Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 6, 2012

Michael Urmann ¡Presente!

Filed under: nicaragua,South Africa,Tecnica — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

Michael Urmann, the founder of Tecnica, one of the important Nicaragua solidarity organizations of the 1980s, is dead.

Michael Francis Urmann Nov. 20, 1944 – Apr. 28, 2012 Resident of Berkeley Michael F. Urmann, died April 28 of heart failure. Born Nov. 20, 1944, son of Frank and Katherine (Donovan) Urmann, he grew up in Pasadena, earned a B.S./M.A. (1968) in Economics from UC Berkeley, and Ph.D. at University of Utah. He taught economics for 20 years. He founded TecNica Volunteers, a nonprofit that sent supplies/technical volunteers to Nicaragua, expanding to Africa. He was active in the Free Speech Movement (1960)s, and worked tirelessly for peace and economic justice. He is survived by wife Mary Engle (Berkeley); sons David Urmann of India; Daniel Urmann (Salt Lake); son and daughter, Reed and Lily Urmann (Berkeley); mother, Katherine Urmann and sister, Nancy (Jack) Butler of Gig Harbor, WA. A celebration of his life will be held in June in Berkeley.

I first got word from his cousin, who had read my article on the death of Tecnica volunteer Paul Baizerman that had mentioned Michael. In a chilling coincidence, both Paul and Michael died of heart disease.

I was very close to Michael for about 3 years when we worked together on the project that he founded and where he served as Executive Director. As president of the board, my major responsibility was recruiting volunteers on the East Coast and serving as Michael’s chief adviser. In his trips east, he always stayed at my place and I always dropped in at his rented house in Berkeley when I was in the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, we became estranged after I voted with the rest of the board to remove him as executive director. A couple of years after the event, I wrote a letter to him trying to mend fences. I got an angry reply from Mary Engle telling me how betrayed they felt and requesting that I never write them again.

When I spoke to Hari Dillon, who had replaced Michael as executive director, a few days after my article on Paul Baizerman was posted, he told me that he had hoped to get in touch with Michael who he hadn’t spoken to since Tecnica days. I asked Hari to broker a reconciliation with Michael, if things worked out between the two of them. I was planning a trip out to San Francisco in May and looked forward to seeing both Hari and Michael.

Looking back at the board meeting that resulted in Michael’s firing, I regret having voted with the rest of the board. If I had voted against it or even abstained, our friendship would have continued.  Would it have been wrong to vote against the wisdom of the board? I suppose so but sometimes friendship trumps duty. Tecnica did not have much of a future after the FSLN was ousted in 1990 but at least I would have been able to maintain ties with a valued colleague and comrade who came out of the same sectarian crucible as me, but in his case the Maoist Progressive Labor Party rather than Trotskyism.

Like the SWP, the PLP colonized industry with the same pathetic results. Michael worked in a warehouse in the Bay Area organized by the ILWU, a traditionally leftist union. The work was backbreaking and the political payoff practically nil. After dropping out of the PLP, Michael went to the U. of Utah and earned an economics doctorate in 1981 doing a dissertation on the CIO and rank-and-file Communists that could only be written at a place like that. From the Proquest abstract:

This dissertation asserts the view that the organizing activity of rank and file Communists was an important element in the hitherto undescribed and mysterious process that led to the CIO’s rapid growth and was the basis of the strength of the CIO. It then investigates the nature of the activities as well as the character and personal backgrounds that made it possible for them to play this role. This dissertation presents a new interpretation of the role of rank and file Communists in industrial unions; it offers a new explanation for the successful creation of those unions.

In preparing this article, I learned that U. of Utah professor emeritus E.K. Hunt was Michael’s dissertation chairman. When Hunt came to the U. of Utah in 1978 Michael was already a graduate student and had assembled a lot of material about the CP’s role in organizing the CIO but nobody in the Department wanted to touch it because it was favorable to the CP.  Hunt, an occasional contributor to “Science and Society”, stepped forward and became his dissertation adviser.

Michael was a graduate teaching assistant in the economics department but never held a full-time academic job until after parting ways with Tecnica. When reminiscing about his time in Utah, Michael hardly ever mentioned the U. of Utah. His shining moment was starting up the first art movie theater in Salt Lake City. When he looked around and saw that there was none, he decided to do it himself.

The same kind of seat-of-the-pants initiative was demonstrated in a trip to Nicaragua with a group of economists around that time. Coming back to the U.S., he went to the airport to change to another flight. When the clerk had trouble working the system, Michael volunteered to come around and help him or her out. Since these were the early days of the revolution, when everything seemed possible, Michael was given carte blanche to change his flight. Flying back to the U.S., he realized that many of the country’s more skilled workers had fled. The light bulb went on over his head. Michael has his own take on the origins of Tecnica in 1984, even though he does not mention the encounter with the reservations clerk.

I should add that Michael’s article appears on a relatively new website titled Tecnica Volunteers that has lots of interesting material including the video “At Work in Nicaragua” that I digitized from a VHS tape some years ago. (Unfortunately, there is no contact information.) The video starts with Mary Engle’s observation that the first thing that hit her when she got off the plane in Managua was the heat.

