The Detroit Teachers’ Strike

— Carmen Regalado & Ron Lare

LAST AUGUST 27, the 9,500-member Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT), including 6000 teachers for over 100,000 students, voted overwhelmingly to strike. On September 13, union members narrowly voted to return to work. By October 6, they voted up the new contract, 5,401–1,714.

The Board of Education’s extreme demands for wage cuts were beaten back, but after a highly active strike that defied intimidation and a back-to-work court injunction, many teacher activists felt that their dramatic strike had been settled for too little.

As one teacher picket sign put it, “We asked for nothing, but it was too much.” While the school board had promised to make up concessions from previous negotiations, instead it demanded a 5.5% pay cut for teachers, plus a two-year freeze on step increases. Without the cuts, board officials warned the district would go bankrupt and face another state takeover, as occurred from 1999 to 2004.

The teachers demanded a 5% raise. In the end, the settlement gives no raise in the first year, with 1% and 2.5% raises in the second and third years. There are, however, 5% worth of “non-wage based” economic concessions the first year. While previously low-seniority teachers paid 10% of health care costs, now everyone will.

DFT Executive Board member Keith Johnson said the contract will save the schools from “financial disaster.” But one older teacher told us, “My problem is the 10% health care concession, and the impact of three years of cuts on social security at retirement.”

Teachers also gave back five of their contractual 15 sick days — to be paid back to them upon retirement! Elementary teachers gave up a preparation period. The contract does not make up previous freezes on “step increases.” At this rate — as at the UAW’s Big Three automakers — low-seniority workers won’t ever reach what higher seniority workers make.

Contract gains included District liability coverage for teachers in case of lawsuits, 60 days notice for layoffs, and bonuses for new math, special education and science teachers.

Bargaining never got to shop-floor issues like ... the shop floor. A high school chemistry teacher’s leaflet said his school removed lab floor tiles to get at asbestos, then waxed the bare concrete without replacing the tiles. At one school, teachers and custodial staff stayed out for several additional days in an impromptu wildcat, stating that stagnant standing water was in the basement.

In late September (after the strike had ended but before ratification), when one DFT representative and teacher addressed a parent-teacher meeting including her school principal, she didn’t reassure parents or ask teachers to vote for the contract. Instead she said that administrators “don’t care anything about us” and that bargaining had never gotten to the demands put forward in the union’s letter Why are the Teachers Striking? A Letter to our Parents.

That letter, which effectively reached out for community support, had cited poor financial priorities and said the Detroit schools “lacked basics like:”

The Battle for Community Support

Parents supported such union arguments, even while School Board officials said the District would collapse and 25,000 additional students would leave Detroit public schools if the teachers remained out. In fact, while Detroit school enrollment has declined by an average of 8000 students in each of the past seven years, enrollment following the strike didn’t show any change in this rate of attrition. (Only a tiny fraction of the annual decline consists of Detroit students absorbed by schools in neighboring districts — the greatest number being 266 in 2006.)

A local NBC affiliate said that 72% of Detroiters had “a lot of sympathy” for strikers. Most parents know that their most powerful allies are the teachers, even if the union needs pressure from the community to prioritize class size as much as wages. On Detroit news radio a parent asked others to bring children to picket, and John Riehl, president of Detroit’s largest AFSCME local, called on all Detroiters to picket.

Latino teacher and community involvement was important. At the August 27 strike meeting, some signs read “Sin contrato, no trabajo.” Teachers at primarily Latino schools in southwest Detroit, such as Earhart and Western, were among the best organized, holding meetings in the community’s Clark Park, planning daily by internet and often achieving 100% picket attendance.

An independent teachers’ Latino community leaflet in Spanish explained to parents what the teachers are up against; one parent translated a union leaflet. The union itself could have done more to unite with the Latino community. As a veteran African-American Detroit activist observed, the DFT should reach out to all popular sectors of Detroit year-round, not just at contract time.

Striking teachers marched at the front of the Labor Day parade. Afterward the newsletter Labor Notes held a forum that was addressed by a teacher as well as participants in other strikes.

Pickets, Rallies, Courtrooms

The strike began a week before school was to open, but picket lines were suspended for five non-work days as public focus shifted to courtroom arguments. Teacher strikes are illegal in Michigan, and the school board hoped for an injunction to crush it.

When the district attempted to reopen school, it claimed 8% crossing the picket lines. But a daily union strike newsletter, Union Hot Line, replied that scabbing was “less than 1%.” (Deferring to a gag order, the newsletter didn’t discuss contract demands apart from “no pay cut.”)

The attempt to open schools fell flat. There were scattered incidents. At King High, a driver for Sysco refused to cross, as did an applicant for a French teaching job at another school. Newspapers reported a teacher hit by a would-be scab’s car.

On Friday, September 8, thousands of teachers and supporters picketed near negotiations in Detroit’s largest strike event since the 1995-97 newspaper strike. At the end of that day, Wayne County Circuit Judge Susan Borman ordered strikers back to work the following Monday — although evidently knowing they wouldn’t obey.

DFT president Janna Garrison had already said, “Just because it’s the law doesn’t make it right. You don’t let your children down.” Detroit teachers had defied a judge’s order in 1992, and back in 1973 when a 43-day DFT strike coincided with a strike at Chrysler.

On Sunday, a mass membership meeting was held in Cobo Hall for the ostensible purpose of reading and considering the injunction. The meeting, as one teacher reported, “dissolved after two minutes” with strike chants and cheers — a militant scene to be sure, but a missed opportunity to make plans.

