Detroit Teachers Strike Again

Rich Gibson September 4 2006

As school began for the 2006-2007 year, only two major teacher strikes broke out: Gary, Indiana, and Detroit; two of the most segregated cities in the U.S., cities wracked by the collapse of heavy industry, cities that once were home to some of the finest educational systems in the country, now suffering from the organized decay that the economy offers to those who arrive, at birth, with little or no capital in the apartheid system that is US education.

However, the strikes demonstrate, once again, that even people who do not want to fight back, will fight back, when they must. Teachers rarely want to strike. Indeed, a common picket sign reads: "I Don't Want To Strike, But I Will!"

Notably, both strikes are led by locals of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest school worker union, representing mostly teachers in urban areas.

The Gary Teachers' Union strike ended after one week, on September 1, when teachers overwhelmingly ratified a contract that gives them a raise of 2% per year, retroactive to 2005, running through 2007, and cuts their lunch hour from 60 to 45 minutes. The teachers had worked without a contract for two years. In sum, the teachers' union loaned the district their members' potential raises for two years, then negotiated a contract that will leave the teachers well behind inflation, and time is added to the work day. School workers, however, were eager to return to work with the issue settled--to get back to teaching the kids.

On Sunday, August 27, 2006, the assembled teachers of the Detroit Federation of Teachers voted with no noticeable dissent to strike against demands for massive concessions from the school board. There are about 9,000 DFT members. The board wants them to make $89 million in concessions (nearly $10,000 per school worker). The board threatens to lay off 2000 union members if concessions are not met. The strike began on Monday, August 28.

Detroit teachers wildcatted in 1999, defying their corrupt union leadership, defying the state law and the governor, defying the Detroit school board. They struck for "books, supplies, lower class size!" and wages as well. In some ways, they won practical gains from their wildcat, and, above all, they showed that rank and file school workers can indeed take matters into their own hands, and get away with it.

Despite threats of firing, jail, and docked pay (coming from the AFT union hacks, the governor, the mayor, and the school board combined), nothing happened to a single teacher---because they stuck together, withdrew their labor, and enforced the strike with considerable spontaneous community support. Here is the longer story : http//

From 1999-2005 Detroit suffered through a takeover of the schools by the state. Takeover board members had nearly no backgrounds in education. They included bosses of failed corporations, like Chrysler, insisting that a business model could fix the schools, and a suburban mom who inherited a company, but was afraid to enter Detroit, so she was allowed to attend meetings by cell phone, citizens could hear here ordering her maid, Lucita, around in the background.

At the first takeover board meeting, SWAT teams with fully automatic rifles surrounded the meeting place, snipers on nearby roofs covered the scene, an armed personnel carrier was not hidden from view, and armed guards escorted the arriving takeover board members into the room.

At the beginning of the meeting, the chairman, Freeman Hendrix, urged SWAT team members to attack a group of middle-school girls who had arrived carrying signs, and had done nothing more. The cops did attack them with riot batons, heaved them bodily out the doors, setting the stage for future meetings. The iron fist behind the velvet glove of schooling stood clearly exposed. But citizens, seeing themselves stripped of recourse, disrupted board meetings routinely, despite arrests and beatings.

The takeover ended in complete failure (test scores nosedived, the number of failing schools doubled), but the bond money that was earmarked for school construction was looted by members of the takeover board and their allies, and the schools spiraled deeper into ruin. The takeover board left poisoned-well legacy: a massive debt, an appointed "CEO," William Coleman, and a school dress code that students deeply resent.

At the outset, the Detroit Federation of Teachers supported the takeover, while residents argued it stripped them of the vote, and sued. About 2/3 of the DFT membership lives outside Detroit, the result of a suit filed by the AFT in 1974, opposing a residency requirement-a move that deeply divided the community.

