Detroit Teachers Strike 2006: Lessons from the Class Struggle
by Rich Gibson for Counterpunch
Know yourself, Know Your Enemy, Know the Terrain
And You Will Win A Thousand Battles-Or Maybe Not
School workers' strikes appear to be the new canary in the mine of society, measuring levels of exploitation, oppression, and freedom. Teachers in two of the most devastated cities in the U.S., Detroit and Gary, Indiana, joined teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Palestine, in job actions in 2006. In Palestine and Oaxaca, the strikes quickly spun well beyond mere battles about wages, hours and working conditions, and became social uprisings, demonstrating the thesis that educators are centripetally positioned in many societies to initiate, if not complete, fights for equality and democracy. In addition, the strikes clearly show how the imperial, perpetual-war, policies of the US reverberate within, and without, the US.
The Gary strike was brief and, flatly, inconsequential but it happened because education in a once proud industrial city was near collapse and the school workers, who typically carry signs saying, "I Don't Want To Strike But I Will!" took action because they had to take action not only to survive, but to preserve their dignity.
On September 13, Detroit teachers voted by a slim majority to halt a 16 day illegal strike and return to work, voting on a "Tentative Agreement" (TA) later. The strike in Detroit represented a collision of complex social forces, and their representatives. Each had to fight because each was cornered. The local ruling classes, sometimes divided against each other, but united against the working classes, are irrevocably tied to US battles for empire through the auto-industry's almost desperate search for cheaper labor, markets, financial control, social domination, and raw materials, and through the war industry's ties to what was once known as, "Detroit, the Arsenal of Democracy." The lessons from this true class struggle are key to understanding the central role of school in a society which has nothing to offer youth but temporary jobs and endless war.
Largely because of repetitious failures of its rulers, Detroit, a true ghetto whose citizens are now 85% black, has been in a shocking nose-dive for decades. Detroit had nearly 2 million people in the fifties. It's powerful, radical, and active working class had income sufficient that one person working could take care of a family relatively well. Detroit had more single family homes than any other US city. Free health care and dental care was available to adults and kids through the Children's Fund of Michigan. The libraries, Institute of Arts, and Historical Museum were world class. Detroit's public schools were widely recognized as the best public school system in the world.
Detroit has a remarkably prescient slogan, coined after the city burned in 1805 by the priest, Gabriel Richard, "We hope for better things; we will rise from the ashes." An imperial colonizer himself, Richard didn't know the depth of ash to come. The eradication of hope is attendant to the disintegration of empire.
Racism combined with opportunism and profiteering to demolish much of what was once a proud Detroit heritage. For example, the construction of expressways (for military ingress in case of uprisings) wrecked working class black neighborhoods, and made it possible for white people to flee to suburbs where they could obtain low-cost home loans, while black people were red-lined out. While the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) were recognized for excellence, they were also harshly segregated, by race, class, and sometimes even religion.
By 2006, the official census said about 850,000 people remained in Detroit. But no figures coming from Detroit officialdom can be trusted. Many people have a stake in faking population figures. Detroit lost money when the count dropped below one million. The real population probably slipped below 800,000 in 2004, a loss of nearly 1.2 million people. Those who could afford to leave usually did, leaving behind tiny walled pockets of wealth, dedicated anti-racists, and some well-kept working class neighborhoods holding on block by block, surrounded by blight so horrific that mayoral races usually include competitions about who can bulldoze more empty homes faster, more than 10,000 in 2004. The vacant areas left behind, where a sophisticated public transportation system once ran, witness streets so covered with dirt that they have disappeared into huge open fields. It's not unusual to kick up a pheasant less than 20 blocks from the downtown Renaissance Center.
The destruction of a major industrial city can happen fast. The city was in decline in the early 1960's, as people with capital moved out. As poverty grew, so did police oppression and, in 1967, the people of Detroit rose up in rebellion against the daily humiliations of police harassment and, more, the insults of daily life under the stick of racism. It took the 82 Airbourne to return from Vietnam to defeat the citizens who raided police stations and could hold property hostage.
Detroiters have never been easily put down. In this instance, the rebellion was a victory. Thousands of jobs opened up for black people. Welfare regulations eased. Free transportation was offered to jobs in the suburbs. School integration was seriously interrogated. The police backed off, a bit (in 2004 the notoriously corrupt Detroit Police Department was cited for its crooked practices once again--a previous Chief of Police cried, "Where did that come from?" when $1 million in cash fell out of his ceiling onto the heads of investigators).
The battle-field victories of the Vietnamese coupled with the 1970's manufactured oil crisis to cripple both the US social safety net and the auto industry. Auto bosses stopped investing in new plants, shifted jobs to Mexico, then China. Detroiters, long accustomed to the promise of hard, but lifetime, jobs in auto, became unemployed. Last hired, first fired, applied, as if a course of nature. Families began to collapse. New drugs, like crack cocaine, invaded.
Again, people fought back. The militant State Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC-the core of what is now the largest local in the United Auto Workers, state employees without collective bargaining rights) fought welfare cuts and dumped live snakes on state officials who promoted the cutbacks, turning the state into "a snake pit". Teachers struck. Mary Ellen Riordon, DFT boss for twenty years, rejected a SWOC offer to shut down state offices in support of a city-wide demonstration during a seventies strike, saying, "No! There would be a riot!" Riordon was one of a long line of racist AFT leaders, beginning with Al Shanker's twisted leadership in the Ocean-Hill Brownsville strike in New York City, 1968.
Young black auto-workers in the Dodge Revolutionary Union movement, inspired by local Marxists like Marty Glaberman, seized plants and fought not only the employers, but the UAW bosses as well. In 1973 UAW goons entered the Chrysler Mack Avenue Plant which had been taken over by a rank and file sit-down protesting on-the-job injuries, beat the workers inside, dragged them out, and turned them over to the police, "in order to defend the UAW contract." For some in Detroit, it was the last time they believed the UAW.
The UAW announced a policy of "Partners in Production," that is, the unity of the UAW leadership, the owners of what was then the Big Three (now Crumbling Two), and government, in the "national interest." What's good for GM," was going to be good for the UAW leadership and the nation. The UAW and Chrysler, in particular, howled "Buy American!" Even today, Gulf War Marine vets who drive "foreign" cars cannot park in the UAW lot. The Big Three, of course, began to build cars and invest everywhere but the US. Soon, most of Ford profits came from Europe. The UAW lost one million members since 1975, and did nothing but muster surrender.
