Detroit’s Tragedy Deepens With Fraudulent Vote Count in Detroit Federation of Teachers election and members split

The calamity that is Detroit only got worse in January. As Substance reported on January 16, 2011, the election of top officers in the Detroit Federation of Teachers was a near tie. Forty-one votes separated the presidential candidates, incumbent Keith Johnson and insurgent radical Steve Conn: 1974 to 1933.

Some of this is on You Tube:

One of dozens of abandoned Detroit public schools photographed by Substance's Rich Gibson in January 2010. During the previous five years, Detroit went on a spending spree to award lucrative contracts for school construction even as the Detroit student population was decreasing by between 5,000 and 10,000 students per year and the remaining schools went without needed repairs. Substance photo by Rich Gibson.A recount of the votes by the Johnson-controlled election committee was held on Wednesday, January 19, 2011. The tumultuous swearing in of Johnson and his executive board members is fully dramatized on the video available at the above address, and is worth watching by anyone who wants to get some idea of what has been going on within the Detroit Federation of Teachers (other videos have been available since the struggles intensified more than a year ago).

Given that the election committee used the same scantrons that resulted in the previous count, they arrived at almost precisely the same count — adding one for Conn.

Notably, other candidates on the Johnson ticket out-polled the Conn ticket at 55% to 45%.

Then, on Thursday, January 20th , David Hecker, president of the Michigan Federation of Teachers (representing Detroit and little else), swore Johnson and his slate into office — before the DFT meeting was gavelled to order.

It’s the dirtiest of deals. As a partisan of neither side, and critic of both, there is no question in my mind that an unjust count, a farcical ballot reckoning, was made in the Detroit Federation of Teachers’ officer elections. The uncounted votes and the questionable handling of votes by Johnson supporters in a number of schools all lead to the conclusion now being drawn by Conn's supporters and many others.

If I wasn’t aware of the tragedy this foul scam could mean for Detroit children, it could be a comedy. The smell is that odd–bad.

Let us put this in context. Detroit’s school system is collapsing, along with the city — the upshot of a cruel combination of profiteering and racism. The city is a true ghetto, 90 percent black, walled off on the north side by the infamous 8 Mile Road and, on the east, split away from rich Grosse Pointe by Alter Road. Those walls are as well known as the border wall at Mexico in San Diego County.

Thousands of vacant and burned out hulks of buildings, homes and former commercial sites, haunt the city — and fill up with the homeless. This is what Detroit kids walk by on the way to school, across what were once playgrounds now awash in dirty needles and broken glass.

Detroit Mayor Bing is keeping secret the details of a plan to force nearly half the city residents to move to concentrated areas — a term which should ring loud to anyone familiar with WWII, or Indian reservations, or Vietnam’s “strategic hamlets.” It is rumored, even among suburban elite supporters of Bing, that he will shut off city services to those who resist–and use eminent domain laws with others.

Bob Bobb, a Broad Foundation puppet, was appointed to be “financial czar” of the schools about 16 months ago. He’s been at war with a bizarre cast of characters who have made up the Detroit School Board over the years (most recently, the head of the board was convicted of masturbating repeatedly in front of the female superintendent, while one member of the board excused him with “young men do have these urges...”). In January, Bobb announced plans to close one-half of the Detroit schools.

Before Bobb arrived, early in this century, Michigan’s Democratic governor had abolished the Detroit school board; replaced the elected group with a Takeover Board made up of suburbanites and executives of the soon to be failed auto industry. One member of the board was a suburban housewife, owner of a low-wage factory, who was afraid to come to meetings in the city (the first Takeover Board meeting was guarded by SWAT teams). She was allowed to attend by cell-phone, and could be heard over the meeting’s microphones ordering her maid around.

Nothing improved in the Takeover schools, by their own measure — test scores — but the Takeover crowd did manage to farm out about $200 million in contracts to build new schools, in a system that loses at least ten thousand students a year.

Now many of those new buildings sit empty and stripped, costing DPS a million dollars a year to fence and guard.

That debt accelerated a growing deficit that is now officially over $300 million — and is probably much more as most figures coming out of Detroit are as falsified as the FICO scores that formed part of the basis of the recent housing bubble collapse. Corruption and dishonesty are endemic in the city. Racists point to this reality and claim black people are unfit to rule themselves — forgetting the truth of the US’ wars and finances. But impoverishment in Detroit is so severe, the many culminations of the corruption cannot be papered over.