Detroit is the most segregated city in the US, and it is the poorest with about 30% of the residents living below poverty lines. It is a walled area of apartheid. In the early 1950's, nearly two million people lived there. It was the number one city in the nation for single family homes. Working families could survive fairly well, with one person working. The school system was seen as among the finest in the world. Free health and dental care was offered to children who could not afford it. Now, there are less than 800,000 people in Detroit. The school system graduates less than 40% of the students who enter. The city's infant mortality rate is at third world rates, double the national average and black babies in Detroit die at a rate 2.6 times more often than white babies according to the Detroit Health Department. A common mayoral boast is that he can bulldoze 10,000 vacant homes a year.

The main thing that caused the exodus was institutional racism buttressed by individual racism. For example, banking laws made it easy for white people to buy suburban homes, while black people were red-lined. Expressways were built to make the exit from the city easy. Most white people living in the metro Detroit area never enter Detroit in their lifetimes, except to hurry in to a sporting event, and escape---not unlike how San Diego walls out its poor, in Mexico.

The city has a long, long history of radicalism, and resistance. The communist-led UAW once had a deep base in Detroit. The Detroit Rebellion of 1967 was a massive anti-racist armed uprising, aimed mostly at the police. It was an integrated rebellion. It took the 82nd airborne coming back from Vietnam to quell the fight-back. Contrary to most claims, the uprising meant victory to many Detroiters. Welfare regulations immediately eased. Thousands of jobs opened up that were unavailable before. Importantly, the Kerner Commission (1967) which investigated the causes of the rebellion called for:

"* Efforts to improve dramatically schools serving disadvantaged children through substantial federal funding of year-round compensatory education programs, improved teaching, and expanded experimentation and research.

* Sharply increased efforts to eliminate de facto segregation in our schools through substantial federal aid to school systems seeking to desegregate either within the system or in cooperation with neighboring school systems."

In the early seventies, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, and other Marxist-inspired rank and file auto caucuses led by young black workers, seized plants and fought the UAW leadership in the streets, just as their forefathers had fought the Ford cops and goon squads.

Most of the people who could afford to leave Detroit, have left. Many dedicated antiracists and hardworking people remain. But the city is still mired with corrupt leadership, incompetence at nearly every level of government, most of its leadership manipulated by white suburbanites.

Schools are key to the city's survival. Few people will move to a Detroit that cannot offer a good school for their kids. The Detroit Public School figures, which can rarely be trusted, show that more than 11,000 students have left DPS each year for the last decade. At about $7000 dollars of state money per student, it's a devastating loss to the school system.

Now, the DPS school workers are trapped once again. They fought back, heroically, in 1999, because they had to fight back. School conditions were really that bad. Ninety year old schools had no heat, or were heated with coal, spreading asthma. There were few, if any, school libraries. Some buildings had broken windows that went unrepaired for months in winter. Kids arrived hungry, only to be abused by administrators. Police sweeps, attacks on kids, were common. One principal scheduled each late August for a police sweep in the area around his school, arresting everyone in sight, simply to set the atmosphere for the year.

In the spring of 2006, students at Mackenzie high school staged a protest about the absence of books, supplies, even toilet paper. More than 30 of them were arrested and jailed. After they were released, the students complained that they had textbooks for but one in three kids, while the principal luxuriated in an office with a plasma TV. Principals and other administrators in DPS have, rightly, suffered a reputation of corruption and betrayal.

The 2006 job action will be different from the spirited wildcat of 1999 which only took place because one courageous teacher stormed onto the speakers platform, seized a microphone, and said, "everyone who wants to strike, walk to your left; everyone who does not want to strike, walk to the right." More than 90 percent of the school workers walked left, and hit the picket lines, making the protests of their union bosses irrelevant.

The 2006 strike, to begin on August 28, Monday, is endorsed by the DFT leadership, always a signal that a trick may be in the works.

School for kids in Michigan does not begin until after Labor Day, the result of heavy lobbying from the tourism industry in a state where the collapse of heavy industry decimated employment and profits. That start date means the strike dragged on for a week, meaning nothing at all as it is a "teachers-only" week.

In this wasted week, teachers have been drilled with threats from school "CEO" William Coleman, about the illegality and disruptive nature of the strike. Substitutes were warned that if they do not cross picket lines, they will be fired. The union responded by directing the subs not to scab. The school board and the AFT have sparred on their respective web sites, each side accusing the other of lies and bad faith bargaining.