People continued to move out of Detroit. The tax base eroded. White people, like the racist Catholic author Paul Clemens, blamed Coleman Young, the black Mayor. But Young never took action the auto-bosses didn't approve, despite his tough street rhetoric. Indeed, in 1980, Young seized an entire section of the city, Poletown, used police violence to drive out 4000 people, tore down 1400 homes, and gave it to General Motors, in return for a promise to build a plant, with generous tax abatements attached. Corporate tax breaks syphoned the city treasury.
While incompetence and corruption plague every aspect of public life in Detroit today, that reality is commonly seen by white suburbanites as proof that black people cannot govern. In fact, Detroit was always a corrupt city and it did not invent incompetence. Politicians in white San Diego could keep pace with a Detroit crook any day (in 2006, the entire San Diego city council will be charged, rightly, for corruption in regard to a $1 billion pension scam; two councilmen were convicted in "Strippergate," and a corrupt Judge-Mayor already resigned).
It is more to the point that local black politicians and public officials are every bit as on the make as the rest of their class, every bit as willing to serve a suburbanite of any color when the opportunities are offered, at a price. True, youthful Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, son of Carolyn Cheeks who has an undistinguished record as a congresswoman, did spend $200,000 dollars of city money refurbishing his own swimming pool, Also true, some politicos just remain stubbornly honest, and subsequently isolated, and too often quiet.
In 1999, in a maneuver widely seen by Detroiters as an effort to strip them of the vote, white politicians in Lansing abolished the elected DPS board, replaced it with an appointed board composed of bosses from failed corporations like Chrysler (by then owned by Daimler-Benz which did Buy American), figurehead educators like the president of a Catholic College who knew nothing of Detroit, and a coke-head suburban Mom, owner of a Detroit maquiladora, who was afraid to enter the city to attend meetings. She was allowed to attend via cellphone, and her orders to her maid, Lucita, were broadcast in the background.
The violent fist behind the velvet glove of schooling was exposed when, at the first Takeover Board meeting, SWAT teams with fully automatic rifles surrounded the location. Snipers were openly posted on roofs. Armed guards escorted the Takeover leaders into the auditorium, passing an armed personnel carrier.
In this first meeting, a small group of middle school girls carrying signs protesting the takeover approached a microphone, before the meeting began. The Takeover chair, Freeman Hendrix, who later ran for mayor with so much suburban support he poisoned his own well with white wealth and was defeated, screamed at the Detroit Police riot squad, "Get them! Get them now! Get them out!' They did. The girls were bodily thrown out the door. That set the stage for future meetings, but Detroiters, never ones to quail, routinely disrupted future meetings, shouting down speakers.
The police, good at attacking middle school kids, don't do well with solving murders in Murder City. Since 1960, 10,000 murders went unsolved. However, in one instance, a molester jumped an elementary school child on the way to her school on one of Detroit's burned out streets. A grandmother in a wheel chair watched from her window as two men in a passing auto exited their car, shot and killed the man, and drove off. The police never initiated much of a search. Detroiters tend to solve their own problems when they can.
The Takeover Board failed in every promise they made. Test scores plummeted. The number of failing schools doubled. Safety in school remained an issue for kids and school workers as well. As white people left the city, the student population became 91% black.
The Takeover board did succeed in refurbishing a few buildings, and built a few new schools. For the most part, however, they looted the bond money that was earmarked for school construction, rewarding allies with no-bid contracts on jobs that were frequently paid, but never even started. More than a million dollars was given to a suburban auto-advertising firm, on another no-bid deal, to convince Detroiters that the schools are swell.
Students continued to pour out of DPS, at a rate of about 11,000 a year (at $7,000 per student in state funds). By 2004, the system claimed less than 125,000 students, about ½ its largest size, down from 180,000 in 2000. Books, supplies, heat, windows, libraries, running water, toilet paper, things taken for granted in most schools, never appeared in Detroit, unless the school workers supplied them. The Takeover Board, which had an estimated budget surplus of nearly $169 million in 2001, left behind a deficit of about $31 million in 2005. Many educators believe that is a debt the state owes DPS.
In 1999, the rank and file of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (a part of the American Federation of Teachers, DFT-AFT), went on a wildcat strike, opposed by the union leadership, by the Mayor, by a draconian Michigan anti-strike law, by the Governor, and the DPS Takeover Board as well. The wildcat was only made possible when one courageous teacher stormed the podium of a DFT mass meeting and yelled, "Everyone who wants to go on strike, walk to the left. Everyone who wants to oppose the strike, walk right."
Nearly the entire room, seeing a chance not only to act, but to defeat a routine of DFT leadership vote fraud, moved left. The strike was on. The school workers made their union bosses irrelevant, won community support by striking for "Books! Supplies! Lower Class Size!" It lasted six days and indeed won in many ways. The biggest victory was to prove that the rank and file, in solidarity, through direct action, could violate an unjust law, had the power to go utterly unpunished, and could persevere in a strike surrounded by powerful enemies--and make gains. It may be that the union leadership learned more from this wildcat than the members.
Over time, it became clear that the DFT leadership lied to the rank and file about the 1999 contract, and contracts to follow. DFT claims to the contrary, the 1999 contract said nothing, for example, about books, supplies, and class size. It contained a series of gross wage and benefit concessions, including extension of work days for all educators. It offered administrators a chance to reconstitute schools, that is, close schools with low test scores, lay off teachers, perhaps to never hire them again. The contract allowed even greater use of permanent substitutes, tempting for their low pay. Like their counterparts in the UAW, the DFT promised that concessions save jobs. No. Like giving blood to sharks, concessions only make bosses want more. Thirty years of concessions prove that out.
And more the DPS administrators wanted and got. They demanded that the contract be reopened, several times, shredded the deal just as the hallowed UAW contracts were voided by the Big Three. Between the 1999 wildcat and 2006, DFT surrendered again and again, giving up a week's pay once, loaning the DPS another weeks' pay, giving up step increases. DFT had already split the unity of the bargaining unit, in 1994, when they agreed to set up a two tier system for health benefits, newer teachers paying far more for far less. As always, this chicken came home to roost. An injury to a few became an injury to all.
By 2006, the DPS had replaced the failed Takeover Board with an elected board of people, most entirely new to the job. But the city and the schools continued to decay, fast.
