The Sky is Falling and the People May Be Rising in Michigan

Or Not

by Rich Gibson



Substance readers may fondly remember Henny-Penny, the chicken who, when struck on the head by a falling “something,” set out to tell the King that the sky was falling. It’s a child’s classic, told in several different ways.


The story I remember has Henny-Penny gathering up her many farmyard pals on her journey to the Royals. But she was  tricked by Foxy-woxy who managed to lure her and her friends into his hole. He ate up all of her companions before Henny-Penny made her escape. She never made it to the King. We aren’t told if the sky fell or not.


Michigan’s tale has a few different, important, twists.


The sky in Michigan is indeed falling. Henny-Penny has been running around announcing it for 16 years. The foxes, union leaders, Democrats, and others, have been feasting on her pals for that period and longer.


There is indeed a big hole–a massive budget deficit in Michigan and Detroit.


Sooth-sayers may foresee when the final cloud hits the ground and the world ends, but I cannot.


Here, however, is evidence of the falling sky. On March 30, Bob Bobb, a Broad Foundation appointee now essentially the Czar of Everything in Detroit Public Schools, made so by the passage of a law that upends any form of local control, announced that he would either turn 45 schools to charters in the fall, or reconstitute them if no charter operators come forward. That’s about one-quarter of the schools in the city. The move would impact a little less than half of the children in the city and nearly one-half of the school work force.


What did the Detroit Federation of Teachers say? There’s not a hint of official resistance. This is from the DFT web site on March 31, 2011:


“Whether or not there will be room in the new, smaller DFT for all teachers who want to stay will depend on the number of teachers who retire and the number of students who remain in DPS-run schools. This will be affected by the number of schools that convert to charters. If any members are not part of DPS next fall, they will not automatically have positions with the charter schools. We expect charter operators to select their own staff. They may or may not choose to hire former DFT members. 


Current DPS Board President Anthony Adams, long a critic of Bobb’s to the extent that he and the board sued Bobb to halt his “tyranny,” said he supports Bobb’s plan on the grounds that the district could vanish.


This, then, is a tale of the sky coming down, as it is, and not a prediction of whether or not Henny-Penny will be heard by either Royals or commoners, nor what the end of the world as we know it will look like.


What is on the land in Michigan, “Winter-Water-Wonderland”?


We could witness the end of the Detroit Public schools and a near-eradication of the once-proud Detroit Federation of Teaches (DFT)–quickly followed by an assault on the suburban Michigan Education Association (MEA) , part of the National Education Association which has, for 25 years, let black Detroit swing in the wind.


MEA has yet to learn that an injury to one truly does go before an injury to all. MEA, which could have not only swallowed up the DFT but also the state employee work force (now the largest local in the United Auto Workers) rejected those possibilities in the mid-eighties: elitism and racism, a long story for another day.


The end of the DFT and the follow-up punch at MEA is a worst-case scenario that would mean a fallen sky. It is unlikely, but the fact that it’s conceivable should be an indicator of incoming thick clouds.


Iris Salters, president of the MEA, has authorized a “job action” (the MEA’s usual euphemism to make an illegal strike, legal) vote among MEA members. District meetings will discuss that, person-to-person, in the coming week, the end of March.


MEA likes a 2/3rds “Yes,” vote on these matters, for good reason.


Substance readers are among those who would know that MEA tops don’t want to do this. Like the signs rank and file teacher-strikers hold all the time, they “Don’t Want to Strike, But I Will!”


It is fairly easy to manufacture a “Yes!” vote as members are told they don’t have to do it, just say it, and a “No” vote strips MEA of all its bargaining power from the outset.


MEA leaders actually hope to corral member resistance, to create an appearance of a fight-back, and steer things back into the safety of voting booths. Even so, things could get out of hand. Members may rise and hold up that sky. Mass strike vote meetings can go in interesting directions.


Detroit’s Federation of Teachers is in much worse shape. Behind president Keith Johnson, the DFT negotiated what I believe is the worst teacher contract in bargaining history. He then joined American Federation of Teachers president, and the Detroit “Emergency Financial Manager,” (EFM) a Broad Foundation appointee, Bob Bobb, in selling that contract to the members, who, believing the Fox, ratified it.


