Welcome To Detroit! A Guide to the City for Delegates to

The American Federation of Teachers Convention July 27th-30th, 2012

by Rich Gibson July 12, 2012

The AFT will convene in Cobo Hall, downtown Detroit, this year. It’s an odd place for the AFT tops to ply their hustle, claiming in a slogan even more vapid than the National Education Association’s recent “We Educate America!” AFT says, “We Make A Difference Every Day!”

Well, the Detroit Federation of Teachers surely made a difference. Their bosses organized the decay of what was once touted as the finest urban school system in the USA, with more than 300 thousand students, around 12 thousand teachers, in the early seventies--the bellwether local of the AFT, through a period of slow rot, and now, the near-complete collapse of the entire Detroit Public School system and the local union too.

Arne Duncan, education attack dog for the demagogue Obama, called Detroit, “the worst school system in the country.” It’s a tough competition for the bottom, especially in Michigan, what with Flint, Benton Harbor, and other cities destroyed much like Detroit, but smaller.

When a Michigan law banned dues check-off this year, the President of the DFT, Keith Johnson, complained in the union’s newspaper, the “Detroit Teacher,” that 86% of the teachers quit and wouldn’t re-sign.

Only a subsequent judge’s injunction now keeps the DFT financially afloat, a double-edged indicator–the courts want the union to exist since it has so helped heap concession on concession on the work force (10% pay cuts last year, gutted health benefits, etc., and this year, a contract imposed by an Emergency Financial Manager–EFM--even worse).

From another angle, school worker members gave themselves a raise, that is, raising a finger to a union that bought a multi-million dollar building, at inflated prices in a city where property values fully crashed, and in a period when the union, if that is the word, was losing thousands of members year by year when concessions, surprise, didn’t save jobs.

You should see DFT President Keith Johnson in the convention, unless AFT is so humiliated by the DFT that he gets hidden. Ask Keith some pointed questions, knowing the answers.

What is in the contract Johnson allowed the EFM to impose on his members? Other than the wage and benefit cuts (on top of last year’s 10 percent) the three-year contract says DPS will "make reasonable efforts" at organizing anew class sizes for students in K-12 when they surpass contractual limits.

In grades K-3, the maximum is 25. The new contract, effective July 1, a class would need to reach 41 students before DPS moves to reduce it. For grades four and five, where 30 is the top, it would take 46 kids to spark a response. In grades 6-12, where class sizes were increased to 35, leveling would start when a class reaches SIXTY ONE students. The contract eliminates sick pay cash-out upon retirement and does away with assault pay and cuts maternity leaves as well. Nice work, Keith, you imbecile.

How that has happened was covered in Substance News, years of reporting, going back even beyond the courageous 1999 “Detroit Teachers Wildcat Strike,” and another strike in 2006.

The DFT became, more than a decade ago, the only hope Detroit had. The school workers’ union was the only organized force in the city that had the interest, the skills, and the ability to reverse the destruction of the school system. Now even that hope is gone.

Joel Scott, a former 15 year Cass Tech (one of the two good high schools in the city), said, “Keith and AFT’s boss, Randi Weingarten, killed their own golden goose. What were they thinking? They must have known that even the last contract would kill the union, and now this one did. I think they must believe that the end is coming; they’ll grab whatever they can, keep deceiving people, and run away at the last moment.”

Scott went on, “The real tragedy is for the kids and the rank and file members. Detroit kids will get doubly mis-educated, learn again not to like to learn, and the members are going to lose homes, after all their sacrifices.”

Now in Detroit, Scott says, “It’s a vampire city. All the lights on Warren are off; pitch darkness. (Warren is a major street on the west side). Nobody is going to send their kids to a failed Detroit school. That will be the end of the system. It’s done.”