Forty-seven percent of the city is functionally illiterate. Three of four kids are born to single mothers; but teachers often do not see moms. They see grand-moms, great- grams, and guardians. Fifteen percent unemployment is the official figure, youth unemployment at least double that. Casinos pump at least 1 billion into the local economy though nearly no one goes to Detroit for a casino vacation, instead the poor lose social security checks. The first casino fatality was a Detroit cop who killed himself with his service pistol in a casino after an unlucky night.
DPS closed 30 schools in the last five years and plans to kill off at least 100 more. It is hard to tell how bankrupt DPS is, as the administration, led by "CEO" William Coleman III, a leftover appointee from the Takeover board, refuses to release the budget. He came to DPS promising administrative transparency, an end to a system stupefied by corruption (a 2006 Department of Education audit revealed yet another $930,000 missing from DPS in unaccounted for federal grants, which must be repaid), incompetence, and nepotism. Then he hired his wife to a six-figure job--and demanded the DFT members make $90 million more in wage and benefit concessions, after he gave administrators 10% raises.
In the 1999 wildcat, there were about 12,000 school workers in the DFT bargaining unit. Now it is around 9000, though DFT claims more. About 2000 of those members are non-teaching staff.
If ever one wanted a showcase of capitalism in decay; Detroit is it. There are hints of revival, of sorts, in a world-class medical center near Wayne State University, still a respected institution. New casinos and sports stadiums are said to help the city from the ashes, but they create nothing of value, indeed require a spectator culture of subservience that contradicts Detroit's tough, engaged, history. And, for Comerica Park baseball, there sits old Tiger Stadium, rotting at Michigan and Trumbull, too tough to just disappear, too expensive to demolish. You can still bribe a guard and run the bases. But most of the memorabilia has been stripped, like the city. Proud Olympia Stadium, home to one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, Gordie Howe, and mates Lindsay, and Delvecchio, is now a National Guard Armory, ready for the next 1967. Sleepy Windsor, Canada, across the Detroit river, became a small neon brothel with the installation of casinos, competitors for Detroit gambling money.
Detroit, all told, is a stark example of the choice at hand: equality and democracy, or, barbarism.
The Players: Elites of the City and Nation: DFT-AFT versus
The School Workers, Kids, Parents, the Citizenry, and Reason Itself
Elites inside Detroit usually draw their real power from outside the city lines. There is a black comprador political class, and some wealthy new entrepreneurs. But, as we have seen, the strings of power are pulled outside the city, by auto bosses, and the industries that attend to them, like big advertising agencies. Developers, like Max Fisher, once played a major role, but his focus shifted outside the city. Casino interest lines run outside Detroit, as do the owners of the big sports stadiums and the Tigers, Red Wings, and the awful Lions--two owners both enriched by selling pizzas, lots of pizzas.
That does not mean, however, that elites have no interest in Detroit schools, really the last remaining hope for most citizens. When hope is erased, people rebel, and Detroiters take some pride in their (costly) rebellions. What is different, today, is that little remains in Detroit to hold hostage, and the levels of repression that are now routine were once abhorrent.
Elites have contradictory interests in the schools. The more powerful sectors of dominance still see that schools serve an important, and publicly-funded, function: social control won via false hope, teaching lies to kids using methods so obscure that kids learn to not like to learn, but snaring kids and keeping them off the streets; free baby sitting for corporations.
The Takeover board represented this struggle of elites, outsiders seeking to impose their own views of domination on an inside crowd; the elected board. The shift back to an elected board measures a continuing battle, the illusion of an elected board outweighed the politically unacceptable intrusion. Choosing the elites who will oppress you least is a bad choice.
Within this struggle, privatizers do play an important role. In 2002, nearly 20,000 Detroit kids attended charters, often run by for-profit companies, with each child representing a $7000 dollar loss to DPS. There are no truly progressive charters in Detroit, as in Oakland's "Growing Children" charter run by the whole language specialist, Susan Harman; a real critique of the failure of radical educators to see an opportunity.
Tom Monahan, owner of Domino's, and once-owner of the Tigers, is devoted to opening Catholic schools, and opposing abortion-a powerful privatizer with a cause.
In addition, the dollars attached to Detroit kids are attractive to nearby districts, like Oak Park, where administrators cashed out nearly $100,000 in advertising to Detroit kids, promising small classes, great facilities, and terrific teachers. In September, hundreds of Detroit kids crossed famous 8 Mile Road to Oak Park, to find classes of 35-40, leaking ceilings, and subs. Still, the raiding continues, and youth leave the city schools--for good reason.
Why Have School? Educators as Workers
Schools in the US are, above all, capitalist schools. The teaching force is about 90% white, and white students are the most segregated of all racial groupings in schools. There is no single public education system, but, perhaps, six or seven systems segregated by class and race, each system more or less producing the kinds of knowledge and practices projected for the parental income groupings the school workers face.
There are, for example, pre-law or pre-managerial public schools, as in wealthy Birmingham, Michigan, or LaJolla, California. There are pre-prison schools, and pre-Walmart schools as in most of Detroit. In between, there are pre-teacher, pre-technologist, pre-medical schools as well. Each of these systems uses differing teaching methods, promotes varying ways of coming to know things, as well as different sets of facts. Ruling class families rarely send their kids to public schools, preferring lovely private Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, for example.
Educators are, mostly, workers, although when they are called upon to spend an average of $1200 of their own money for school supplies each year, they are reminded of their professionalism . There are 49 million children in public schools in the US, more than 3.4 million teachers and school workers. The overwhelming majority of students are future workers, or soldiers.
Youth, not school workers, are the prime target of schooling, though the actions of school workers can be very influential, can send youth up better paths than to become targets. Even so, school workers are the most unionized people in the US, four million of them in the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers-AFL-CIO.
Capital's schools are huge markets which involve not only students and educators, but tens of thousands of others. Consider the school busses, textbooks, lunches, grounds-keeping, architects, guard companies, test manufacturers, advertisers, and clothing. School is a multi-billion dollar business, not a think-tank distinct from the crude workings of the world. Follow the money. It's an $800 billion treasure chest. Add up the dues to the National Education Association: 3.2 million member paying more than $500 per month. Bear in mind that the top leaders of NEA make more than $400,000 per year--and remember the old labor saw: Which side are you on?
