AFT REPORTS: Teachers rallied in support of Detroit public schools... 'Strike Now!' or 'Negotiate Now!'

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) held its biennial convention in Detroit, Michigan the weekend of July 27, 2012. Early that Friday afternoon, five buses left the COBO Center to attend a protest rally at the Fisher Building, located at 3011 West Grand Avenue, The building houses the administrative offices of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS), including the Office of the Emergency Manager.

Teachers from across the USA rallied in support of the Detroit teachers and against the "manager" Roy Roberts, who was appointed under a draconian Michigan law and given dictatorial powers over Detroit schools. Above, some of the Chicago teachers who joined with Detroit teachers on the first day of the AFT convention. Substance photo by Susan Zupan. The following is from the AFT flyer for the rally: “In the middle of our effort to work with him to find ways to strengthen our schools, the emergency manager walked away. We need your help to get the emergency manager back to the table.” (More on this ahead.)

The buses dropped AFT members off at the headquarters of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) located at 2875 West Grand. We walked east down Grand Avenue to “something’s-going-on/what’s-going-on?” looks coming from almost everyone on the street or driving past in cars. Approaching the intersection of Second and Grand, Occupy chants could be heard coming from the rally:

— “No justice — No peace”;

— “We are the 99%”;

— “Tell me what democracy looks like — This is what democracy looks like”;

— “There ain’t no power like the power of the people ‘cause the power of the people won’t stop!”

Signs this afternoon in downtown Detroit, hometown of Motown, said: “Educators Deserve RESPECT.” What they, and all of us involved in real public education in the United States, are actually getting is akin to the lyrics of “Grenade” by Bruno Mars.

With our arrival, hundreds of people filled the square; one official estimate put the crowd at 500. According to the few DFT teachers with whom I spoke, the crowd was mostly made up of Occupy members and supporters. Their voices filled with hopelessness and despair, the teachers were there themselves but their feeling was: “What’s the point?” They told me that teachers feared too much for their livelihoods to come out.

Karen Lewis, president of the CTU has had this to say to the union members in Chicago about that situation: “You are going to lose your jobs anyway.”

Detroit teachers protesting outside the Detroit school board offices against the predations of the Emergency Manager. Substance photo by Susan Zupan.The stark realization of that fact is significant. See reports on the May 23, 2012 CTU rally of 10,000 in Chicago. The difference for CTU is that, although Illinois Senate Bill 7 threw up tremendous hurdles, CTU can still legally strike. Teachers cannot strike under Michigan law.

The teachers I spoke with from Detroit said that if they had a wildcat strike, they would all be fired. One might then say, “You’re going to be fired anyway.” However, Substance was told that only "legal" strikes are officially supported by the AFT.

There were various speakers at the rally, including Keith Johnson, president of the DFT and a Vice President of the AFT. He introduced Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, as a trendsetter and “the baddest little woman I know.” Shortly into her talk and almost throughout, President Weingarten was interrupted by chants of “Strike Now! Strike to Win, Now!” She responded by asking/telling them that they could speak, but please not when she was trying to speak.

Steve Conn, a Detroit high school teacher and leader of the BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) caucus (and a candidate for AFT Secretary-Treasurer) would not stop and was escorted away from the small staged area. Weingarten led the crowd in a chant of “Negotiate Now!” However, the short pause formed for breath between one chant and the next was filled with “Strike!” by others in the crowd. So, what one heard was: “Negotiate Now! Strike! Negotiate Now! Strike!” I would put the ratio at 4:1 with Randi.

President Weingarten spoke about the emergency manager, Roy Roberts (more on that ahead) and negotiation as the tool needed to deal with the situation in Detroit. The strike-yelling section of the crowd interrupted her again at this point; included was a small group of students. Weingarten addressed them. Calling them "sweethearts," she said she loved them, but told them that kids shouldn’t be telling their teachers to strike.

