael Mulgrew. In full discloser, I’d already heard him speak at a prior meeting at the UFT meeting, and was pretty impressed with his calm yet confident demeanor. This time around, even in a suit, he gave off a blue-collar aura with a regular man’s ear. When the borough representative introduced him, he shied away from the praise with a bit of an eye-roll and a wave of his hands. Yet, where I found the former representative weak and capitulating, I saw an eagerness to listen to his constituents and an unwavering will.

The weirdest part about the meeting was how this roomful of teachers of different cultures, mostly Latino, actually sat quietly while he spoke for almost 45 minutes about everything from the contract to the new budget, without missing a beat. Like anyone who should be in tune with the membership, he listed each major grievance and concern the members had, listing fact after fact, lining them up and shooting them down to a rousing cavalcade of applause every 6 minutes or so. His responses, unlike too many figureheads, actually sounded like he believed the message of real reform as his constituents spoke, and not solely that his handlers got a few ambiguous notes together to placate the masses.

That’s the difference between listening and hearing, listening being most critical.

I wouldn’t write such a glowing review of someone’s speech without knowing the underbelly of the beast. Through my informal research, I’m also aware of union head’s ability to throw great sound bites to the public but negotiate away parts of our livelihood in secret. Mulgrew’s legacy has yet to fully develop, and with the recent history our union leadership has had, we as the rank and file have every right to mistrust on any level. Thus, I’m honestly tempered since I’d like to see more of he actually does.

Secretly, even his biggest detractors within the rank and file would probably love to see him succeed so long as he sticks to his aggressive, factual, and proletariat messages. As long as he pushes for the transparency of tax-funded charter schools, disregards Michael Bloomberg’s false labor options thrown in the media, delivers reasonable alternatives for Joel Klein’s whimsical school closings, and works towards helping to improve the school system (with an equitable contract), it’s hard not to have a sense of optimism about him.

After all, he actually sounds like he listens, and that’s the first step in building one’s image … and legacy.

Mr. Vilson, who doesn’t think it was the Cuban food …