Note that the Michigan tourism industry, itself reeling from the collapse of the state's job market, demanded that K-12 schools in the state shift their opening date back past Labor Day, to prop up their businesses-flying in the face of years of state Education Department demands to lengthen the school year, to start early. When tourism-profit reports came in from Labor Day 2006, the local press crowed, "It worked!"
The rule of business, profits, grinds on while, simultaneously, the problems of business arise: cheating, chicanery, and sexual exploitation of those who hold less power. Developers cheat on contracts, suppliers bait and switch supplies; while most of school work is done by women, and most of education's top bosses are men.
Since schools are home to developing sexuality, yet are tasked with repressing sexuality through demands for splitting pleasure and reproduction, abstinence education; it follows that schools are also sensual places, where desire can overwhelm a geometry lesson. Repressed desire, the line from advertiser to purchaser, can underpin an obsequious personality, or an authoritarian one. The lure of freedom, contradicted by habitually repressed yearning, shapes subjects who can dream of freedom, but will not fight for it.
School workers produce value in capital's markets. When educators and kids arrive in school, they confront a billion dollar business, more powerful than unorganized kids and teachers. This is part of the answer to the critical question that is rarely asked: Why have school? Educators shape the next generation of workers and military volunteers, labor power, and they generate hope, real or false; a lynchpin of social order, control. People in pacified areas become instruments of their own oppression.
George Bush, in a White House education speech on September 18, 2006 made it clear: "To be a productive worker, you have to read the manual."
Hope, accumulated over generations of teachers' hard work, is the reason parents send their kids to school--to strangers. In addition to skill training, some restricted intellectual activity, promoting nationalism, warehousing kids (a huge free day care system supplementing corporations which insist the main tax burden should be on the working class), etc., commercializing sports, schools' promise of hope is now more myth than reality. What hope exists comes from those rarities who swim against the tide. While government funds come primarily from the exploitation of other workers, the valuable labor of school workers is exploited, i.e., they are not paid for the full value of their labor, which is both ideological and practical, and they do not control the processes nor the products of their work.
Teachers do not set their own hours, wages, or working conditions. They do not control the curriculum, nor the pedagogical methods to be employed. Powerful corporate interests control textbook publishing, for example, and seek to replace the critical and human relationships of a particular teacher meeting a unique child in a classroom with the standardized curricula and techniques (policed by high-stakes examinations that measure little but race and class) which serve those who hold power. The less educators, workers, resist this subservient alienating relationship, the more they enrich both those who own, and capitalism itself. The more teachers do this, the less they are. So, while teachers may think of themselves as more professionals than workers, they are more workers than professionals. The more they uncritically pursue surplus value, the less free and creative they are, and the more oppressed the kids are.
Educators live contradictory lives. Typically conservative, they nevertheless sit in a nodal point in North America where the struggle for reason, against irrationalism, meets the demands of the market. Librarians, sometimes school librarians, led battles against FBI demands for lists of readers and texts. Biology teachers fight for rational knowledge against creationism. History teachers seek to demonstrate that the construction of history is not merely an analysis of the past, from a standpoint in the present, but also inherently a call to action. Reading teachers struggle to show that literacy is not only sounding out syllables, but a struggle for meaning in which the whole is related to the parts. Art and music teachers fight for their subject's existence. Math teachers try to link numbers with the question: Why?
Teachers are unlike industrial workers in some important ways. Educators do not make Pintos, they work collectively, interacting with kids, and ideas. So, for many, the inhuman processes of daily work life, as on an assembly line, are doubly offensive. That means employers have a weakness to exploit: teachers tend to care about kids, and employers do not.
All of this takes place as good teachers swim against a tide of power that seeks to regulate what children learn, and how they come to learn it, in the interests of the powerful. Too often school workers, unwittingly or knowingly, become mere missionaries for capitalism, and schools become the missions themselves. The metaphor is nearly perfect. The number of witless missionaries is far too high. And the great teachers who can persevere in a culture that promotes racism, cowardice, ignorance, and opportunism, far too few.
In sum, while there is struggle on every job and that is surely so in school, the public school system in the US is not public, not contested terrain as a few "critical" pedagogues maintain, but capitalist schools; their schools, not ours.
The Detroit Federation of Teachers-American Federation of Teachers-AFL-CIO
To know the DFT, one must first understand how it fits inside the AFT-AFL-CIO, and to do that: meet Al Shanker; corrupt, racist, cold-warrior extra-ordinaire, and founder of what AFT is today. Shanker died in 1997, prompting labor-academic Paul Buhle to write, "No Flowers," and researcher Kim Scipes to describe him as a "maggot." They are on target.
Shanker came to power in the AFT in 1968, on the heels of being jailed for leading a racist strike against the New York community of Ocean-Hill Brownsville. The AFT was, behind Shanker, an active opponent of affirmative action. His false martyrdom catapulted him into national leadership, to which he clung for nearly thirty years, not uncommon in the AFL-CIO. He lorded over a culture of cronyism, internal tyranny, nationalism, anti-communism, and corruption that may be unmatched in the history of labor--quite an achievement considering Jimmy Hoffa, George Meany, et al. After nearly thirty years of power, and puffed by the corporate media to be the greatest of school reformers, all of the urban schools Shanker represented only reformed backwards.
Shanker had powerful allies. Schools are important to elites, and the AFT represents, by far, most of the urban educators in the US (AFT with a million members is one-third the size of the largest union in the US, the NEA, with 3.2 million, mostly suburban, members). Shanker and his close personal friend and constant dining companion, finance capitalist Felix Rohatyn, engineered the infamous New York city bailout in 1975 (the teachers loaned their pension funds) setting the stage for the massive series of concessions from labor thereon.
Shanker enunciated an AFT-AFL-CIO policy of the unity of labor, government, and business, in the "national interest," that should ring out as a pillar of the corporate state: fascism. He tied himself to the bosses, and the school workers mostly followed. His "Progressive" caucus controlled every important move within the AFT, and shot down dissent by eliminating secret ballot votes. His Social Democrats USA controlled a union in a pivotal point in US de-industrializing society.
Behind Shanker, the AFT became profoundly corrupt; leaders held jobs for life. The boss of the local representing Washington DC is jailed now for looting the treasury of a local representing one of the most impoverished areas in the US for hundreds of thousands of dollars (typically arriving at meetings in a chauffeured limo). Shanker favorite, Pat Tornillo, who stole hundreds of thousands from his Miami local, sits in prison, as does the boss of the Broward County, Florida, local, imprisoned for molesting kids.