Schools, everyone from the Skillman Foundation to for-profit reporters to me, knew, are the key to the city’s survival. Detroit needed young people with kids, central to recreating the city’s tax system, filling the empty homes to overcome the scary crime rate and to make Detroit truly liveable, as it was, a delight, 40 years ago. Now, two-thirds of the buildings in Detroit, public and private, are vacant.

In the nineties, several literacy studies reported that nearly 50% of Detroiters are functionally illiterate. That is not my experience, not at that level, and having lived there half of my adult life, I say it’s a stretch, but I’ll agree the educational levels are more than troubling. In many cases, four generations of Detroiters never had a job. Unemployment among city youth is well over 50 percent.

Delegates arriving in Detroit might have some questions prepared for AFT President Randi Weingarten (think Smeagol, the reptilian creature in Lord of the Rings) and host, DFT President Johnson. Those delegates should arrive armed with some good answers as well.

I suspect the first question, though, will be: is it safe? In the convention area, yes, probably. In the rest of the city–it depends on where you are and if you do not know where you are going, find someone to take you. Don’t wander around in places you do not know. It’s a city.

Detroit’s crime rate is up again. Between January and April, 2012, 98 people were murdered–hardly Ciudad Juarez, but bad. Most of the murders are gun shootings, some by people and some by cops. All other crimes are up from last year, about 7%–rape, robbery, car-jackings, drugs–the usual.

The Detroit Police Department has been one of the most corrupt in the US going back 70 years. They grew worse as the city went to ruins. One former chief of police was tried and convicted after another police agency searched his home, poked a hole in his kitchen ceiling, a million bucks fell down, and the chief cried: “Where did that come from?”

Go to Greektown, not for the casino, which went bankrupt, but for the eats. Yum! Remember that it was in a Greektown café that was found the Little Black Book that, in the late fifties, listed the names of nearly every cop in the city–and how much he got from the mob payroll.

Detroiters know that if you report, “robber with a gun!” the cops won’t come.

So, Detroiters turn to solving their own problems, sometimes chasing down the people who loot their homes, shooting them in the back if necessary.

Then, there are the too many bodies of young women found burned inside abandoned cars on the east side. Or, the notorious Substance photo of the homeless man whose feet were found sticking out of the frozen water, his body beneath the ice, of a Detroit public building basement where some young men were enjoying a hockey game—and neither the police nor EMS came until a reporter wrote two articles, embarrassing the authorities only a tad.

In short: be careful but not paranoid. Most Detroiters are what the mid-west produces: honest, wanting to work a real job–nice and more than happy to help out a visitor.

Detroit, of course, is Motor City, not merely Murder City, even if Motown left in the early seventies. So did auto. Then, GM became Government Motors with Obama as the real president of the firm, part of the finalization of the corporate state, USA.

The AFT offers to take you on several tours. AFT, like the United Autoworkers, pays dues to the AFL-CIO. Hence, delegates to the AFT convention may have a double interest in the UAW.

Take the tour you are offered to the Rouge Plant, where I used to work. You will surely be told about the famous “Battle of the Overpass,” and the heroic days of the CIO’s battles to organize Fords (it is always “Fords”) until the day came that one of his under-bosses told Ford how dues check-off works.

You mean I’m going to be the union’s banker?” Great!

Maybe you can get to the Henry Ford Museum, not too far from the Rouge. Go inside, into the library area. Ask the docent, loudly, “Can we see the awards Henry Ford accepted from the Nazis? Can we see the fascist book, the “International Jew,” that Ford published by the millions and is still used by fascists everywhere?”

Now, Fords agrees to organize plants, and collect the check-off, on behalf of the United Auto Workers Union. The UAW promises, in a contract, labor peace in trade, and they keep that promise, with violence when necessary.

The Rouge Plant sits in Dearborn, created for his white workforce by Ford. Mayored for decades by the devout racist, Orville Hubbard who used his cops to drive black people out of housing and public parks, Dearborn didn’t notice all the people from the Middle East moving in. Now, it is perhaps the biggest concentration of Middle Easterners in the US. Great food!