Coleman is "CEO" almost by default. Few people apply for the Detroit job. He does, however, enjoy the extra benefit of having his wife serve as a top administrator as well-another Detroit tradition: nepotism on the public payroll.

DFT leadership, which has done virtually nothing to prepare for the strike, might be able to soften the teachers with days and days of useless picketing, yet earn a sham reputation for militance while they issue spurious reports of tough bargaining. But the reports are all one-way, leader to member. DFT, like most unions, never set up a web bulletin board for the rank and file to discuss issues.

After a week, it might be easy for the union leadership, in collusion with the board, to cut back on falsely monstrous concession demands (say $60 million rather than $90 million), split the work force by making entry- level school workers take most of the burden, and declare a victory.

The DFT used the time since the 1999 wildcat to gain greater control over the union's internal workings. Rules were changed to halt the traditional voting on contract tentative agreements (TA) in mass meetings in Cobo Hall which, clearly, became a problem in 1999. Instead, teachers might be presented with an outline of the TA in a mass meeting, but voting will be conducted by mail, or in the schools, presumably after the educators have returned to work, stifling the power of a mass meeting, open discussions, and the chance things might get out of hand, again.

On September 2, the DFT announced that, on their request, three Detroit preachers had been invited to the negotiation sessions (which are closed to DFT members-- a gag order has been issued to bargainers) and the talks moved from the usual site, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission offices, to the Fellowship Chapel of one of the ministers who is also president of the Detroit NAACP--and a man who spoke out openly against the strike before it began. He's also a consultant with Holt-Rinehart Winston, the textbook company which is deeply invested in high-stakes testing. Each of the preachers serves with Michigan Governor Granholm on a state commission for faith-based initiatives, presumably with an interest in opening faith-based schools.

The strike could spin out of control. It may be that the school worker force really does have the DFT leadership cornered between impossible concession demands, and the fear of their well-paid staff jobs (the DFT, which lost thousands of members in the last decade, and which openly predicts the loss of thousands more through the closure of dozens of schools, bought a $5 million building in 2005). However, that kind of resistance would require serious organizing, a rank and file opposition well-prepared with a sensible plan for resistance, and little of that is on the horizon as yet--although the DFT insisted on their www site, on August 31, "a rally scheduled for today is NOT a DFT rally."

It did not have to be this way. The DFT leadership, or their rank and file opposition, could have easily seen this strike coming months ago.

They could have used the tremendous potential power of school workers, centripetally positioned in a city where the pivotal point of most peoples' lives is school, and walked door to door, explaining their struggle, the need for unity around not merely books, supplies, and lower class size, but around a just tax system, taxing wealth from multiple sources: Tax the rich. After all, if human needs and education are the issue, Detroit needs about double the work force, not 1/4 less.

Even, "Books! Supplies! Lower Class Size! and A Fair Tax System!" are not enough. The DFT has a class size demand on the table that pits students against educators, that is, class size is not absolutely capped, but to be paid for. Teachers, needing money because of previous contracts, are positioned to take a bribe in exchange for huge classes.

What has gone completely missing in the DFT's negotiations is the role of regimented curricula and high-stakes tests which seek to regulate what children know and how they come to know it, to strip kids in super-exploited areas of the ability to see that it is possible to understand and change the world, indeed to teach that learning itself is undesirable, a losers' game that they are, in fact, color-coded to fail. The tests, after all, measure nothing significant but parental income, race, and subservience. Most significantly, the tests make it nearly impossible for teachers to exercise the freedom vital to teaching not only a class, but a specific child.

Margaret Haley, a founder of the AFT, fought for all these demands, nearly a century ago, but her militant history has been largely eradicated.

It is nearly impossible for officials in an AFT local to take up the call for academic freedom today. AFT's top leadership initiated the demands for curricula regulation and high-stakes tests, along with the leadership of the National Education Association, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the usual collection of education elites.