Shanker's AFT, the only powerful organized group which had a clear stake in defending urban education in the US, chose to organize its break-down, supporting every step back and declaring it a victory, or "the best we can do." If a finger is to be pointed at those responsible for the ruin of urban schools, it points at AFT.
The AFL-CIO, of which AFT is a preeminent part, spends nearly one-half of its dues income outside the US. It does so following AFL's historic doctrine: If workers outside the US do worse, workers inside the US will do better--much like the AFL craft union view that segregated unions by skill, locking out black workers in particular. The AFL side of this work began as early as WWI, when the AFL attacked the radical Industrial Workers of the World ("The working class and the employing class have nothing in common..."). which opposed the war as an imperialist adventure in which workers were fighting the enemies of their enemies.
Connections between the AFL-CIO and US intelligence agencies tightened during the Cold War. The unions drove communists, who had been key organizers, out of their ranks, and began to work internationally, often through the National Endowment for Democracy, the American Institute for Free Labor Development, and fronts for the Central Intelligence Agency. Shanker and his cronies were, and are, in the forefront of this effort which, among other things, assisted in the overthrow of the elected Allende government of Chile (and the death of thousands), an effort to crush unionism in apartheid South Africa, worked with Philippine death squads to kill off indigenous unions and left-social movements, assisted in the destruction of the Sandanista government in Nicaragua, and on and on.
Elites, and Shanker, recognized the significance of social control through schooling as the war in Vietnam ended. Schools and universities had gone over the top and elites began to plan to stuff the genie back in the bottle. One of many maneuvers elites used was the drive to regiment the curricula in the public, capitalist, schools, through scripted programs, rewriting textbooks to heroize the US failed aggression in Vietnam for example, and via high-stakes standardized tests.
The initial benchmark was called "Nation at Risk." The project culminated with the No Child Left Behind Act, supported by both Republicans and Democrats, the US Chambers of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the leaders of NEA and AFT.
Indeed, NEA and AFT joined the corporate sponsors noted above, and Achieve, Inc., and others, to take out full page ads in the New York Times demanding high-stakes testing and regimented curricula. When they succeeded, NEA and AFT, still boosting the unity of labor, business, and government, complained that NCLB was not well funded, and not well implemented, but had no criticism of the essence of the project and, more importantly, they did nothing about it; choosing, instead, to urge people into the electoral arena, where both parties gleefully support NCLB.
NCLB is promoted, especially in minority communities, as an avenue to equality in schooling. However, as educationist writer Jean Anyon says, "Doing school reform without doing social and economic reform in communities is like washing the air on one side of a screen door. It won't work." It hasn't, and isn't meant to. NCLB is a noose, strangling knowledge, deepening segregation, and using "scientific" test scores to prove inequality (rooted in exploitation) is inevitable.
After Shanker's death, a new leader came to the AFL-CIO presidency-John Sweeney from the Service Employees International Union, started by the Chicago Capone mob. Sweeney promised to cut labor ties to the CIA, to reinvigorate organizing and solidarity, and to be transparent about the budget. Sweeney did nearly nothing about labor ties to the CIA. He immediately backed the AFL-CIO betrayal of the Detroit Newspaper Strike, crushed after months, but crushed by UAW and AFL organizers who used violence on picket lines against militant strikers, and who turned them over to the police. And Sweeney continued the AFL-CIO habit of double-dipping his salary, collecting nearly $450,000 from an old local, while he collected his President's salary as well. There were no new tricks for the old dog.
So, the AFT, through its connections with the AFL-CIO, worked to bolster US imperialism abroad, and to feed the war machine from within the US, by offering the bogus science of high-stakes testing, at the expense of members of the AFT who were deluged with demands for concessions, and convinced to make them by their quisling leaders--and at the expense of kids who would, too often, pay with their lives for schooling that did not tell them that Vietnam was all lies.
Let us be abundantly clear. Labor imperialism, the AFL-CIO's backing of CIA-corporate adventures all over the world, may have served a relatively tiny number of US workers for a short time, but at the end of the day, it inevitably failed. The lack of international solidarity of working class people is destroying the lives of workers all over the world, and the members of the AFL-CIO as well. That the class war is also a classroom war is, due to de-industrialization, is a significant particular, developing world-wide.
The Detroit Federation of Teachers
Members of the DFT and the kids of Detroit paid an equally heavy price for the AFT's kind of unionism which, on the face of it does more to divide people than unite them as, for example, school workers from their most vital allies, parents and kids, while at the same time DFT-AFT urges educators and others into the hands of Democrats.
That process of division and diversion may be hard to see, as the habit of unionism and voting is powerful, but note that parents and kids do not come to DFT meetings, do not partake in discussions, do not vote--of course because they do not pay dues; capital's false bottom line which serves elites, and divides players with common interests.
The Democratic Party has ruled Detroit for time immemorial, oversaw its shipwreck. Yet the DFT, the UAW, and all the city unions still pour money and organizational skill down the bottomless well. It's a dishonest diversion, of course. The labor mis-leaders know they feed at the trough of imperialism, that their six figure salaries are based on their Judas-goat role in the workers' ranks. Electoral action creates at least an appearance of action, while it merely deepens oppression, convincing people that the main thing to do is to rely on someone else to solve problems. Clearly, no one will save us but us.
The last thing a labor leader in the US wants is a mass of truly class conscious workers who are ready to take direct action in order to control their work places on a daily basis. On one hand, if that was the case, the labor leaders would have nothing to sell the bosses, i.e., labor peace would not be theirs to peddle, but democratically controlled by the members and, on the other hand, such a conscious mass of people would never tolerate labor leaders who make four and five times the wages of average rank and filers, live completely different lives, more in common with employers.
In the past twenty years, the once militant DFT, which led some of the nation's first teacher strikes, made concession upon concession, until the Detroit educators fell into the bottom quartile of pay for Michigan teachers. DFT bureaucrats organized the disintegration of the school system, took hostile positions against parents and kids (supporting unjust taxation and the Michigan lottery scam-you can't lose if you don't play--which was promised for schools, but never went there). DFT mis-leaders like bumbling President John Elliot and, later, DFT President Janna Garrison, supported the NCLB and served on national AFT governance boards rubbing elbows with the easily spotted corruption of Miami's Tornillo and others.
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 10%, often $10,000. The DFT leadership, which had witnessed the concessions spiral of the last 30 years, feigned shock.
