Class Warfare: Teachers’ Union Boss Michael Mulgrew Claims He Can Crown the Next Mayor

Michael Mulgrew. (Illustration: Steve Brodner)

Steve Brodner

It was just after Hurricane Sandy struck the city when the president of the New York City teachers’ union started getting calls from the prospective mayoral candidates. His home had been destroyed by floodwaters, and an estimated 10,000 of his members lived in evacuation zones, many trapped without power or transportation.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn arrived with a handful of staffers on Saturday and spent three days by his side. “Chris Quinn, you know, she’s out in Staten Island with me, we’re up to our butts in mud, shoveling out houses,” the president, Michael Mulgrew recalled. “Just full of mud, the two of us.” One by one, the other candidates followed, helping to gut homes and hand out supplies.

It’s the kind of treatment that flows freely to Mr. Mulgrew, arguably the most courted political player in the mayor’s race. His claim that the United Federation of Teachers’ endorsement can swing the mayoral primary on Sept. 10 is questioned by some political observers — but apparently not the candidates, who compete aggressively for his affections.

This year’s mayoral race is one of the most chaotic in decades, with more than seven Democratic hopefuls fighting for slivers in a primary that is expected to turn out fewer than 600,000 voters. With the primary still wide open, Mr. Mulgrew believes that his union has the power to crown the new king or queen.

“We’re not about picking a mayor,” Mr. Mulgrew told Politicker last week at George’s, a diner near the union’s lower Manhattan headquarters. “We’re about making a mayor, making the winner. And that’s what we’re gonna to do.”

John Liu and UFT Michael Mulgrew post-Sandy. (Photo: Facebook/UFT)

John Liu and UFT’s Michael Mulgrew post-Sandy. (Photo: Facebook/UFT)

For the past four years, the UFT has been working to build up an army of volunteers, pollsters and operatives. By the union’s count, its endorsements will deliver more than 230,000 members, when retirees, family members and others who live in members’ homes are included. The union is also planning to spend in the mid to high seven figures on the race, according to a source familiar with the organization’s finances.

Four years ago, as Mr. Mulgrew tells it, Mayor Michael Bloomberg “declared war” on the teacher’s union when he made a speech in Washington, D.C., doubling down on an agenda that included using state test scores in teacher evaluations—something the union has long fought. “It’s pretty clear that this is the worst the relationship has ever been between the union and the city,” he said over an egg-white omelet with bacon and Swiss.

Since then, the mayor and Mr. Mulgrew have been locked in an acrimonious battle marked by personal insults, protests and legal battles. The standoff came to a head in January, when an impasse over a new teacher evaluation system cost the city more than $250 million in state education aid. Mr. Mulgrew accused Mr. Bloomberg of “lying,” Mr. Bloomberg said Mr. Mulgrew was trying to pull off a “sham,” and both were slammed by the governor as petty. A deal was finally imposed by the state this weekend, leaving both sides’ pride intact.

Now Mr. Mulgrew sees a chance to install a friend in City Hall, one he hopes will halt school closings, end the expansion of nonunion charter schools, negotiate a friendlier evaluation deal and—most importantly—deliver the $3.2 billion in back wages that Mr. Mulgrew claims his members are owed after working for the past four and a half years under an expired contract with no raises.

“Hearing from all of the candidates, they all get that things have to change dramatically,” Mr. Mulgrew said.

It wasn’t always this way between City Hall and the UFT, which was founded in 1960 as a voice for teachers who felt they weren’t being treated fairly. Mr. Mulgrew’s predecessors, including the legendary labor leader Albert Shanker and his successors Sandra Feldman and Randi Weingarten, were all tough, commanding figures, but they nonetheless seemed to be able to work with City Hall. Relations got tricky with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but “really unraveled with Mulgrew’s ascendancy,” observed Hunter College professor emeritus Kenneth Sherrill, who blamed the fallout partially on a clash of personalities. “Some of that’s born from personal animosity between the two. They just don’t get along with each other.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew. (Photo: Amanda Cohen)

Michael Mulgrew. (Photo: Amanda Cohen)

Mr. Mulgrew—a former carpenter with a thick Staten Island accent and a booming voice—had been Ms. Weingarten’s right-hand man before she stepped down after a year of juggling the post with her new role as president of the national American Federation of Teachers.