Johnson then “won” a dubious election victory over his chief opponent and nemesis, long-time Detroit teacher-radical Steve Conn, a leader in the By Any Means Necessary Coalition. With the rigged election approved by an equally rigged elections committee, Johnson suspended Conn from membership until November of this year–effectively banning Conn’s voice through what could be a hot summer, while Johnson continued to attack Conn on the DFT web site.


Now, Johnson demurs from any mention of opposition. Like Bobb and Weingarten, he organizes decay, soothes the members with notes about how few layoffs happened in the past, how Conn overblows his warnings about a crisis. He does, however, warn that “thousands” of layoff notices might go out.


Conn now holds regular meetings outside the union office but, since a remarkably high turnout for his presidential candidacy, he only gathers 25 people, half of them teachers. Conn had to cancel a sick-out he had called for April 4th, for lack of support.


Even so, resistance grows, but too many have already been picked off by the fox, and it’s likely there will be more to come before a real fight-back, rather than a flight from reality, is made.


160 Michigan school districts are near bankruptcy. If the Governor’s budget passes unchanged, some superintendents in those districts, like once-lovely Garden City, say they will close their doors.


The state faces a  $1.58 Billion budget deficit. Official unemployment in the state in late 2010 was near 15%. The Governor plans to cut unemployment benefits from 26 to 20 weeks.

The Detroit Public School system (DPS) has a shortfall of about $350 million–probably much more. The district erased and re-wrote a critical and correct Wikipedia entry and now claims 84,000 students, down from a peak of  of 299,962 in 1966. On average, the district officially lost about 13,000 students a year for the last six years.


Are the state and city budget shortfalls real? Yes, if we accept that money spent on imperialist wars ($1 trillion a year) and bank bailouts ($12.9 trillion) cannot be matched by money spent on education. That would be an indicator of the current balance of power versus the people.


A dramatic population drop from 2000 to 2010, nearly 240,000 people to a total of  713, 777 explains part of the DPS collapse, but not all of it. Nobody can trust figures that come out of any sector of Detroit’s public bodies, riddled with incompetence and corruption.


How corrupt and incompetent? The former Mayor is in jail. His top aide is in jail. City council-woman Monica Conyers (yes, wife of John) is in jail. More of his cronies are headed to trial. The former chief of police was jailed for embezzlement (he cried, “where did that come from?” when a million dollars in cash fell out of his kitchen ceiling during an FBI raid).


The Detroit Police Departments notoriety for corruption goes back well before the “Little Black Book,” scandal when a thorough list of the cops on the Mob’s payroll was found in a Greektown restaurant in the fifties. It tracks back before their ties to the depression era Purple Gang, through the cops’ racist involvement in starting the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 detailed by a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders which declared that police prejudice and poverty caused the uprising. Their brutal incompetence came to fruition again when, in May 2010, they shot and killed seven year old Aiyanna Stanley Jones in her sleep in front of her family; raiding the wrong home.


When the Detroit police department became darker, many people felt problems might be solved, as with the election of black Coleman Young and, today, Obama. Detroiters are beginning to understand that history shows there were black plantation owners and slave drivers hundreds of years ago, that class can mix with race and only slightly transform domination.


Detroit official incompetence is sometimes beyond weirdness. The former head of the school board, an illiterate, was dismissed for masturbating in front of the female superintendent who put up with that behavior several times before complaining. His chief defender was a current member of the school board who dismissed the repeated fondling as, “young men do have these urges.” The school board boss is in his mid-fifties. The defender has had his children removed from his care by Child Protective Services. A predecessor superintendent, hired out of a tiny Georgia district, is suing the board for improperly dismissing her.  The current school board head has been accused, by his wife, of not living in the city (a common move, but illegal). Who ran for the board seat vacated by the fondler? Nobody.


Detroit school corruption goes well back to the days of Mayor Hazen Pingree who served from 1889 to 1896. Pingree once had the entire school board arrested when he discovered they were about to double cross him. He charged them with “not staying bribed.”


Official criminality changed in Detroit, as the city changed. Racism and capitalism mixed cruelly, the city became a segregated ghetto bordered by, for example, Alter (sic) Road on the east, Telegraph on the west, and infamous 8 Mile Road on the north; the latter nearly as powerful a wall as the border at Mexico.


Once upon a time, Detroit was almost fairy tale rich. The powerful auto industry and the industrial working class, joined together as “Partners in Production,” in the expanding empire by the United Auto Workers’ Union leadership, meant good schools, beautiful museums, a top-rated university, one of the finest school systems in the western world, tree-lined streets, street cars going everywhere at low cost, an award winning train station, people could swim in the Detroit River, elegant homes stood imperiously for the rich and Detroit had more single family, working class, homes than any city in the USA.


