An Analysis of the 1999 DFT Tentative Agreement


The DFT contract, negotiated by the slate controlled by AFT Vice-President, DFT President John Elliot and his caucus is not merely a bad deal, it is a step backward from the TA Elliot negotiated prior to the strike. More significantly, the contract creates conditions which will quickly pit educators against one another, the Detroit community, and the union itself. A vote for this contract is to applaud the construction of the scaffold for one's own hanging. 

The DFT agreement takes place in a city whose elite is deeply concerned about social control, especially with the introduction of casinos in the downtown area, where extreme poverty is just blocks away. Social control can be achieved in several ways: to reward and punish, divide and conquer, or to convince people that inequality and injustice are the natural state of things, either invisible or unconquerable. The U.S., the richest and most apparently powerful country in the history of the world, is also the centerpiece of inequity and extreme privation, most of it located in cities of color, like Detroit, the most segregated city in the U.S., where more than 90% of the students are black.

In this context, in a society where de-industrialization coupled with significant rewards for those who remain employed in manufacturing makes for a passive industrial working class, teachers are centripetally positioned to struggle for social justice. They are the most unionized people in the U.S., and their workplaces are the last organizing points for the society. 

At issue in education now is deepening stratification and authoritarianism, at nearly every level. Soon, a teaching force that is around 95% white and middle class will face students who are mostly children of color. In Detroit, the teaching force is far more integrated, but it is, of course, mostly middle class, and as colleges of education continue to graduate larger and larger classes of white graduates, and the suburbs recruit talented teachers of color, there is a growing caste shift in the educational work force.

For many years, the Detroit schools have suffered from physical neglect, a corrupt and inept bureaucracy, an exploitative and neglectful corporate community, and a union which has overseen and organized the decay of urban education all over the country. Now, the rich have taken back the city, seized the town and the schools. All but one of the present members of the school board, which was not elected but appointed by the Detroit Mayor when the Governor dissolved the former board, are clearly representatives of wealth.

It is not true that dominance in the U.S. is interested in producing a stupid populace, in order to mask their power. More to the point, elites seek to create a stratified populace with almost surgical precision; a populace that can perform often complex scientific and intellectual tasks, but which is held together by notions of the good of the nation, the good of the company, etc. So, in education, this means schools for scientists, doctors, lawyers, advertising reps, social workers, comedians, technologists-and some schools that are pre-stripper, pre-inmate.

All of these schools need teachers. Over time, as the kids are more segregated, the educators will follow, as will their wages and benefits. Teachers who see wealthy kids in the morning will be paid like wealthy kids teachers, and vice versa. The question is: how easily will U.S. educators be purchased? How much does it take to buy off the class size issue for example? And, how long will it be before an injury to one really does become an injury to all? Another question is key: who will fight back, and how? 

The struggle in schools is not located solely in schools. The economic crisis which underpins the crisis in education goes far beyond the bounds of a schoolyard. Nor can this rise of inequality be met by a union. What is abundantly clear is that capital has nothing to offer to the overwhelming majority of people, and overcoming capital is not a union project. Resistance and change may initiate and radiate out from schools, but real change will have to be far deeper than the call for justice based education-a bogus cry which contributes to the false promises of education in a fundamentally undemocratic society. Every union in the U.S. has proved unfit to meet this deeper challenge, too undemocratic, too corrupt, too inept-but also fundamentally the wrong tool for the job. Unions have not united people. They divide them. 

There has never been one public education system in the U.S. There have been four or five or maybe more, each producing and reproducing different kinds of kids, mostly based on their parents jobs, income, and race or caste. Now, however, elites need to deepen that stratification, to raise the quality of inner city schools to the point where the false hope of the past becomes real hope, for a few, in the future. In a wealthy society, the carrot can override, but not replace, the stick. Otherwise, the gentry risks social peace, and the casinos whose suburban gamblers are not going to take serious chances in order to have the opportunity to lose their rent. 

This process is going forward full tilt. In Detroit, which never enjoyed the recovery that revived other rust-belt cities, the process is especially bitter The CEO of the new school board is a notorious immature meglo-maniac who makes no pretense about school reform as a cooperative venture. In Detroit, it is an order. Part of that order is the DFT's tentative agreement described below. 