When Mr. Mulgrew, who was handpicked by Ms. Weingarten over more experienced leaders, took over the UFT in 2009, “I knew political infrastructure wasn’t where it should be,” he said. “When the mayor declared war on us, we went really hard.”

The union began to invest in community outreach, appointing captains in neighborhoods across the city, creating a database of members and their families, training members to go door-to-door and pushing for contributions from members’ paychecks.

The first test of the union army came in 2010. There’d been a long-standing saying that, in New York, it was more likely for a lawmaker to die or be indicted than get voted out of office—in part owing to union groups’ historical backing of incumbents. Mr. Mulgrew wanted to prove the saying wrong.

“So I said, ‘We’re gonna take somebody out,’” Mr. Mulgrew recalled with a mischievous smile.

The target: then-State Senator Frank Padavan, a popular Republican who’d held his Queens senate seat for 38 years, winning again and again with the UFT’s blessing. But this time, the union, angry over Mr. Padavan’s support for charter schools, backed challenger Tony Avella. The district’s 7,000 UFT members flooded neighborhoods with flyers and made thousands of calls.

“It was the UFT against everyone: all the unions, advocacy groups, everyone was on the other side,” Mr. Mulgrew said. Mr. Avella won—handily–shocking observers.

They’ve also tried to push back against a national movement to weaken teachers unions, sending teams to Ohio and Wisconsin to fight moves to limit collective bargaining. And during the presidential election, members flocked to Florida, where retirees armed with burner cell phones and call sheets gathered in homes and pizza parlors near public schools, placing thousands of calls to fellow teachers to get out the vote; others fanned out across the affluent I-4 corridor, making the case for President Obama re-election in the crucial swing state.

“The UFT’s political operation has greatly improved over the past couple of years,” said Marc Lapidus, a political consultant and senior partner at Red Horse Strategies, which has done political consulting for the UFT in recent years. “I think Mulgrew certainly put it into overdrive.”

The union’s mettle was on display during a series of recent forums where the Democratic candidates practically fell over one another trying to woo the rooms, a showing that Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson dubbed “PanderPalooza.”

“I talk to them constantly. All of them,” said Mr. Mulgrew of his relationships with the contenders, including Ms. Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, former Comptroller Bill Thompson and current Comptroller John Liu. “I know all about all of their families. I know about their dogs and this and that.”

He pointed to the outpouring of support after Hurricane Sandy.

“I called the politicians and they’re like, whatever you need,” he said, sharing the story of Ms. Quinn in the mud. “I did the same thing with John Liu. We’re shoveling mud and we’re also handing out supplies in Brooklyn. We were out with Quinn in Brooklyn. Bill de Blasio, we just kept unloading trucks out in the Rockaways.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew embraces City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Michael Mulgrew embraces Speaker Christine Quinn. (Photo: City Council/William Alatriste)

For Mr. Mulgrew, the wooing is part of the fun. “Do they want the endorsement? Sure they do,” he said. “Our approval rating’s much higher than the mayor’s.” Indeed, recent independent polls show that when asked whom they trust to advocate for students, more New Yorkers side with the union than with the mayor.

At six feet tall and 230 pounds, Mr. Mulgrew, a tough-talking Staten Islander with the swagger of a teenage instigator, has little in common with the billionaire mayor. He was raised by a single mother juggling three jobs and four kids. He says he got into trouble frequently. “I wasn’t the easiest teenager, to say the least,” he recalled.

He worked construction after graduating high school but took classes at nights and on weekends and began working in schools as a substitute teacher during the off-season. Because of his size, he was assigned to deal with emotionally disturbed children, in a basement classroom where his day could involve ducking thrown chairs.

