The Labor Fest in Detroit doubled in size this year. While the police estimate of 10,000 marchers would be a step up from previous years, UAW organizers guessed attendance at over 20,000. Unionists marched under cloudy skies, in 85 degree heat. Showers predicted for the day held off until late afternoon, then leaky roofs flooded and closed Detroit Metro Airport, voted by travelers as the worst in the U.S.
Marchers, were to be led by the striking members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. Not long into the march, a contingent of about 50 people supporting a local Democratic political contender leaped into the head of the parade. The Democrats were joined by Detroit Mayor Archer, bitter opponent of the teacher strike, who said his prayers are with all workers.
The spirited DFT contingent was fully integrated, black, Hispanic, and white, young and old, an unusual crowd of 2,000 educators in an AFL-CIO procession overwhelmingly dominated by white people, reflective of the union movement itself, especially the building and construction trades. The educators chanted their familiar, "Books! Supplies! Lower Class Size!"
The marchers traveled down two routes, the primary route running south down Woodward Avenue, the largest street in the city. They walked past the Detroit Medical Center, a thriving adjunct of Wayne State University, an addition that overwhelmed its parent. The medical center now houses over ½ of the WSU staff. The center is in the midst of what was once one of the poorest areas of Detroit, not too far from the Brewster Douglas projects, birthplace of the Supremes. Thousands of poor people were displaced by WSU reclamation projects, organized by then- WSU president David Adamany, now the CEO of Detroit schools. The demonstrators walked along a route that once was traveled by electric trolley cars, a smoke-free-energy-efficient system that traversed the whole city-until GM bought it up, sold it to Mexico City, and tore down the wires that gave it power.
Leaving the medical center, marchers passed the boarded-up blue hulk of a building that was once Motown, passed dozens of derelict boarded buildings much like it, passed the huge vacant lots, bulldozed terrain, that typify the wreckage of the most segregated city in the U.S., and passed the rising framework of Comerica Stadium (the owners promised to call it Tiger Stadium when they asked for tax money), that symbolizes the new era of Detroit, an entertainment and gambling center, not the Arsenal of Democracy.
Labor Fest was all that is the labor movement today. Dozens of UAW locals joined in, most of them with symbols of their partnerships with their employers. GM, Chrysler, Ford, all made donations of huge 18 wheel display trucks, dozens of late-model cars, trinkets like frisbees and candy (stamped with "UAW-FORD Partners in Production"). No one talked about the massive explosion that murdered workers at the Ford Rouge Plant early in the year. Marching with special verve were members of the "UAW-Ford Team" who are about to lose their jobs because they work in supplier plants that will be spun-off, detached from Ford and left to fend for themselves for wages and benefits, as were the GM parts Teammates in 1998.
Trades workers came riding their employers' gigantic construction machines. The union coalition of the Teamsters, UAW, and the Hotel Workers that represents workers in Detroit's new casinos, voluntarily recognized by their employers, had a booth. The Christian unionists were widely represented. The UAW has a Union Chaplaincy program, and a booth for recruiting. UAW Local 51 carried a yellow banner, "Youth Shooting Rockets for Christ," carried by young men and women, marching in cadence, in camouflage outfits. This seems to reflect Al Gore's campaign to unite Christians and trade unions.
The union representing Detroit and state police had recruiting literature there, as did the prison guards. The largest UAW local in the state of Michigan, the state workers union local 6000, had less than a dozen members present. The UAW is opposing their efforts to place the question of collective bargaining for their members on a state-wide ballot-it would be bad for Al Gore to have to deal with it.
Relatively privileged among the world's workers, often willing to seek gain at their expense, even at the expense of other workers in their ranks, labor as it is contained in the AFL-CIO demonstrated all of its strengths and weaknesses on the streets today: able to shut down the 180,000 student school system, unable to produce a single speech or flyer in support.
The march lasted more than two hours, culminating in a cultural fair next to the gigantic hole that was once Detroit's premier department store, Hudson's, imploded by dynamite not long ago. Just as the march concluded, around noon, negotiations for the Detroit school strike resumed.
The key issue of this strike, usually unnoticed and unspoken, is social control. In a society that is more and more inequitable, it is important for elites to mask the existence and creation of inequality, and to use age old methods like divide-and-conquer, reward-and-punish, to keep the bottom of the pyramid in place. Detroit is the most racially segregated and socially inequitable city in the U.S. Clear geographic boundaries separate citizens by class and race-as do the scores on standardized tests.