Ask your tour guide how it was the UAW went from, once, recognizing that workers and employers have contradictory interests to today’s UAW boss, the former head of the powerful Rouge Local 600, promises that he is, “a partner in production,” with all the auto bosses–King rides around on their planes, in their limos.

Ask your guide how many auto-workers were UAW members before the union, adopting Bob King’s views, made concession upon concession, predicting concessions will save jobs. That would be around 1975, when the UAW had more than 1.4 million members. How many are members today? Hint–less than ½ million. Concessions don’t save jobs.

Ask the guide to take you by Solidarity House. It’s east on Jefferson from Cobo. See if the “Park your Foreign Car Across the Street,” sign is still up in the parking lot. Then ask why the UAW adopted that “Buy American” slogan, and hammered into their members’ heads, while GM, Ford, and Chrysler invested all over the world; outsourced jobs to Mexico first, then to China.

Ask the guide: “how come the largest local in the UAW is not the once muscular Rouge Local 600, but Local 6000, state of Michigan workers, led by the even-more-compliant-than-King collective of saps who, collaborating with UAW tops when the militant State Workers Organizing Committee, which led building seizure, walkouts, and more in developing the union, moved SWOCers aside, or bought them off, and created a mirror of the Rouge Local–steady retreats in wages, hours, working conditions, retirement, and more.

Ask how that “Buy American” bunkum led, thirty years ago now, to the murder of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese man, early 20's, about to be married. Chin, taken for Japanese, was beaten to death with baseball bats by two autoworkers on the main street of Detroit, in full view of many, many witnesses. Tried, nothing at all was done to those rabidly nationalist and racist automen, a verdict made possible by: “Buy American!” Here is a video about Mr Chin’s murder http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3A5Qd3GHVJ8

Ask the guide to explain to you how it is that the UAW, which once fought hard for seniority and a one-tier wage system, recently signed a contract paying new workers ½ what senior workers make, about $14 an hour. Wonder, how long is GM going to keep those costly older workers?

You might be able to get your guide to take you by the old Chrysler Mack Avenue remnants. In 1973, Mack workers seized the plant in response to egregious safety violations. People lost limbs there. The takeover was reminiscent of the founding of the UAW, the building seizures in the long battle known as the Great Flint Strike. This is a fine video describing the Flint victory


At Mack Avenue, though, things played out differently. UAW goons, staff, entered the plant armed with bats, iron pipes, nunchuks, and more, beat the striking workers, dragged them out, and turned them over to the police–honoring the Chrysler-UAW contract: labor peace for money.

Go by the Detroit News and Free Press buildings. In the mid-nineties, the UAW and Teamsters leadership joined together to violently attack picketing union members on strike against the for profit presses, and turn them, as well, over to the cops.

Indeed, for the UAW, it’s clear the only thing they are good at fighting are their own members.

Ask how that same vision created today’s DFT–vanished but for an injunction.

DFT, after all, followed the lines long established by your AFT, years ago, threatened only now by the Chicago delegation’s current reform efforts for democratic unionism and direct action.

DFT, for example, faced mild challenges about three years ago. Elected as a reform candidate, one DFT vice-president disagreed with the top leadership, in public. DFT “fired” an elected VP, ordered him out of his office, threatened him with the police, then tried to get DPS to refuse to re-employ him.

Later, a member of the By Any Means Necessary Coalition, Steve Conn, who had led the 1999 wildcat by upending leadership plans for no action at all by yelling, in Cobo arena (where you will be convening): “Everyone for a Strike, Walk Over Here!” –Conn was, I believe, actually elected president of the DFT last year. A dubious vote count cheated him out of the office.

Then, Conn was suspended from union membership for nearly touching an AFL-CIO official in a DFT meeting. Perhaps isolated by the suspension, Conn was not, initially, elected even as a delegate to the AFT convention this year–but count on seeing BAMN, and perhaps Conn as well. You can see how BAMN was received at the National Education Association’s convention this month in Substance, today.