AFT's national leadership, behind Albert Shanker, initiated the tsunami of US union concessions when, in 1975, the union joined with banker Felix Rohatyn (Shanker's close friend and dinner partner) to "save New York," by offering teacher pensions as a loan, "to save jobs." Decades later, there is consequential evidence that concessions don't save jobs. Rather, like giving blood to sharks, concessions only spur demands for more--a lesson US labor seems incapable of learning.

The AFT's national leadership, which DFT joins with a slot on the national executive board, has been riddled with corruption. Top AFT leaders like Pat Tornillo of Florida and the former president of the Washington, D.C., local are serving prison time for looting their union's treasuries. The president of the Ft Lauderdale AFT local, once a darling of the AFT's leaders, is doing time for child rape.

Detroit teachers have made concessions after concessions, not only to save jobs, but on the promise that their sacrifices would save the school system, help kids. Between 2003 and now, Detroit teachers gave up $63 million in concessions and "loaned" the district a week's pay. The school system turned about and gave administrators raises at about 10%, often $10,000. The DFT leadership, which had witnessed the concessions spiral of the last 30 years, feigned shock.

To prepare for the strike, it would have been important to carry with a door-to-door, person to person, campaign, a plan to establish freedom schools for people who not only are desperate for the free baby-sitting service provide to corporations which refuse to offer it to employees, but people who truly want their kids to learn something of significant, something that will help them learn why things are as they are, how to understand and change the world----something that is offered in nearly no schools now.

Freedom schooling, imbued with a curriculum of the critique of capitalism, aimed high at democracy and equality, and buttressed by parent/student/teacher/community solidarity, could be a showcase of what schooling could really be. And it would send shivers up and down the weak spines of the school board, and the wealthy interests they serve.

But these preparations were not made.

As in other recent labor battles in Detroit and around the US, the call for "Solidarity Forever!" with the school workers's struggle rings hollow. The Michigan Education Association (NEA) has historically had only distant relations with Detroit teachers, choosing instead to represent the suburbs and leave the problems of the inner city to the DFT. Recently, however, the NEA has been organizing Detroit charter schools (which threaten the per-student income of DPS), in effect raiding the DFT, contradicting a loud declaration of mutual support by the NEA and AFL-CIO just months ago. The overwhelmingly white members of the MEA have not learned that an injury to one only goes before an injury to all; if Detroit salaries are collapsed, and schools closed for bogus test scores, suburban school workers are not far behind.

Local 6000, the largest local of the UAW representing, not auto workers, but state employees, thousands of them in and near Detroit, has said nothing about the strike.

John Sweeney, marched in the Detroit Labor Day parade. Rather than walk, rode in one of the autos donated by Ford and General Motors, behind banners declaring "Partners in Production!" reflecting the line of the AFL-CIO: the unity of labor, management, and government, in the national interest: a corporate state vision. Ford, GM, and the union leaders are partners--partners in exploiting the work of the union members.

Sweeney was formally the president of the Service Employees International Union. While collecting a salary as president, he continued a long AFL-CIO tradition: double dipping with his old salary from a SEIU local. He collected a total more than $450,000 dollars from that local, according to Harry Kelber, publisher of the Labor Educator. Sweeney will likely proclaim undying solidarity with the Detroit teachers.

He did the same thing with the Detroit newspaper strike, less than a decade ago, when he was first moving to the AFL-CIO presidency. His proclamations were contradicted by his actions. AFL-CIO affiliates like the leadership of the UAW and the Teamsters systematically disorganized that strike, turned militant workers over to the police. At its end, the strike was demolished.

Teachers are the most unionized people in the US. Combined, the educator unions have nearly 3.5 million members. School workers are among the few who have predictable salaries and health benefits, and, in a society dedicated to offering its youth little more than perpetual war and deepening inequality, teachers face a choice: will they be missionaries for capital, seek to teach for equality and democracy? Schools, today, are a vital choke point in society.