With teachers remaining out in defiance, negotiations resumed with the city mayor and state governor taking a more active role. The school board dumped its 5.5% pay cut demand and a proposed contract emerged a few days later. Activists fear, however, that mid-contract concessions will continue as in the past, as last time when the district used teachers’ “emergency” pay concessions to give raises to principals.

In effect, teachers struck partly to tell the district, over their leaders’ heads: “The more you take between contracts, the more we’ll strike you at expiration.”

Union Opposition and Community Control

Some dissidents questioned the return-to-work vote taken at a September 13 membership meeting, where union officers looked at who stood up but didn’t count them.

Independent activist leaflets appeared at some schools; one Vote No leaflet said:

“People get what they pay for, but DPS [Detroit Public Schools] doesn’t want to pay for the best. Before many people left DPS, DPS turned its back on children, parents, teachers.”

Teachers need a union — and in our view, an opposition — that is broad, unites with community organizations and is most prominently led by people of color. The union’s struggles need to be seen in a community-based context: In particular, the 2006 strike divided the forces that fought the 1999–2004 state takeover, uniting the most progressive components of that long struggle with some new allies.

Some brief background: In 1999, the teachers’ union as well as city government went along with the Michigan then-Republican governor’s takeover of Detroit schools, overriding the elected school board. In 2004, Detroit voters through a ballot referendum. reestablished an elected school board.

In 2005, the issue became entangled in a bitter mayoral election. Incumbent Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was actually defeated in the 2004 referendum (he had his own plan to prevent a fully elected school board), portrayed his challenger Freman Hendrix as a tool of rich white suburbs. In a last-minute TV attack ad, Kilpatrick’s campaign aired dramatic footage to remind voters that Hendrix, while deputy mayor in the preceding city administration and while chairing a meeting of the state-appointed takeover school board, had ordered police to throw community protesters, including a woman senior citizen, out of the hall.

That ad, by most accounts, overnight turned the election in Kilpatrick’s favor. In short, the issue of community control — however it may be distorted by demagogy and political opportunism — remains a race and class issue in Detroit. It is also the reality that 60% of the teachers live outside the district (this includes many Black DFT members, of course), and that the proportion of white teachers is vastly greater than the tiny proportion of white students.

Back in 1999, militant teachers forced their leadership to strike, partly to protest the state takeover. In 2006, some had illusions that an elected school board would sympathize with teachers — but instead, Board president Jimmy Womack called for a “revolution” to bring the DFT “in line” with union concessions elsewhere.

Some community forces also said the teachers’ strike weakened Detroit public education in the face of alternative schools and risked a new state takeover. Reverend Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP chapter (the nation’s largest), had warned against a strike. For a few days, negotiations were moved to Anthony’s church and Detroit pastors were invited to mediate.

DFT President Garrison, who is African-American, and the membership defended the strike as Black and white teachers united — united against bureaucratic corruption and corporate greed, and for the 84% Black student population. One African-American school board member, Marie Thornton, defended the strike, defying board president Womack. Thornton perceived an anti-labor, anti-community collaboration between those reactionary forces that had brought about the 1999 state takeover and their former opponents now entrenched in the new school board. The board majority retaliated by suspending Thornton.

Control of the school board entails control over lucrative contracts (supplies, construction, etc.). As Maureen Taylor, a longtime community and welfare rights activist in Detroit put it, Marie Thornton acted like a watchdog “standing by the back door watching the money.” While not pro-union, the major Black weekly The Michigan Chronicle (www.michchronicle com) charges school I.T. contract corruption by school superintendent William Coleman.

In the wake of the strike the DFT petitioned to recall Board president Womack, following a similar initiative by left Black Nationalist and working-class community-control forces. The DFT leadership may have petitioned partly to give angry teachers an alternative to voting down the contract.

Still, such efforts could foreshadow a new Black-led labor and community alliance of union, water affordability and other forces — many grouped around the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the radical Michigan Citizen newspaper, city council candidates like Maureen Taylor and a sympathetic school board minority.

[Update: In the subsequent DFT election, President Garrison was unseated by union Vice President Virginia Cantrell — ed.]

Pain, But Power Too

Unlike the newspaper strike, this teachers’ strike was not smashed. Nor did it end in the kind of victory that the teachers’ militancy and determination made possible. In sum, the strike’s end rescued the school board from its blunders. Corporate America fears racial unity in action, and can’t replace teachers en masse in a major school district (they have done so in smaller ones).

Mass firings would fail or kill off the Detroit school system. Even while undermining public schools, most capitalists understand they still need them to educate workers if only for low-wage jobs.

This strike had the leverage to win more than it did. At the same time, we must note the absence of the kind of mass labor picketing that marked the newspaper strike at its height. There are various reasons for this, of course, including another long decade of UAW retreat, a slow response from labor to a mainly people-of-color union and student population, and the toll taken by assaults on labor and social services generally.

Corporations and major political parties undermine the very notion of public schools; media and politicians promote charter schools; some public schools, as if they were HMOs, even compete for students across district lines. Yet Detroit teachers, consciously or not, joined the fight against the international neoliberal offensive.

Professors struck at nearby Eastern Michigan University. The day Detroit teachers voted to return, 60% of Trenton, Michigan teachers called in sick. On an entirely different scale, striking teachers led a takeover of the city of Oaxaca, Mexico and a popular struggle against the Oaxaca state government that continues in the face of murderous repression. Around the world, public workers feel pain but power too.

ATC 126, January–February 2007