I am not fond of BAMN. They know that. Only one Bamn member that I meet will speak to me, and that person wants to remain anon, even from BAMN. Still, I believe I have treated them fairly and when Conn won that election, Substance was one of the few places he got the credit.

Joel Scott, the Cass Tech teacher mentioned above, said, “They killed democracy in the union; used Conn as a warning to everyone. With democracy gone, the union couldn’t have a new, better, idea. People, and enter groups of people, gave up, discouraged, demoralized. Then they just flat out quit. Randi and Keith killed their own milk-cow.”

Visit, only a bit to the north of the convention Center, Wayne State University, once a top-tier, Carnegie One, institution, now rated by everyone at the bottom of the national university systems, fourth tier. Thank ex-WSU president Irvin Reed who went for the fast bucks, and ignored quality.

Just south of WSU, eat at the Traffic Jam and say “Hi,” to the parking lot security guard, Larry, who is far better educated and honest than most of the union leaders you are meeting.

Find a Detroiter and have them take you around what are now notorious: the ruins of Old Detroit. Here is a web site that may help http://www.detroityes.com/home.htm

Have your guide take you farther east on Jefferson, to, say, Hibbard, where both my Mom and I were born. Turn left on Hibbard, look back and see the RenCen (nobody I know calls it the GM Center even if Government Motors did buy it) to give you perspective, close to downtown, and Behold! Fields. Empty. A few derelict homes, one or two occupied. Walk around and kick up a pheasant.

Go still further east on Jefferson to lovely Belle Isle, turn right and cross the bridge. Before the decay set in, the island was more lovely. But that’s not how elites saw it. They had a plan for Belle Isle, and implemented it, in 1967. During the Detroit uprising, when troops were returned from Vietnam to fight citizens, Belle Isle was a prison camp, well prepared in advance.

Back to Jefferson. You may see some crack whores, kids, working the street, once a tree lined boulevard, but go east still, to Alter Road (sic). As you cross Alter, note you are about to enter one of the richest cities in the world, Grosse Point. Not long ago, black people needed passes, proof of a job as a menial, etc., to go across Alter. It’s the area where the term, “Driving while Black,” originated.

When at Cobo, you will be close to Old Mariners Church. That’s where the bells toll, mourning the dead, especially the losses on Lake Superior which, among others, became the grave of Jacques Costeau’s son, overconfident that a mere lake could not get him. Old Mariners, lovely inside, tolled the death of the men on the Edmund Fitzgerald. It also rang its bells for my great-great grandfathers, lost on the lakes.

Get yourself to the Art Institute, just north of Cobo. Hope that it, like the library, still has open hours, and see the Diego Rivera murals which citizens fought to keep, back in the day. Get someone to explain the meaning of each panel. The handouts don’t do the job. The Art Institute serves a good lunch, too. With the Historical Museum, across the street, you can see an intimation

of what once was prosperous Detroit.

Sure, if the Tigers are in town, go to the game. They are waiting til next year, again, and Comerica (sic) Park is a parody of a baseball venue, indeed, it is a circus, but the game was always superior to the people who owned it.

Don’t count on the People Mover. It doesn’t move people often and, poorly planned, it goes almost nowhere.

Eat in Mexican town, a little more than 2 miles from Cobo. Any cab will know, if you can find a cab. Or chow down in Corktown, once Irish, where magnificent Tiger Stadium saw the 1968 “Bless You Boys,” with Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich and Denny McClain, the thirty game winner gone bad but out of jail now, Stormin Norman Cash, Mickey Stanley, and the ever popular Willie Horton. You might see Willie. Beg an autograph!

Be certain to hit the Fisher Building, north of Cobo, in the New Center. It’s, in my eyes, the most beautiful building in Detroit, built by the same architect, Albert Kahn, whose genius made it possible for to build multi-story assembly lines–an idea he lifted from the early Detroit pharmaceutical industry.