There have been many pivotal moments for what is left of the labor movement since it entered decline: The Patco strike of air-traffic controllers, crushed when the AFL-CIO abandoned it; the Hormel strike, crushed from inside by its union leadership, the Detroit Newspaper strike, the UPS strike (evaporated after it was won), the failed California Grocery Strike, and now, perhaps, the Detroit Teachers Strike. What is abundantly clear, in hindsight, is that unions do not unite people; they divide them--by industry, job, race, skill--and the leadership is divided from the rank and file, especially in that the leadership has no interest whatsoever in a class conscious membership: the leaders would have nothing to sell to management, i.e., could not trade off a promise to deliver labor peace, and the workers would not tolerate the privileges of the union bosses.

People simply do not trust unions any longer, for good reason. Remarkably, the Detroit Free Press reported on September 2, 2006, that poll asking Michigan residents if they support, or oppose, the "Optional Union Dues," found overwhelming opposition to the agency shop--in one of the most unionized of all states.

In the balance, today, may not only be the life of a union, or schools, but the life of a city.

Both sides, the DFT and the board, claim a strike could destroy what remains of the once-model Detroit Public Schools, destroyed by, above all, the connection of racism, opportunism, and profits. A fine case could be made that the Detroit Public Schools are already in ruins, and all that is left is to bury them. Thousands of students are flocking to charters inside the city, others cross the district boundary to enter collapsing school systems like Oak Park, while others are simply forced out of the state as their parents search for work.

An equally good case can be made that Detroit is now completely ghettoized, that those who remain in the city are fully trapped, and that the extermination of education in the city is only indicative of a society which has nothing to offer black youth but prison or the military, fighting the enemies of their enemies. Most Detroit schools can be easily described as either pre-prison, or pre-military, though some elite few (Renaissance High, Cass Tech, etc) still get the basic supplies necessary to conduct, say, pre-teacher training.

People who are trapped and without hope tend to rebel, as evidenced in the city's past uprisings, or, at a distance, the rebellions in France of 1968 and 2005. In societies that are grotesquely inequitable, the myth that schooling will move you up is very powerful. Schooling will not move the overwhelming majority of youth up. The trajectory in the US economic structure is not up, but down. Still, schools are a key source of hope, real and false. The real hope is that kids could get the kind of education that would assist them to, collectively, radically change structural injustice: exploitation.

In the past, Detroit's rebels were always able to hold something hostage; not people, but property. Buildings could be, and were, put to the torch, looted, as were police stations. Now, there is little of value left in the city, other than sports stadiums and casinos in an easily defended, and largely unpopulated, small downtown area.

Given that segregation carried on to the extremes of Detroit always means, at the end of the day, death (life expectancy alone is a good indicator), a rebellion could trigger repression that might be compared to Hurricane Katrina, where racist neglect allowed more than 1400 people to die, and left the poor of New Orleans devastated, while the rich now see opportunities to exploit.

Where is hope in all this? Hope is owed to no one. Hope is created in the persistent and usually wise resistance that the vast majority of the people in the world must engage if they are to survive. Hope is also, however, located in wise leadership, something that Detroit school workers must create, fast, if their struggle is to be won.

For the long haul, justice demands organization in new ways, organization that draws people together in a struggle that recognizes what is now easily seen as an international war of the rich on the poor. Hints of that kind of organizing exist, in Detroit Summer, for example, which brings together people of all ages and races in an educational project that unites people with knowledge and nature. GI resistance is escalating. The immigrant rights movement demonstrated on May Day that a massive general strike is indeed possible. The two million poor people in US prisons are beginning to recognize that it is not so much race, but class, that both divides and unites people, and multi-racial unity is growing in jails. In many cities, workers councils which involve people with two toes inside their unions, and eight toes out, are taking form.

The school workers of Detroit might, just might, play an exemplary role as well, or, if in retreat, learn from the past, persevere as we all must, and fight again.

(Gibson is a former professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he lived most of his adult life at Seven Mile and the Lodge, until moving to San Diego State in 2000. He worked for the NEA for nearly 8 years. A much abbreviated portion of this appeared in Counterpunch in August 2006. ).