Wealth allowed Detroit to go to seed, to rot, while its citizens, surviving twenty years of massive unemployment, tore the floorboards from homes to build fires for heat, stripped houses of plumbing to sell for scrap, and watched as corrupt agencies like HUD gave loans to realtors, who absconded with the funds. After the 1967 Detroit rebellion, welfare restrictions were quickly allayed, caseloads rose. But as militancy faded in the economic crises of the late 1970's, welfare cuts became popular. At one point, the state of Michigan and the federal government gave Chrysler and Lee Iacoca 1 billion $ to bail out his company. Welfare grants were slashed the same day. Every mental hospital but one in the state was closed. Prisons replaced them. Chrysler later sold itself to Germany.
Recently, with property values bottomed out, the rich came back, bought property, put in their casinos as places to play. They know their grip on the city is tenuous. Detroit is a city with a long history of race and class violence. Uprisings of any kind could ruin investments. The people most likely to participate in social upheavals are young people, and they are in school. But their schools have been harshly neglected. There is little offer of hope from a Detroit school. So it is imperative to reclaim the schools, and, within this project, to segment the population even further, with scalpel precision, along fairly predictable lines of who will wind up where in the social system-to hold out hope, false and real, against the possibility of serious resistance to inequality..
In this context, the teacher strike is a real blow against the empire, against the social control that is enforced by legality and propriety, against union leaders who do not represent, but want to discipline, their members, against a ferocious campaign to enforce the notion that school reform is about a standardized curricula, kids in uniform, and attacks on parents. They struck against a culture and its media that says you cannot fight city hall and win, and besides there are many other more fun things to do-shop. The teachers have repeatedly said this strike is about 'Class size, books, and supplies!" and while there is some question about what they will trade off in salaries to get that, there are many teachers who are committed to their students and their community. One teacher marching in Labor Fest told me, "Up until now, the conservative element in the union was elementary teachers. Well now they are sick of it. They are mad as hell and they will not take anymore. They have been sacrificing and patient and now they are set up as the problem. Well they are not the problem, and they are out of control. They mean what they say. They love those kids. You must know what a mad elementary teacher can get when she wants it. They are not going to quit." Social control meets Ms Chips, who loves her children.
Negotiators announced a press conference for 7:00 pm. DFT President Elliot would speak. Another marching teacher told me today, "The wraps are off Elliot. We have protected him too long. He is plain stupid and plain on the wrong side. He is done and we are done with him." Another teacher, though, an old Detroit radical, said, "No, he is dumb, but he plays to these teachers. He fools with their feelings for others. He gets up and cries. That's how he sold the last lousy contract-and they ALL have been lousy."
Elliot did not appear until after 8:00. Part of the delay was caused by Detroit school Security Squads who removed about 30 teachers from the area near the press conference. Locked out, held back by a large iron gate, they denounced the secrecy of proceedings inside.
Elliot came to the mike and appeared at a loss. He announced a Tentative Agreement, saying there would be mail ballots sent to teachers soon. Ballots would be counted in "a couple weeks." Prompted by reporters' questions, he apparently remembered he would call a membership meeting, as is DFT tradition, to vote on a back-to-work decision. He became clear, however, that there will be two votes, one on Wednesday morning to determine the back-to-work issue, another mail ballot to decide on the TA. No copies of the agreement were available. Elliot said, "some copies," will be available for teachers on Wednesday.
What is in the contract? Union spokespersons said different things to different observers. There is consensus that this is a three year contract. To one TV station, DFT reported a 6% to 12% raise. To my phone call, they said a 4% raise, which they repeated to another TV station. They said 22 schools could be effected by a class size cap in the 2000-2001 school year. They agreed that they made concessions on teacher sick days, moving from 15 to 8, unless the teacher supplies written excuses. Any excess of 8 means a loss of the next year's raises-and potential discipline. Elliot said, "Merit pay is not covered in the formal contract." Just what kind of contract it may be covered by is unclear. It is rumored that one issue is headed for arbitration. The popular demands for books and supplies, a library in every school, do not appear to be addressed at all.
After a tired and clearly dispirited Elliot had walked away, CEO Adamany took a spritely jump to the microphones. He denounced the strike, saying ,"This cost my district and the city of Detroit millions of dollars. It was absolutely unnecessary. See, we had an agreement for a ten day extension, and we reached this new agreement in seven days. This should never have happened to the union leadership or to the city schools."
Adamany went on to say that DPS strikers could still be fined $500 dollars for every day they were off the job, under state law.
Following his ouster from his job as President at Wayne State, Adamany
became the head of the State Civil Service Commission which oversees all
of the classified state employees in Michigan. The Commission has remarkable
powers, including the power to overturn arbitration decisions and to approve
all contracts with the employees unions, which do not have collective bargaining
rights. During his tenure at the CSC, Adamany led moves to negate all of
the non-economic provisions of the state employee contracts that were negotiated
in the previous year. For Adamany, history suggests a deal is not a deal.