A little theft did not hurt a churning engine of capitalism like that. In broke Detroit today, stealing hurts.


When DPS purchased the top five floors of the beautiful Fisher building in the center of the city, the school executives paid $24.1 million for their new digs, more than the owner paid a year earlier for the entire building, a painful example to kids and parents who pay attention.


Things indeed changed. From a population of almost 2 million, the real population is probably 600,000, maybe less. Going back to the days of Coleman Young, Mayor from 1973 to 1994, residents were told to inflate reports to the census.


The UAW lost 1.2 million members as the auto bosses said, “So long, partner,” and invested overseas while convincing the UAW’s tops, Quislings to a person, to shout, “Buy American!”

The UAW big-wigs, in turn, sold the members on the farcical idea that concessions would save jobs. On March 29, UAW leaders announced they are ready for yet another round of concessions.


About two-thirds of the buildings in the city are vacant. Children walk to school passing by the ruins of burned out hulks of homes where, in winter, the homeless set floors afire to stay warm. The real unemployment rate in Detroit is about 50%. Four generations of people in the city have never had a regular, steady, job.


Now incompetence and corruption cause severe anguish.


Wayne State University, where I was once proud to be a professor, witnessed its rankings drop from a first rated regional institution, to fourth-rate.


Top officials in the Skillman Foundation realized in the early nineties that Detroit’s sole hope was to revive the school system, bring young families into the city. Joined by city elites, Skillman leaders and others maneuvered, time and again, to bring reform–without reforming the key social relation that set the organized decay of what was once the 4th largest city in America to the wreck that it is now: poverty set harshly in place by the falling empire, collapsed auto, and race hatred.


In the nineties, the elected Detroit School Board was abolished, replaced by an appointed Takeover Board made up of suburbanites and heads of (failing) auto companies. During that period, what George Washington Plunkett called “honest graft,” took hold. The Takeover Board doled out nearly $300 million in contracts to build new schools and refurbish others, this in a district losing tens of thousand of students every five years.


Now, at least 12 of those new schools sit vacant and stripped by Detroit’s entrepreneurial “scrappers,” who take everything of value. DPS pays a million dollars a year to “guard” those buildings–too late. 


Over the first decade of this century, the sky continued to fall onto Detroit and its schools. Independent researchers cited by the Detroit News say three-quarters of the children who enter DPS in the ninth grade, never finish. Detroit has the lowest scores on standardized exams, in every area, of any city in the country. Obama’s “Education Czar,” Arne Duncan, singled out Detroit as a “failed” system and urged Mayor (basketball suburbanite) Bing to take the schools over. Bing declined. DPS closed 130 schools in the last six years.


Obama’s “stimulus” package to the schools, nothing compared to the $12.9 Trillion handed over to the “too big to fail” banks nor the $1 Trillion-a-year-plus endless wars, propped up Detroit in the past school year. Now it’s gone and the Fox is at the door.


Well, the Fox and the Cops. Bobb managed to find $5.6 million to build a 21,000 square foot police center, where, he claims, surveillance cameras will allow the Detroit cops to watch the halls of Detroit schools, making them safer–but no less poor and not putting a single new book in school buildings.


EFM Bobb was recently given extraordinary powers by the Michigan legislature as noted above. He can, if he proves a financial emergency (which exists in Detroit and those 160 other Michigan cities) effectively abolish the DFT contract, kill check off, suspend legal requirements for collective bargaining, after May 15 (a sixty day “study period”).


Bobb stated, in early March, that his best-case is to turn 40 to 50 “low performing” schools into charters. How that will save significant money, as charters are publicly funded, is unclear–unless the move is matched by a full-on assault on wages—in a district where school workers already conceded about $500 per paycheck as well as deep cuts in health and pension benefits.


It is equally unclear about how many people will return their kids to a district in such turmoil, or whether a correct audit will be done–a review that could reveal a much greater financial hole. Corruption and incompetence led many Detroiters to support Bobb, to the degree of taxing themselves for another bond measure. Bobb, however, is scheduled to leave DPS in mid-summer, leaving even charter operators wondering who and what is next.