He later taught computers and English literature, using filmmaking to engage with his students. He was hesitant to run for chapter leader, but he was arm-twisted into running for the job and quickly made his way up the union ranks, impressing higher-ups with his bluster and bravado.

But Mr. Mulgrew—described as a deeply loyal advocate by friends and a thuggish bully by detractors—has eschewed his predecessor’s hobnobbing. At home in storm-ravaged Oakwood Beach, where he lives with his girlfriend, he prefers sheetrocking and barbecuing to power lunching with the city’s elite.

“I like flip-flops and shorts in the summer, having a beer in the backyard with my friends,” he said, admitting to sometimes grocery shopping with a hoodie on to avoid being recognized. “Why change? You shouldn’t be too impressed with yourself. Keep it simple, man, keep it simple.”

The endorsement vote by the union’s large Delegate Assembly is scheduled for June 19, and Mr. Mulgrew—though tight-lipped—appeared genuinely unsure about the outcome. He rebuffed the suggestion that the union favors Mr. Thompson, a widespread assumption after Ms. Weingarten personally endorsed him last month.

“About two months ago, I heard I was endorsing Mr. de Blasio. That was out there all over the place. Then they all freaked out because I was endorsing Ms. Quinn. My phone just did not stop for a week and a half. And now I hear I’m doing Mr. Thompson,” he said wryly.

The decision, he said, will rest on the candidates’ policy positions—not just on education, but also on economic inequality and poverty—as well as on their standing in the polls. He wants a candidate with a clear path to victory–and a team capable of getting them there. He also needs someone his members will rally around—making Ms. Quinn, who has allied herself closely with Mr. Bloomberg, a potentially tough sell.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew. (Photo: Amanda Cohen)

Michael Mulgrew. (Photo: Amanda Cohen)

To complicate matters, there is no clear labor candidate in the field. District Council 37, the city’s largest public employee union, recently endorsed Mr. Liu, while 1199 SEIU, the health care workers union, has endorsed Mr. de Blasio.

In the face of Mr. Mulgrew’s mobilization efforts, Bloomberg administration has gone on the attack, urging candidates to resist becoming pawns of the UFT. “The fate of our schools is hanging in the balance,” the normally mild-mannered Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott warned in a recent speech.

To advance his agenda after leaving office, Mr. Bloomberg’s allies, including Joel Klein, founded StudentsFirstNY, a group created as a counter-voice to the UFT.  The group’s executive director, Glen Weiner, said that the UFT would be “a formidable force” during the primary, but warned that it is “a scary proposition to think of them electing the next mayor.” He argued that rolling back Mr. Bloomberg’s policies would set back progress in outcomes such as graduation rates.

Like others, Mr. Weiner said that Mr. Mulgrew’s claims of influence are overblown.

The union has an uneven track record when it comes to mayoral endorsements. The last time a union-backed candidate won Gracie Mansion was back in 1989, when David Dinkins narrowly bested Mr. Giuliani in a contentious race. The group chose to sit out the 2009 race between Messrs. Thompson and Bloomberg and the 2005 race because of contract negotiations, and it was also silent in 1997 and 1993. In 2001, the UFT did endorse—three times—and managed to lose all three elections: the primary (Alan Hevesi), runoff (Fernando Ferrer) and general (Mark Green).

Kevin Finnegan, the political director of the also-powerful 1199, questioned the ability of any single union to crown a winner. “I don’t think there’s any single institution in the city that can get the mayor elected,” he said. “We just don’t have the numbers to get it done.”

“They’re overselling it,” said another source, who argued that sophisticated, generally well-educated UFT members are more likely to break with their leadership than members of other unions. He pointed to concessions the UFT has recently been forced to accept, including the new teacher evaluation deal.

“The teachers have had to accept things over the years that they would never have accepted before,” said the observer. They’re not as mighty as they used to be.”

But Mr. Mulgrew insists otherwise.

“If we all get behind our candidate,” he recently told members, “that candidate will be the next mayor.”