Not too far from the Fisher Building–east to Poletown. That was a big neighborhood back in the day, until Mayor Coleman Young used police violence, including the near murder of a priest, to force Poletown residents out of their homes to build a tax sheltered Cadillac plant that never hired the number of jobs Young and GM insisted would arrive.

Skip the Detroit Zoo. It’s not in Detroit anyway, and they killed too many of their captive animals: budget cuts.

A trip to Canada, Windsor, is not what it once was. Bring a passport. Once a sleepy town where people dodging subpoenas for job actions could take refuge and look back on Detroit from a lovely park, Windsor went for casinos and, to me, became a neon whorehouse. There is great Indian food there, though.

Two-thirds or three quarters of the people who once lived in Detroit have left. Mayor Dave Bing (yes, basketball, a millionaire suburbanite who moved back into the city, maybe on a dare), thinks he can force people living in many of Detroit’s nearly unpopulated areas to move to specific concentrated areas. How? Easy. Deny services like lights, fire coverage, etc., to the outliers. And bulldoze tens of thousands of homes, a Sisyphusian project that has bedeviled Detroit mayors for thirty years.

Problem: Detroiters don’t have money, nor jobs, and the homes they have paid for are almost worthless (you can get a nice home for less than ten grand). When they move, where to go? Those nice new condos in the concentrated areas (does this remind anyone of Vietnam’s strategic hamlets) are going to be costly. So, then what? Bing’s dream is going to bounce off the backboard, just like every other well laid plan in Detroit for decades, as racism and capital had an orgie that looted whatever was of value in the city; then left.

For example, the Detroit school system has been taken over, again and again, by the State of Michigan, the most recent iteration being the Emergency Financial Manager who is splitting what remains of the school system into a parallel of the Good-bank, Bad-bank, bailout schemes Bush II and Obama cooked up with the nation’s financiers.

One set of Michigan schools gets tossed into the Good School system and the other the Bad.

In Detroit, the EFM fired all the teachers and is forcing them to reapply for their jobs. What did the DFT do? DFT wrote a nasty note on its web site, filed suit, and shut up–this the union that led what was the most powerful school worker resistance in the nineties. What happened? We shall get to that, but only in short form.

Take a moment to study what the many Takeover School Boards, typically staffed by suburbanites (one white woman on the Board was so afraid to cross 8 Mile Road, into Detroit, that she was allowed to attend Board meetings via cellphone–she could be heard ordering her maid, Conchita, around over the open mikes) and corporate bosses of failed auto companies, did in looting the DPS budget. The irony of a honcho from one of the bankrupt car businesses taking over what they said was a failed education system never struck anyone–but Substance.

In a city losing about 10,000 students a year (DPS, like all Detroit officialdom, lies about all its figures, everything, but especially about attendance), the Takeover Boards built more than a dozen new schools and refurbished many others–developers often submitting completely fallacious bills for finished work.

Now, at least ten of the new building sit empty and looted by desperate men who strip them, and other buildings, of everything of value. DPS paid a million dollars a year to fence those empty buildings, until the scrappers came and took the fences.

Beautifully refurbished Mackenzie High was torn down this year, to be replaced by a new building, designed to overcome, not poverty, but shortages in developers’ coffers.

Ask for a ride to the DPS surveillance center on the east side, near 8 mile. There, the DPS cops claim they can watch each school on video–much better than being there, safer–at a cost of about 28 million dollars.

Check out Highland Park, a city within the city of Detroit. HP’s ACLU just sued the city schools because HP kids can’t read, but the lawsuit won’t end the sheer grievous poverty you will see. It’s where my grandparents once lived, off Second Ave–then a lovely house.

Be sure to check out “The Fist.” It will be close to you, at Cobo, and every Detroiter knows where and what it is–a wonderful representation of us–Detroit. Go look.

