Detroit and Oaxaca Battles Continue, What Can We Do?

September 9, 2006

Dear Friends,

The massive social uprising in Oaxaca demonstrates the Rouge Forum thesis that struggles initiated in schools can become uprisings that begin real social change. It proves the centripetal role of schooling in today’s society. That fight is best documented on NarcoNews, online

The Detroit school workers, on strike for 12 days, were enjoined from continuing the strike on Friday afternoon, and the union was ordered to hold a mass meeting to tell the teachers to return to work. That meeting will be on Sunday at 4 pm at Cobo Hall, the same place where the spontaneous 1999 vote was taken to start a wildcat strike, opposed by the union, declared illegal by the government, fought by business. . The wildcat was a success in proving that workers who create political reality can defy unjust laws.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers is on strike because rank and file educators are in a position similar to the California grocery strikers. They must fight back because they have little choice. Educators have made more than $65 million in concessions in the last five years. Conditions in schools are often deplorable. Respect from top administrators, clearly absent. Shortly after teachers made concessions last year, the administrators took 10% pay raises.

In the wildcat, Detroit educators learned they could strike, violate the law, and do it without their union leaders, a fact the leaders probably heard more clearly than the teachers. Irrelevance is a big fear of union bureaucrats.

Many forces collide in Detroit. The local Detroit ruling classes believe they are completely cornered. If the schools are constantly in crisis, no one is going to gentrify Detroit. So they must fight. The union leaders are trapped between a habit of selling out, concessions, and a rank and file that cannot take more sellouts. The judge is trapped by an electorate which might be sympathetic to the strike, and higher-ups who are certainly not. The Mayor and others argue the strike could demolish what is left of the city.

What settles this is connecting reason to power, the task of every educator every day. Power, for school workers, lies in the ability to build close ties with kids, parents, community people, on a rank and file basis, and to take independent direct action, as the AFL-CIO is going to fight against this strike just as it ruined the grocery strike, and the Detroit Newspaper strike, where union goons attacked rank and filers on picket lines, turning people in to the police, to protect social peace for the Clinton vote.

The DFT leadership did all it could to prevent another mass meeting of teachers, like the one ordered for Sunday. The DFT leadership changed the ratification process for contracts, so teachers would not have a chance to see each other in a mass meeting and vote thumbs up or down in a public vote, but that they would vote back in the schools, or by mail—probably meaning that they would return to work before a vote was finished.

Detroit teachers should tell the judge the same thing that John L. Lewis said about the Taft- Harley injunction that was handed to his coal miners’ union, “Let Taft mine it, and Hartley haul it.”

A court order cannot teach kids, nor even warehouse them. 9000 teachers are not going to be fired and jailed. Detroit is not Crestwood, where the Michigan Education Association betrayed a militant strike in a tiny district, all the teachers fired and permanently replaced. Detroit educators can defend this strike.

It would have been much easier to defend if the DFT had planned freedom schools for Detroit kids and parents during the strike, schools that taught outside the bounds of scripted curricula, and if the DFT had demanded an end to racist, high-stakes testing which is pivotal in the wreckage of schooling today.

But the DFT cannot do that since the DFT opposes free schooling and the examination of why things are as they are, because the DFT leadership is part of the problem, and, moreover, it was the DFT-AFT that initiated the high stakes tests along with the US Chambers of Commerce, and others. So, the ties in the community that could win this strike are not yet there, but it is not impossible for rank and filers to forge them.

Many possibilities exist. The strike could collapse under the injunction, and a real sellout come out later, but Rouge Forum members say that it may well not. A deal could be cut between this writing and the Sunday meeting, but if it is a concession contract, the educators will be in an uproar. It might be that the DFT leadership would look back to the corrupt legacy of Al Shanker and realize that they themselves could make careers of a judge’s jail sentence for continuing the strike, and in jail they could get some rest.

But the key to the strike is whether or not the rank and file teachers, perhaps walking door to door, can build solidarity with their communities.

In any case, Detroit and Oaxaca school workers have offered working people many invaluable lessons. Their courage and perseverance is to be applauded, right now. An injury to one really does just go before an injury to all. Tell the DPS bosses to give they will lose, that we will never forget.

Below is a letter drafted by teachers to parents in their school. The DFT has done, to my knowledge, little or nothing like it.

Why Are The Teachers Striking?
A Letter to Our Parents
Don’’t think for a moment that it doesn’’t hurt us when we see your children clean and pressed and ready for the first day of school, only to find none of us inside the school building. We want to be in our classrooms ready to begin the new year. But this year, we cannot. We want you to know this strike is about more than raises in teacher salaries and benefits (although that is part of it). It is about standing up for your children’’s rights to a free and appropriate education. It is about drawing a line in the sand and telling the district that we won’’t stand for substandard school conditions that don’’t afford our urban children the same opportunities as children who attend public school in other school districts.
We are standing behind this line because we believe in your children, and we are committed to providing a quality education with the tools they need to grow into successful adults. To do our jobs well, we need certain things that the district is not providing. The district is making poor choices about how to spend the $7,600 per child that the State gives each year. The district has been making poor choices for a long time, and that is why we are in the situation we are in The district should change the way they manage the money, rethink their spending priorities and not ask the teachers or students to make any more sacrifices to cover their negligent spending.
The teachers’’ issues are:
·               Money being spent on high-priced leased office buildings with high-priced, fancy furniture and computers for administrators.
·               Spending thousands per student on five standardized tests. If one could be eliminated, much money and time could be spent more wisely to help our neighborhood school have the basics.
·               A drinking fountain that works on each floor, repaired ceilings, clean and painted walls, lights that work in each classroom and hallways, clean bathrooms with doors, toilets and sinks working. Floors that are not buckled from water, a school library for the students and staff, classrooms wired for the internet, a computer that works in each classroom, a computer lab, a safe and clean playground, safe sidewalks with curbs- not cracks and holes, and adequate cleaning staff to meet the demands of the overcrowded classrooms.
·               Forty students in a classroom is unacceptable. Uncertified substitutes being placed in classrooms to fill teacher vacancies is inexcusable. Our classroom aides and noon hour aides are being cut. They are greatly needed to support the staff and students.
We are standing for your children and hope that you will stand with us too. Other cities are looking at how this will turn out, and we are standing for those children and those teachers, too. We think there is enough money to teach our children well, if it is spent wisely in the school and not in the administration building. When we say no contract; no work we are asking for conditions that are equitable for children and teachers alike. If you have ANY QUESTIONS, please don’’t hesitate to ask. We want you to understand the reasons we are standing outside the school, away from our classrooms because of the problems we are faced with and we hope you will stand with us for the children because NO CHILD SHOULD BE LEFT BEHIND.
Respectfully yours,
The teachers at Neinas Elementary School, September 5, 2006