Poverty, at the extreme, is Detroit. The city gives meaning to the contradiction: community or barbarism.

Bobb’s project in Detroit, like fictitious reform efforts everywhere, has been to improve the image of schooling (his underlings wiped out a real history of Detroit’s system on Wikipedia), but to do nothing about poverty or its sources. To the contrary, he makes alliances with people who profit from racism and exploitation–as with his “Bold” program which includes leaders from local banks, suburban businesses, Fox News, and the Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Bobb is close to both MFT’s David Hecker and DFT’s Keith Johnson. Together with American Federation of Teachers boss, Randi Weingarten, the trio ganged up and sold what is, I believe, the worst contract in the history of school worker collective bargaining to the DFT rank and file in 2009. Substance covered that monstrosity here:§ion=Article

Steve Conn has been a courageous dissident teacher in Detroit for well over two decades. Working at still-prestigious Cass Tech (which gets funds, books and supplies), his actions sparked the inspiring Detroit teachers’ wildcat strike about ten years ago. Conn is a leader in the By Any Means Necessary Coalition which is linked to the Revolutionary Workers League.

Conn and BAMN aggressively opposed the sellout contract and broadened their base to include other educators on their slate running against Johnson.

The election contest, and the quick interim from the first vote to the recount, was heated — picked up on some contemporary messaging. YouTube videos flew everywhere, some appearing in the Comments section in Substance. Here is one, attacking Conn and BAMN:

Conn, for his part, ran his own YouTubes, promising to unite Detroit teachers, the community, and public workers in what he calls “a new civil rights movement.” Immediately following the counterfeit swearing in of Keith Johnson, before the DFT meeting opened, Conn circulated this video (only one of many takes on the same incident):

Joel Scott, who works with Conn at Cass Tech and is a Conn supporter, said this about the recount (paraphrasing): “Before the recount, Keith Johnson came to a group of us who sought to observe and said, ‘only one person will be allowed in. I will throw the rest of you out of the building if you choose to stay.’ This was strange because he was a candidate, yet Keith was deciding about the election count.”

“The rep from Gompers Elementary said that 25 votes were cast, but only 20 counted. Steve says over 700 were missing. Most all of the union reps at the Thursday, swearing in, meeting, said similar things about their schools.

“On Thursday, because of a snow storm, many people had trouble getting to the DFT meeting on time, but Keith insisted that the meeting would start promptly despite our requests for a delay. Then, before the meeting began, Keith took the microphone, called (his slate) to be sworn in.

“The rank and file began to protest and boo, saying that any swearing in should be part of the meeting agenda (which they would have a chance to influence).

“Then Hecker just took the microphone, swore them in while many people came near him to protest. Then he exited out the back door and Keith left stage right.

“Bobb will have the same advantages he had in the past....I assume we will have another pay cut...Outside the step increases I have had, I have only had about a five percent pay increase in the last 5 years.

“Nothing the rank and file seems to do matters with the union leadership. There is no democracy in our union. It is run by a bunch of thugs and a strong man.”

Another source, prominent in the DFT and initially not a Conn backer who wishes to remain anonymous, said, “...not only should there be a hand count but all the disqualified ballots should be examined to find out why they were disqualified. The way the DFT ‘Election Committee’ handled this is shocking. Clearly both the Unimatics (scan tron) and the Election Committee have something to hide.”

While the DFT election controversy brewed, Bobb announced that DPS built a $5.6 million (yes million) “Police Center;” this in a system that frequently has no books for kids, nor supplies for educators. According to Bobb’s release, the center is 23,000 square feet. In all its surveilling beauty, it sits in an area of north Detroit that is littered with vacant homes and torched, denuded buildings. From their forward outpost, a little Centcom, DPS cops claim they will be able to watch the hallways in all 144 DPS buildings–this rather than jobs, income, and community.

The DFT has an internal grievance procedure addressing elections. The first step is the election committee itself, likely a dead end. The second step is the membership. But whether or not the Conn side can get to that level remains an open question. Conn’s lawyers are as good as they get. They may have plans of their own.

Conn, on Sunday, January 23, 2011, released an odd statement thanking DFT members “for electing me president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers,” that then goes on to complain that he was not elected president, outlining a plan to “take the office you have elected me to hold through a fair and democratic process.” He then demands a re-vote. And he concludes: “We are leading the fight across the country to defend the great success story of public education.”