You might be able to get a ride about 18 miles due north, to the Cranbrook Schools complex. That’s where Mitt Romney went to school, as did I, on a scholarship. Walk the beautiful rolling grounds. See the art colony, the science institute, the five Jonah pools that look like lakes, each spilling into the next through a system of lovely waterfalls. See the Cranbrook dining hall, two stories, magnificent glassworks, and the classrooms, room for, maybe, 20. See the hockey rink, the football fields where the Lions once practiced, the soccer fields, the carefully kept landscapes, the Booth Homes and the Greek Theater. See how the ruling class learns to rule. Cranbrook, I promise, is worth the effort.

You will invariably see Hart Plaza, by Cobo, and the idiot Dodge Fountain, a squirting doughnut that works, once in awhile. Mabel Dodge was a drunken nutcase. Hence: the doughnut–her nickle. Her art.

Detroit was run by Democrats since 1966 and black politicians (and Irvin Reed of WSU) since the early 1970s. Keep that in mind when your are told that the “only alternative” is, not to resist, and especially build a national base of support for the Chicago Teachers’ strike, but to vote for the demagogue, Obama. Detroit is, in the absence of mass class conscious resistance, the future of the USA.

You’re west of Macomb County, once mostly white and working class. It’s the area where the term “Reagan Democrat,” originated as Ron the Con used racism to convince white workers that black people, especially welfare mothers were their main problem–not exploitation. It took awhile for that vision to spread across Michigan, the state whose slogan is, “If You Seek a Wonderful Peninsula, Look Around You.” Michigan stayed Democratic, largely run by the UAW’s political action wing, until fairly recently when Republicans, moving in from the west with big bucks originating in Grand Rapids, took over. Hence, the end of dues check off–“Partners in Production,” to “So Long Partner!”

Today, as you see Detroit, think, “If You Seek The Result of Barbarous Racism and the System of Capital–Here it Is!” It’s the future, unless.....

In the mid-seventies, a nice young woman, Emily Gail, opened a card story in Detroit. She won a lot of press with her slogan, “Say Nice Things About Detroit!” She left town.

I will say this: have fun and get ready for the Chicago strike. Nothing will be more important this year, surely not the election where you will choose, if you vote, one of two Siamese twins.

The Rouge Forum, in conference in Ohio in June, proposed that every school worker in the US should “adopt a Chicago education family,” in the case of a strike. Employers’ great weapon is economic fear, at base hunger. We can take that away. There are more than 4 million school workers in the US. If even 1/10 of them of them promised to donate say 10 dollars a week to a striker, the economic weapon vanishes. It should be hard to set up such a web site.

The best way to avoid the necessity of a strike is terrific preparation, forcing the employer-opposition to back off. Break Rahm’s will. Get ready! The best strike is no strike and “We Won!” Prepare.

Rich Gibson rgibson@pipeline.com, lived near the bridge, then at Seven Mile and the Lodge, on Ardmore, most of his adult life. He remembers Vernors, fondly, and managed to get it sold in California to meet his, very Detroit, needs. As he writes, wondering “why are things as they are?” San Diego TV Ten announces, “thousands of people dressed as zombies are marching through the Gaslamp, a la ‘The Walking Dead,’ while tens of thousands, many dressed as Super-heroes, visit ComicCon.” Blocks to the north, thousands of America’s war vets, now homeless, pour into the fields of the Veterans Building, by Balboa Park, where they will get haircuts, drug counseling, massages, and more, a week long event wrapped up by a march of staggering, somewhat bewildered, but dead-serious vets in formation, behind a huge American Flag. Reality, per Thoreau, is fabulous. Three California cities went bankrupt this week, abolishing their employees health benefits and pensions, while Scranton, PA, cut all its city worker pay to the minimum wage. Fabulous. Then there is Detroit. An injury to one goes before an injury to all. Go CTU!