On Strike! Shut it Down!
It was easy to see the 2006 strike coming and on Sunday, August 27, 2006, the assembled DFT member voted in Cobo Hall (the same venue where the 1999 wildcat was triggered) to shut down the schools against management demands for $90 million in concessions, about $10,000 per school worker. DPS threatened to lay off 2000 employees if the demands were not met.
The strike, however, initially targeted a dead week of schooling, a week without kids. I wrote in Counterpunch at the time, "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.
"Or, 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. However, that kind of resistance would require serious organizing, a rank and file opposition well-prepared with a sensible plan for resistance, and none of that is on the horizon as yet."
Sadly, I was not far off base in the opening sentences. DFT bureaucrats, after a 16 day strike in which heroic educators defied state laws, countered an incessant drumbeat of bad press attacking them for being responsible for the destruction of schooling, organized their own pickets, and began to set up their own lines of communications, agreed to a package with, on their statements, is about $68 million in concessions. But DFT lied about even that, calling it a "non-wage concessions package."
It was easy to see the strike coming, even in the spring. DFT could have done many things:
*Prepared for Freedom Schooling for kids, demonstrating why things are as they are within an economic system that requires inequality, exploitation, racism, nationalism and irrationalism-and countering the real need many parents have for baby-sitting.
*Demanded, in real terms, Books! Supplies! True Caps for Lower Class Size!
*Demanded academic freedom and the right to teach each child well, not teach to a test, and the freedom to opt out of the racist testing which programs Detroit kids to lose,
*Supported a just tax system, tax the rich, the corporate, the sports spectacles, the casinos, and remove the unjust taxes from poor and working people,
*No wage or benefit cuts, but increases to make up for past losses, and against projected inflation.
*Planned to unleash the creativity of 9000 school workers, urging them to design their own banners, create their own songs, hold coffee klatches in neighborhoods, do plays and guerrila theater for kids, make the picket lines a joyful celebration of rebels,
*Repeatedly demonstrated the direct connections between capitalism, imperialism, war, curricula regimentation, high-stakes tests, racism, and the destruction of civil life in the city.
Margaret Haley, a founder of the AFT and the NEA in the early 1900s , fought for similar actions nearly a century ago, but her militant history has been largely eradicated. And, DFT could hardly fight for academic freedom. The AFT opposes that, via its support for high-stakes testing. DFT couldn't fight for a just tax system. AFT opposes that. And DFT couldn't fight for real caps on class size as the union has traditionally traded that for money, making one professor ask: How much does it take to bribe a teacher to demolish her own teaching?
In fact, the daily processes of school life are rarely bargained in teacher contracts, just as the industrial unions ceased to bargain about the processes of production, and thus gave up the struggle for control over the key moments of work life to the employers--and hence weakened the unions.
This means that a culture of disrespect and contempt for educators, parents, and kids can run free in DPS, and the union contractually prohibits itself from action. One common cause of any strike, human dignity, is off the bargaining table before bargaining begins.
To prepare for the strike, it would have been important to carry 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 how to understand and change the world----something that is offered in nearly no schools now.
The DFT could have easily set up an online bulletin board, for educators and perhaps others to discuss events of the strike, to make suggestions, to see the commonality of their problems and to plan action. But no union runs such a bulletin board. Members talking to each other can be critical, and thus dangerous.
The DFT could have prepared for solidarity actions but 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, born from the militant snake-throwing SWOC, said nothing about the strike.
John Sweeney, AFL-CIO boss, 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. He took little notice of the DFT marchers, then on strike, and made a "Vote Democratic!" stump speech.
So, for the first week of the strike, DFT members picketed empty buildings, rather than walking door to door in communities with, say, flyers they themselves prepared from their knowledge of the particular blocks (though for some educators, that's arguably slim, about 60% of them live outside Detroit, or send their own kids out) and with a plan for day care for people with special needs. There was, really, little for the rank and file to do, as leaders prefer it, choosing to win the members to the notion that the union is a vending machine: give us your money and we protect you. There's a name for that.
Only about 500 of the DFT members turned out for the Labor Day celebration. A mass city-wide demonstration to specifically support the strike could have been called, but the DFT didn't call it.
On the first day of school that was scheduled for kids to attend, William Coleman III opened the schools, as a probe to test the strength of the educators. He had to know that few would scab, that at most 500 adults would be attempting to supervise what could be 100,000 kids. As it turned out, only about 40,000 kids showed up, but the cynical maneuver was a dangerous disaster. One small child wandered off, unsupervised, from school, to be found by a picket captain, blocks away. That did not play well for Coleman III.
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.
What Should the Rank and File Have Known?
The strike dragged on. The DFT rank and file had been through a lot. They initiated their own strike, the wildcat of 1999, and ran it themselves. Then, they quickly moved to win community support, parents were invited to pickets lines. This bargaining unit once knew its stuff. But it appears they forgot.
What should have the rank and file of the DFT known before they went on this strike?
They should have known that this would be a bitter fight. Their employers would pull out all the stops. The social forces colliding each had a lot at stake. It would require significant commitment from every striker, as an active player in the action.
They should have known their leaders would likely betray them, as had the labor leaders of every major struggle of the last 30 years, from Hormel to the Detroit Newspaper strike and all in between. They should have known their labor mis-leaders shared one key thing in common with the DPS administration and local elites: neither party wanted a mass, class conscious group of workers on their hands.
This history of betrayal would mean that the workers should have know that they would need their own organizational structure, an inclusive and democratic structure, drawing in as voting members people from the community, other jobs, students; and a cadre of dedicated leaders. The DPS bosses aligned themselves as an organized class. The DPS administration had an eager trumpet, the local press, distributed by the thousands. The DFT rank and file needed their own internal communication system, even an open web site, and a method to talk to the community as well. Again, an online web site could achieve that. The bosses would throw everything they had at them. The workers' response would need to match the play.
The DFT workers needed to know that, despite appearances to the contrary, their struggle would be an international struggle. DFT, and many US unions, has relied on the idea that they only had to organize the US work force. This appeared to be effective for skilled tradespeople, but only briefly. . However, the work force is truly an international, multi-racial group. Teachers in Oaxaca Mexico were engaged in a bitter social uprising during and after the Detroit strike, and even a message of solidarity would have inspired both sets of educators. Indeed, Detroiters would have had a lot to learn from Oaxacans.