My first trip to Nicaragua was with a Guardian Newspaper (the defunct American newsweekly, not the British liberal newspaper) delegation in November 1984 when Tecnica was in its infancy. A high school student in the delegation handed me a leaflet at some point with words “Programmers needed in Nicaragua” in 24 point type. That experience left me feeling like St. Paul on the road to Damascus.

As soon as I got back to the U.S., I called the number on the leaflet and volunteered for the next brigade to Nicaragua, which occurred just six months or so later. I quit my job at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and was all set on working in Nicaragua as a volunteer. From the minute I met Michael, I found that we were on the same wavelength. We had been burned by sectarian politics and were committed to the kind of broad revolutionary movement that had toppled Somoza. The best thing we could do in that period was work to build solidarity with Nicaragua to help become part of a broader process of revolutionizing Central America and then the rest of the continent. At the time our hopes were best expressed in Roger Burbach and Orlando Nuñez’s “Fire in the Americas: Forging a Revolutionary Agenda”. (Burbach eventually became a member of Tecnica’s advisory council.)

Michael persuaded me to turn down a job at the Ministry of Construction working on one of the country’s few IBM mainframes, about 1/10th the power of what I worked on at Sloan-Kettering, and returning to New York where I would start a Tecnica chapter. Over a 3-year period, we routinely held outreach meetings that drew over 100 people, many of whom became volunteers. I had missionary zeal around this project, so much so that I would allow nothing to get in the way. One time I went to an IBM PC User’s group and raised my hand during the regularly scheduled Q&A, when the typical question was something about the compatibility of some printer with MS-DOS, and starting talking about programmers being needed in Nicaragua. When the attendees starting guffawing at my intervention, the chairman told them to quiet down and invited me to the podium to finish my remarks. Those were the days.

As passionate as I was about Tecnica, nobody could match Michael Urmann for having the vision that was necessary to move the project forward. When he came to New York on fund-raising trips, he was able to convince some very powerful rich liberals to ante up. I remember his description of meetings with people like Stewart Mott, the GM heir, and Abby Rockefeller whose last name should speak for itself. Michael told me that Mott lived in a Fifth Avenue Penthouse equipped with a greenhouse. Mott had apparently become inured to pitches from the left and could barely suppress a yawn during Michael’s presentation. Abby, on the other hand, was more enthusiastic but spent much of the time hyping her own project, which was some kind of toilet that turned excrement into fertilizer right on the spot. We chuckled about this at the time but probably would have figured out some years later how important such a device would be given what John Bellamy Foster refers to as the ecological rift.

As a personality, Michael was one of a kind. Physically, his legs were disproportionately long and he strode forward on his lean frame as if he were wound up. Wearing a Woody Allen floppy hat in all seasons of the year that somehow worked with a professorial tweed jacket and tan khakis, he made his own style work. Considering the fact that he was lean as a rail, a non-smoker, and athletic (his favorite pastime was surfing), I was deeply surprised to learn that he had developed heart troubles.

Michael had an impish sense of humor that once took me by surprise. In 1987 Michael and I had met with a Cuban diplomat at their Mission in NY in order to discuss expanding the program to Cuba. This meeting apparently gave the FBI the pretext it needed to crack down on Tecnica and led to intimidating interrogations of some of our volunteers at their workplaces. They were told that we running a high-tech espionage network that ran from Nicaragua to Cuba to the USSR and that they’d better cooperate. All that because the Cubans were interested in learning more about PC’s at the time.

Out of the blue, Michael called me at work to tell me that the FBI had my name and was coming to see me at Goldman-Sachs that day. I nearly pissed in my pants. He was only joking as it turned out.

The FBI had to stop its harassment because the media called it for what it was. A Washington Post editorial from May 14 1987:

IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspicesof a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.

In spite of all this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning large numbers of those who have returned from volunteer stints in Nicaragua. More than two years ago, Director William Webster testified that about 100 people had already been interviewed, and the pace has apparently picked up in recent months. The FBI will not discuss the reasons for these interviews other than to say that they are related to “foreign counterintelligence investigations.” This may be so, but in justifying inquiries such as these the bureau has a particularly heavy — and thus far unmet — burden of proof to bear.

Tecnica continued to thrive over the next three years, so much so that Michael decided to expand the program to southern Africa. In late December of 1989, we sent a needs assessment team to Zambia to meet with the ANC that consisted of Michael, Mary Engle, myself, Jeff Klein, and Jeff’s companion whose name—like much else—escapes me now. Jeff was a colorful character in his own right. He worked as a machinist but also had advanced electronic communications skills. As a member of the CPUSA, he became “proletarianized” like so many other members of such groups, except for people like Michael and me. Jeff had studied archaeology in graduate school and even did some field work before getting a job at GE in Lynn, long a bastion of left organizing.

One day we paid a cab driver to drive us around Lusaka to get a feel for the capital city. Michael, who considered himself a specialist in household economics more than anything else, asked the driver why so many office buildings were left unfinished. His answer: you people took the construction equipment with you. Although the cabbie had no idea that we were there to fight against neocolonialism, Michael said that he felt lifted up by his militancy. Like many long-time leftists, his greatest joy was seeing people fight against their oppression.

After Michael returned to the academy, he stayed connected to the left. I never got in touch with him but tried to keep up with his activities through Google. Here he is talking on the economics crisis:


And here he is speaking at a peace rally:

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