Contracts are both relative and absolute; relative in that they can be reasonably compared to other similar contracts, absolute in that they are fitted to a specific circumstance for particular people. We have learned that contracts are living documents, constantly sites of struggle between the contending sides that bargained them. GM and many other Detroit companies have simply abrogated signed contracts, demanded that the entire document be renegotiated in mid-term. It follows that contracts are the rules of a truce, that both sides tear at during their term. I am going to compare the Detroit contract to an educator contract of a nearby suburb, an NEA district, as are almost all of the suburban districts. The suburb is a blue collar district, with a per capita student rate almost exactly the same as Detroit's.

Part of negotiations is also the milieu, the economic and political climate. This is from the Washington Post, September 11, 1999, regarding the auto contract which will probably be settled this week: 

If there is a consensus on the outcome of the negotiations when contracts

year contract, with 4 percent-a-year base wage increases for at least the

first three years, a large increase in pension benefits, and a $3,000

signing bonus.

Auto, of course, is a top employer even today in the Motor City. The auto contract keeps UAW members a little ahead of current inflation: 3.5%. This is the broad context of the negotiations. 

The DFT never did a pre-bargaining survey of its members before it entered negotiations. The DFT supported every aspect of the takeover of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS). The union's bargainers were, according to usually sympathetic insiders, unprepared to bargain and inept in the process. The initial contract that the DFT leadership brought to the members was rejected. A nine day strike ensued. A membership meeting of about 8,000 teachers voted to return to work, and to vote on the contract in the coming days. This is the broad context of the negotiations and the deal that resulted. 

It is reasonably clear that the contract now up for a vote is worse than the contract that was initially presented. The first contract was for one year. Elliot will probably be voted out of office within two years. The current contract is for three years, and concessions were made which will be noted below. I shall save the worst for last. 

The contract can be most easily approached in the ways that most teachers would look at it, straight to the money package and the rest for later, or the way most negotiators would look at it, wages, hours, and working conditions as an interrelated package. I take the later path, but turn right to the money. 


The DFT package is based on the current 10 step salary schedule, with BA and MA divisions, that is typical of teacher contracts. In fact, most contracts have more steps. The multi-tiered pay plan, with rewards for degree attainment, is a leftover from the days that administrators controlled the unions. It is probably supported by most teachers, who believe they should see incremental advances for each year's work. However, the multi-step plan really only delays income that could be achieved, and the frequently labyrinthian charts of who is where on the schedule make it fairly simple for managers and union leaders to locate a voting majority on the chart, and allow the remainder to do without. In brief, the steps divide people, in the interest of management. 

The DFT TA is a good example of this process. The DFT offers rewards, a 10.5% increase over three years, the term of the deal, to the largest number of people (72%) in the unit, the top of the scale teachers. These people will stay about even with projected inflation rates. But entry level teachers, who receive a mere 6.1%, will lose about 4% of their income. Most importantly, the salary cut offered to new teachers deepens the differences in teacher ranks, and will last for decades, while many of the educators at the top of the scale will retire, or be driven out of the system. Over the long haul ,DFT has created a two-tier wage scale for young and old teachers, which will permanently divide the union-and which buries young teachers at the bottom of a well where it will be hard to work out. This wage package, then, reflects the two-tier benefit package that Elliot negotiated in previous contracts, and which set a low standard for educators who will be in Detroit after 2003. 

The BA minimum for DFT is almost equivalent to the suburban scale for 1999-2000, $32,883 to 32786. However, at the top of the BA scale, ten years, the suburban unit is well ahead: $56,329 to 52,931.

The MA minimum for DFT is $36,348. The suburban MA minimum is $35,094. The DFT MA maximum is 61,581. The suburban: $66,272.

At issue in comparisons of this sort are matters like: how fast does a person move up? This would address the career salary. The steps are similar, until the last three years, when suburban teachers leap ahead. In 2001, Detroit teachers at the MA max, $4,635, will still trail behind. 

There is nothing in the contract that addresses the frequent promises of Detroit administrators: $1,000 hiring bonuses to new hires. Nor are there the expected big wage hikes at the initial salary steps which would attract new teachers away from the suburbs. 