Both struggles remain blacked out in the mainstream press. That may be due to a mix of racism and nationalism, but it is assuredly also about the fact that these battles play out on very dangerous grounds for elites; they go to the heart of control of communities and the rule of knowledge itself. In comparison, the little spectacle of a transit strike in New York City in 2006, sold out in one day, got national headlines. Why?
The workers should have known that the law is there to guarantee that they lose; that they would need to break it again and again. Threats of injunctions and court orders cannot teach, nor even warehouse, kids. They should have known that to win the strike would not only require civil strife, but the support of an active, conscious community that understood what they were doing and why they were doing it. All would need to rise with all. They should have understood that pacifism in this strike would probably mean a loss.
The rank and file should have known that there is nearly no one left in the AFL-CIO, or the NEA, who actually knows how to lead a strike, and of that handful, nearly no one who has ever really led one. Fewer still led a strike that won. For the last 25 years and more the AFL-CIO just organized one series of concessions after the next. The labor bosses in power now are habituated to losing, and are unable to make strategic estimates and tactical plans for a fight, even if they wanted to fight--and they do not want to fight as that might interrupt dues income and their coming pensions. Even if the DFT drew on the widely proclaimed vast resources of the AFL-CIO for this strike, the arsenal was empty.
Unfortunately, it is clear that the work force understood little of this, had learned nothing from the period following the 1981 PATCO strike (when newly-elected Ronald Reagan was allowed to smash the air-controllers strike by the inaction of the AFL-CIO). The fact of their heroic struggle does outweigh their lack of prescience, but only by a little.
That the DFT members did not know this is testament to the US educational system which manages to train people to overlook the obvious, to become instruments of their own oppression--even to desire it-and to search for someone else to save them, to tell them what to do. The decisive viewpoint that "all of history is the history of class struggle," is obliterated in US schools and the DFT members are, after all, products of school themselves.
The Strike Continues
On September 10, elected County Judge Susan Borman reluctantly issued a back to work order that was read to the members in a meeting of about 3000 in Cobo Hall. As the order was read, members chanted, "No Contract! No Work!"
DFT President Janna Garrison probably missed a chance for fame. She could have, with little fear of reprisals, just paraphrased John L. Lewis' famous response to a Taft-Hartley injunction aimed at his striking coal miners, "Taft can mine it, and Hartley can haul it." A tough, open defiant stance from Garrison could have inspired the strikers, and made her career.
It might have, however, threatened the union treasury. DPS would demand fines. And, if the DFT did nothing about deteriorating school conditions, and the loss of thousands of members, and more cuts to come, guaranteed; the DFT bureaucrats did find resources to buy a new $5 million dollar building in 2005.
Garrison read the court order and closed the meeting. The potential of a mass meeting of 3000 educators engaged in one of the sharpest classroom battles of a decade was lost.
On September 11, the Governor ordered fact-finding, a hollow gesture to call in a third party designated to find non-partisan facts. There is no such thing in a strike. Fact finders, however, are commonly paid by states, or arbitration associations, and through their very well to do lives share the outlook of employers, and feel terrific pressure to foist concessions on unionists in order to "reach a mutual settlement for the good of the community."
Despite claims of civility between DFT and DPS bargainers, which were probably true, this was a vicious strike, with all the weapons of domination aimed at the strikers. The law threatened them, the press denounced them, Coleman III said teachers were responsible for destroying school.
On September 12, after negotiators on both sides agreed to halt bargaining, and an assigned mediator consented, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick directed all sides to his office, where he demanded a settlement. The preachers intervened as well, indicating they would turn the community on the strikers.
Garrison and the DFT negotiators caved, completely, but reported to the membership that they had gained a "non-wage concessionary Tentative Agreement." They lied.
On September 13, DFT members met again in Cobo Hall, but not to vote on the TA, only to vote on whether to return to work and cast ballots from there. DFT had used the period since the 1999 Cobo wildcat to shift the voting procedure into mail ballots, which are more easily controlled, manipulated (would they cheat? Of course they would cheat.). There would be no more Cobo uprisings to prolong the strike. The DFT bureaucracy was going to be sure they could "deliver" their membership to DPS, proving, in a twisted way, their strength.
DFT and other unions frequently hide the full text of tentative agreements from their members, even through the life of contracts. It may be that what is at hand is not the real agreement, but we plunge ahead anyway. In the "non-wage concessions" package:
DFT bargained wage concession after wage concession. The union bargained away a 10% co-pay for health benefits (as noted above, educators hired before 1994 had no co-pay) for all educators, probably a loss of $50 per pay.
DFT bargained a wage freeze the for year one, a 1% increase for year two, and a 2.5% increase for year three. DFT did not underline the fact that a part of the TA is missing on this topic, that is, just who will get the increase. A clause is inserted in each note of a wage increase indicating that some educators may not get it, and, moreover, DFT has repeatedly torn up wage increase promises mid-contract, and just returned the money to DPS as yet another concession. Even so, if inflation remains unchanged, during the three years of the contract, educators will lose at least 10% of their earning power.
One prep period was taken from every elementary teacher, the vast majority of the educators, meaning the work day is extended, with no pay. That is a wage cut.
The teachers lose pay for three days of the "phony strike" (no kids) week, plus lose pay for Labor Day. That is a wage cut.
But a clause in inserted guaranteeing DFT support for a potential state tax increase, again alienating educators from the citizenry. That weakens the union.
DFT claimed they "won" a promise from DPS that the district would assume liability for its employees who were not engaged in unlawful or unprofessional conduct. DFT did not note that this is simply the law, nor did they advise members that a DPS refusal to accept liability is not grieveable, but is a decision of DPS alone. This clause is a shabby trick.
DFT agreed that five days of all teacher sick leave would be frozen, not paid out. This is a wage cut. It's a no interest loan.
DFT agreed to make it much easier for DPS to use subs at low pay, and to keep subs from becoming tenured teachers, just as DFT had agreed, earlier, to let DPS "reconstitute" schools, that is, lay off all the teachers in an entire school with, for example, low test scores, and those teachers have no guarantee of another job. As DPS relies heavily on subs, because of deplorable working conditions, this is a significant setback. This will become a wage cut.
The tentative agreement contains nothing about books, supplies, lower class size, academic freedom, or the controversial high-stakes tests. It does nothing about the culture of contempt and disrespect that makes daily life on the job so difficult, and causes students to leave. The union demurred. This is not a wage cut. It is a life cut.