Detroit’s black middle class, and now even Detroit’s poor, have been leaving the city, or shipping their children to nearby schools across the borders. As poverty shifts, suburban (MEA) districts fail. Once known as the best suburban district in the USA, Oak Park (about a mile north of 8 Mile) schools routinely fail in Annual Yearly Progress reports, are “reconstituted,” principals and school workers tossed from building to building, and inequality deepens under the AYP banner of “reform through science.”


Then, white suburban parents whose homes are often underwater, who cannot move, shift their kids to even further outlying systems. The poverty chase is on, roiling people and knowledge as barbarism settles on the land–another thick cloud.


The Detroit Federation of Teachers mis-leadership may be too important to local and national elites to allow it to fail, like a mini-version of a big bank. After all, it was once one of the most militant, and largest, AFT locals in the country.


AFT president Randi Weingarten has a big stake in keeping this local alive. Elites, like New York Mayor Bloomberg and Obama have a big investment in keeping her in place as she dutifully troops around the US shilling for concessions, the regimentation of curricula, high-stakes exams, and Obama’s endless wars. Knocking over the DFT, completely, would be a terrible blow to her, Keith Johnson, and Bob Bobb as well.


Bobb must be aware that his project in Detroit, as a Fox, is to construct false, not real, hope. In the absence of hope, especially in schools, rebellions happen: France, 1968. 


Can Steve Conn or new leaders rising from the Detroit schools, or parents, or kids, make sense of this and construct real hope? We shall see. A violent rebellion in Detroit could be a horrific thing, put down with severity that is hard to imagine–acceptable because of racism, but an example to all.


Resistance, we know, does not have to be violent, can be tactical, and reasonable.


Might MEA leaders have the good sense to reach across 8 Mile, recognizing the vital necessity of demolishing the divisions between workers before those divisions are used to demolish them? Might it take the form of a mass march, say, down Woodward and up Woodward, meeting at the once lovely Fairgrounds, declaring Solidarity Forever?


Peering into the thick clouds, absent my crystal ball, I can only guess that the real troika of Weingarten, Bobb, and Keith Johnson will find some face-saving way to retain, at bottom, DFT’s check-off, while they persevere, hoping the members won’t realize they’re being lured into the Fox’s den, eaten a few at a time.


MEA tops will manage to hold some form of spectacle without forging the kind of class consciousness that would say, “All Out on the Day After Mayday, Monday, May 2!" (proving that the only illegal strike is one that fails) and, “No Schools Will Open in the Fall if One Cut is Made to Anyone!” 


Will it be another trip to the voting booth when, for example, Democrats ruled Detroit for the last 40 years? Or, when Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama just tripled down on wars?


Still, someday, quantity will turn into quality. The Detroit death by a thousand cuts will become the final cut–unless the potential of a mass, class conscious, active movement is realized.


Add it up:

            *An all-out assault on the last people in the US who have predictable wages and benefits: school workers, and a war on reason in classrooms (big tests, regimented curricula)

            *Government at the local, state, and national levels that resembles an executive committee and armed weapon of the rich (financial bailouts, endless war), the stick replaces the carrot,

            *Science so distorted it produces and excuses more, not less, real structural racism,

            *Calls for national unity emanate from elites and union bosses together in support of worker sacrifice and perpetual war,          

            *A fully militarized society (half the budget is a war budget) and rising militarism in schools, colleges, and universities,

            *The incarceration of 2.3 million mostly black and brown poor people and the continued battering of undocumented workers as “Convict,” and “Illegal,” become respectable replacements for “Nword.”

            *Elimination of Civil Liberties with the Patriot Act and, now, the continued suspension of the Miranda verdict,

            *Formal segregation (like Detroit) with school segregation as severe as in 1954,

            *Rising forms of mysticism, killing off whatever there was of Enlightenment thinking by evangelicals and others, in the military and out–organized irrationalism.


What would I call that if I thought the sky had already fallen, if Henny-Penny was right and actually made it to the King, but too late?


I would call that, at the least, class war and empire’s war, preparing for more, and at the most, I would call that National Socialism: fascism.


But, truly, the call is yours. Who are you, in relation to others, and what will you do, once you have figured out why things are as they are?


Rich Gibson ( is a co-founder of the Rouge Forum. Their conference is on May 20-22 this year, in Chicagoland, at Lewis University. Keynoters include Substance co-editor George Schmidt, Peter McLaren, and Dennis Carlson. Come help us determine why things are as they are, and what to do!. Send a proposal for your own session:


March 27, 2011