However, the contract does add four new steps to the salary schedule, for both the BA and the MA. This addition is hidden, separated from the salary scale, in the back of the document, on page 9. The criteria for advancement are left completely in the hands of management. They are not automatic. Criteria include things like passing the many tests for certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Only a handful of black teachers, nationwide, have ever passed this test. Also considered is education "in the subject area they are teaching." This reflects the Detroit CEO's loathing for colleges of education and is designed to erode degrees like the Masters of Arts in Education. Those getting the step will also have to meet attendance requirements. The impact of the addition will be to stretch out the length of time in a career it takes to get to the top, and create further divisions between members. These additional steps are disguised merit pay, and a shift in attendance policy, which the DFT claimed to have defeated. 

Other DFT Misrepresentations

The DFT grossly falsified the contract to the members who voted to return to work. While they did say this is not the best of contracts, they also made claims about having made gains in terms of class size, supplies, and the hours of work.

DFT claimed gains in class size. There is NOTHING AT ALL to limit class size, in any way, in any school, in the contract. There is a promise to experiment, over three years, with 44 schools, and for the experiment to include 22 schools right away. There are 273 schools in DPS. The DFT, which agreed that space is a problem, has failed to note that there are many schools in Detroit designed for kids labeled with disabilities, and the inclusion of many of them would open up many buildings. 

There is NOTHING AT ALL in the contract which requires administrators to be sure that there are libraries in each school, that children or teachers have access to books or computers or other resources.

The contract which members rejected included a daily prep time for elementary teachers. This was removed from the new contract, reverting to the old three preps a week. This section is to be "submitted to arbitration." The labor movement loses about 2/3 of the cases that go to arbitration, and the labor movement seeks to screen out bad cases before they get there. The question to the arbitrator is unclear, but it appears to be "Did DPS improperly withdraw a contract offer," not, "Must the elementary teachers be given five preps?"

The new contract extends the hours of work, by failing to eliminate the oppressive duty period for high school teachers, and by eliminating 12 hours of professional development time, and twelve hours of planning sessions. In addition, 12 hours are added by eliminating two semester break days. 

The DFT claimed to have made no significant retreats in the attendance policy, that "only those who abuse will be those who lose." This is not true. Any teacher who is absent for more than 8 days will not move up on the salary schedule, or receive a raise, and will never move up until they complete a 12 month period (not a school year but a calendar year) with less than 8 absences. Moreover, the new contract makes it impossible to grieve key disputes about the policy, referring disagreements to internal DPS departments. 

The DFT did not mention that the new contract offers managers new ways to surveil and discipline teachers. While most teachers do not mind being observed and critiqued by people of good will, no one who has watched the behavior of the new school board and the CEO can believe this is the case. What will be at work is frightened principals enacting the rules of people who know nothing about a Detroit classroom. Adamany, the CEO, questioned as to how he would discipline an unruly class, said. "I would quickly put down my chalk and tell them I would not teach until the class was prepared."

The contract offers teachers new ways to discipline children, and sets up teachers as enforces for a new code of conduct. While some Detroit teachers are eager for new ways to discipline kids, it remains that the kids and their parents are the best ally, as the recent strike showed.

The worst part of the contract was not mentioned in the ratification meeting. This section 

addresses school RECONSTITUTION. Simply put, this means the CEO can close schools with low test scores. The teachers in those schools will have no rights, no rights to grieve, no rights of transfer, nothing. Since the contract clearly states that teachers have no seniority rights in transfers, teachers in reconstituted schools are designated as certified teacher at large, and left at large. 

The impact of this will be that teachers who want to work, who deal with the poorest kids in the city, who score poorly on tests like the MEAP which measure parental income, will flee those kids, transfer early. What will be the impact on the kids? 

What if DFT Members Vote NO?

The contract will go back to the table. Teachers can decide whether or not to strike again. The DFT leadership can be replaced. 

However, I believe that the DFT cannot address the social crisis in the schools. I answer that question in another article, written early this year:

all the best, rich

Rich Gibson is now the program coordinator for social studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. For most of his life, he was a union organizer and professional negotiator. He worked for the National Education Association, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the UAW, and the National Treasury Employees Union. 



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