As We Wait, What Can be Learned?
To date, DFT has not announced when the vote will be on the TA. It is unlikely it will be voted down. Once teachers get with their kids, it is hard to pull them out. It is possible, of course, that the rebelliousness among DFT members will rise again, fast, but the union promised them a two week strike beforehand. That was the limit of many members' finances.
Steve Conn, a high school teacher from one of the city's better schools, and a leader of the past wildcat who is now seen by most teachers as "full of himself, a camera-hog," insisted that the TA would "go down in flames," at the meeting in Cobo Hall. He was remarkably wrong. Wild mis-estimates do not improve the status of radicalism. It's possible the contract will be voted down in mail balloting, but if it does, DFT members will have a lot to overcome.
Surely we can see how the DPS administration exploited DFT weaknesses:
*Trust in the DFT and community leadership,
*Religion, reliance on the preachers to be neutrals, when they have their own selfish interests, require dues, like union leaders, to interpret god,
*Care for kids, a weakness only the most cynical would exploit, but they do it,
*Splits within the bargaining unit (health care) and between Detroit and suburban teachers (racism),
*Financial strain on all educators and especially younger teachers,
*Fear of the law,
*The false notion that we are all in this together, in one community that we all must share, when in fact this was a bitter class-room war.
*Isolation and inactivity, as in picketing empty buildings, fostered by DFT leaders,
*Fear of criticizing mis-leadership out of racial, national, or religious misplaced loyalty,
*Trust in reason, without connecting reason to might: educators usually believe that if a sensible proposal is made, it will be met by reason, not an opposing power to which reason means nothing.
In total, it is clear that it is key to identify real divisions, that is, the unity of DFT/DPS elites against the rank and file, the kids, and the citizens; and false divisions, of race, age, city boundary and so on, divisions which, if we do not demolish them, they will be used to demolish us.
We can learn the same lesson of the 1999 wildcat, proved to all by the heroic actions of educators who made big sacrifices again in the battle of 2006, that the law pales before the solidarity and direct action of masses of workers. Nothing was done, nor will be done, to any striker in either action. It is not possible to replace 9000 school workers. Other educators should not be deterred by district boundaries. It is fairly simple to set up coordinated bargaining communities, with bargaining "minimums," that is, lines beneath which we will not sink, operating with the slogan, "An injury to one is an injury to all--if one suffers--all act."
We can learn that we can fight, and win. But justice demands organization.
Teachers are the most unionized people in the US. Combined, the educator unions have nearly 4 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-as is the military, the health care system, the transportation system (many immigrants), the food system, and the prisons.
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. DPS itself projects another 40% loss of students.
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 dying for oil profits. 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.
Detroit was at the epicenter of the banking and manufacturing collapse of the last Great Depression, particularly when the Detroit Guardian Bank on Griswold fell apart. It was a death blow to the US banking system. What can happen to Detroit can happen to the US.
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 Substance, in the Rouge Forum, 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. Activist youth communes sprout up all over the US, and there is a large one in Detroit-that played no role in the strike.
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.
On September 20, the Detroit Historical Museum proudly announced it is now fully privatized, operating with 20% of its previous staff, in the name of "cost, modernity, and common sense."
Simultaneously, the Professional Removal Service of Detroit suspended Mike Thomas, an employee of the privatized body pick-up division of the coroner's office, paid on a piece-work rate of $14 for each dead body delivered, for talking to the press about his trade, the only work he could find in the city.
On the same day, gubernatorial candidate Dick Devos, millionaire godfather of the Grand Rapids based Amway Corporation running dead even with Democrat Granholm, announced that Intelligent Design should be taught in Michigan schools, an alternative to the theory of evolution. Lee Iacocca, famous former Chrysler Chairman, and father of the slogan, "Buy American," signed on to the Devos campaign.
On September 14, the day DFT members returned to class and met kids, Marilyn Daily, a second grade teacher at Howe Elementary on the impoverished east side , was quoted in the Detroit Free Press: The school is just 3 years old and yet the drinking fountain in the main corridor doesn't work, a first-floor ceiling leaks, and it took three years for the heating and cooling systems to work properly.... She said her room was so cold the year it opened that she bought sweatshirts for her students at a secondhand store to keep them warm.
On the same day, Peter and Julie Fisher Cummings, announced a $5 million dollar gift to Cranbrook School in suburban Bloomfield Hills, to build a girls' middle school. The Cummings are a marriage of Fords, and developer-Fishers.
From the Detroit News: "A new kind of giving is emerging," Julie Cummings says. "People aren't just scattering checks around. They are targeting their money to institutions they can connect to."
Cranbrook is a National Historic Landmark, with 315 acres of rolling lawns, its own planetarium, an artist colony, an art museum, swimming pools that spill one into the next, each looking like a small lake, a Greek theater, its own elementary, middle, and high schools. Daniel Ellsberg is a grad.
Combining with other major donors, the $16 million dollar middle school will open on the beautiful Cranbrook campus in 2009, ready to train a new ruling class, and to pick off a few of the children of the poor as well, just as the church has done for a thousand years. About 30% of Cranbrook's kids are minorities, and one-quarter on scholarships. The mission metaphor works. So does the metaphor of Class War.
The rebellious law-breaking teachers of the Detroit Public Schools strike of 2006 went back to work, conducting the scripted pedagogical programs the NCLB demands, to drill children to pass a test the US has designed for them to fail. It's easily seen as a form of child abuse, which is the contradictory nature of educational life within the emergence of fascism. It may be that parents and kids subject themselves to this kind of abuse in Detroit Public Schools because school is the only safe place to get food and shelter, or they may believe there is real hope behind the false flag of capital's missions, or that at least a literate worker may make a dime more, and not have to deliver bodies on piecework.
The question of what people need to know, and how they need to come to know it, in order to assume the potential of a world already united through systems of production, communication, and transportation, yet a world that is now easily described as a war of all on all, is a pedagogical problem. The answer may spin out from the thought and action of educators whose product is kids and whose tools are knowledge.
At issue is: Where will the next fight be and what will the next rebels know?
Dr Rich Gibson lived in Detroit most of his adult life; most of that at Seven Mile and the Lodge. He taught at Wayne State University until 2000, when he moved to San Diego State as an Associate Professor. He is a co-founder of the Rouge Forum. (www.RougeForum.org)