Exactly what success story he has in mind is beyond me. Leading the fight across the country? Probably not.

This is the kind of thing that makes Conn appear out of balance to some people who otherwise recognize that he is a talented, smart, dedicated, and dauntless guy. This sector of the DFT wonders if he can really run the big union or if he would be more effective as a vocal loyal, or not-so-loyal, opposition. They question his ego: Why didn’t he run as a candidate other than president on another slate? And this sector votes, often not for Conn.

So, what is the upshot of all this?

Best-case for Conn: there is re-count, fast, and he wins. But he is surrounded by an executive committee that can claim a far greater mandate, 55 percent to 45 percent and who will surely act collectively to demolish every move he makes.

The membership is split right down the middle.

Conn as president would probably be more influential on a national level, in AFT, than DPS. In AFT, he might find allies in other dissident groups, like Chicago’s CORE, combating Weingarten. It is possible, too, that he might not be able to make those connections.

Bobb’s relentless assault on education will continue, even if he does leave at the end of his appointed term in the spring of this year. Bobb will continue to get surcease from the Johnson slate, Weingarten, and the local under-bosses of the city.

A well-deserved federal bailout is not in the offing. Obama’s education lackey, Arne Duncan, declared DPS the worst system in the country last year, but did nothing about it but to praise Bobb.

The rationale that $12.9 trillion was printed and handed out to the banksters (now giving themselves bonuses, inverse merit pay), so surely America’s most impoverished in Detroit deserve a sip from the common weal too, makes no sense to those who are moved by greed and fear, backed up by force and violence: the current government at every level.

The long con is on: forging false hope in Detroit schools. The short con is looting them at the same time.

And now I take a personal moment: I am in horror about what will happen to far too many of Detroit’s children if no one is able to organize a mass class conscious movement that goes well beyond the walls of DFT and American unionism.

The DFT could never win alone. School workers in Detroit need to make every effort to appeal to suburban Michigan Education Association members (MEA represents nearly all of the rest of Michigan)—understanding full well that the tops of the NEA and MEA demonstrated, repeatedly, over the years that they care nearly nothing about the segregated urban districts of the U.S.

But rank and file members of MEA, especially those in nearby Detroit suburbs, are learning, admittedly the hard way, that an injury to one really does precede an injury to all. Detroit’s problems are filling their own classrooms now. Merit pay is trailing the predictable path of falling test scores.

More, the parents (or typically grandparents and guardians in Detroit) of Michigan need to be drawn into this fight — backing the planned school/university strikes and actions set for early March of this year. Parallel to that, educators need to begin to set up nascent freedom schools where kids and adults alike could learn to unravel why it is things are as they are, and what to do. These beginning could lay the ground work for bigger actions at the opening, or closings, of school in the fall.

The same organizing point goes for the members of UAW Local 6000, Michigan state employees, the largest local in the shambles that was once the bellwether of big labor, who took concession after concession, only to see demands for more. Thousands of them are in Detroit, in welfare offices for example, where they see, every day, the results of capitalism’s failures personified in hunger–and anger.

Add in the rank and file AFSCME members, city workers.

The core of this, I believe, must come out of the school worker ranks. Educators have more freedom, in the classroom and out, than most other workers. Given that their job is to construct reason (illegal or off the books as that may be), it is fair to say they could connect reason to power and build the kind of solidarity in a movement that could, en masse, match the power of the banksters.

New leaders with a vision beyond unionism, willing to take calculated risks (anyone familiar with the levels of racism aimed at Detroit knows the kind of repression that could result from a chaotic rebellion), need to come forward to help Detroit–and its kids.

If not — the deluge. Good Substance reader: Why should you care?

You’re next.

[Rich Gibson ( is a co-founder of the Rouge Forum. He spent most of his adult life in Detroit, most of that at Seven Mile and the Lodge. For intrepid readers who want to dig into the ruin of Detroit and its schools, he suggests The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System by Jeffrey Mirel. Or check the many back issues of Substance covering Detroit, online.]


January 24, 2011 at 3:32 AM

By: MacDuff's ghost

Watching the video completes this story

Watching the video from the first You Tube address clarifies what is reported in this story. Thanks for the information.

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