She resumed. AFT President Weingarten called out Roberts. Detroit did not need Roy Roberts telling everyone what to do. The cheers of the crowd demonstrated strong agreement. Detroit needed to negotiate. (The prior-mentioned alternate chanting renewed.) She shared the gist of letters exchanged with Roberts. In her letter of July 26, 2012, she demanded that he return to the table to establish a timeline for regular bargaining in order to negotiate a contract with the DFT. In his quite lengthy response of July 27, 2012, available on the DPS website, he agreed to meet that afternoon, the day of the rally. There is presently no legal requirement for negotiation of any kind.

There are different versions of what happened. According to the Huffington Post, the results of the meeting between AFT President Weingarten and Emergency Manager Roberts were “ambiguous.” The Detroit Free Press reported that Roberts agreed to “review” a union proposal for a negotiation process. Weingarten referred to the meeting at times as “solutions-driven." "Solutions driven unionism" was the theme of the 2012 AFT Convention, delivered in Randi's keynote address (and available on line at the AFT website). The keynote was also reported on July 27 at ("AFT REPORTS: Randi Weingarten keynotes AFT convention urging 'solutions-driven' unionism' in the fact of growing member skepticism..." by George N. Schmidt, available on the July 2012 Substance Home Page).

Presently, the Detroit public school system is in the hands of Roy S. Roberts, an “emergency manager” appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder under Michigan’s "Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act."

According the Detroit Public Schools website, Mr. Roberts “has decades of managerial, financial and organizational experience.” No educational credentials are listed. Further along on the site, one can read the opposite — speak of the first entry’s title under Latest News: “2012-13 budget for DPS, balanced, maintains class sizes in early grades and drives resources to academics while reducing expenditures by 25%.” From the text, one can read the doublespeak of: “‘Detroit Public Schools’ proposed 2012-2013 school year budget supports a system of schools focused on innovation and robust school choices, data-driven programs to enhance teaching and learning, including new Individual Learning Maps for every child, and highly-qualified teachers selected after new teacher evaluation and interviewing processes,’ said Emergency Manager Roy S. Roberts.”

Further along, one may straight-up read that even with 1,889 staff positions eliminated, “the budget anticipates continual reduction in employee wages by 10%.”

The official claims for class sizes are: 25 in K-3; 33 for grades 4-5; and 38 in 6-12. This is all part of what is straight-faced called “Higher Standards for All.” According to the teachers I spoke with and reports to Substance from DFT leaders, every Detroit teacher received a pink slip in April. They said that this was nothing new and has actually been the normal practice in Detroit for some time, with teachers mostly being placed right back in the fall into the positions they just held.

However, this year after the pink slips were sent out, every teacher has now been required to reapply and interview for their same positions, and they are not being rehired as before. According to the teachers I spoke with, Detroit has 3 school districts in one: the public schools, the charter schools, and a district called the "Education Achievement Authority (EAA)." The DPS website reported the predictable trend that DPS closed nine public schools and opened two new charter schools, which would put the charter school total at 16. (The site reported that DPS had 130 schools.)

The EAA is a statewide school system that assumed control of the lowest 5% of public schools in Michigan, but (as is often the similar case of Chicago within the state of Illinois for unproven experimentation on children, teachers, and schools) this EAA stuff will be piloted in Detroit with 15 schools for the 2012-2013 year, with other areas of Michigan to follow.

The teachers described other working conditions: 2-hour staff meetings, increased from the previous 1-hour, resulting in days beginning at 8:30 and ending at almost 5:00. They actually used to be paid (salary not stipend) for missed preps, with one teacher reporting over 100 missed preps in a recent year. However, with the emergency manager, preps have been lowered from 5 to 2. As in Chicago, subs are not available on a regular basis, so students are distributed into other classrooms and/or other school personnel are called off their regular positions to become subs for the day. Seniority has been eliminated, but changes in salary steps over the years had resulted in little to no net gains for teachers anyway. They said that Detroit teachers pay 20% for their healthcare, and this would now be on top of the emergency manager’s dictated 10% pay cut. To say that the public school teachers and other employees of the Detroit Public Schools are demoralized is a vast understatement.

As has also been reported on this Substance website, on Saturday afternoon (see the July 2012 Substance Home Page for the articles under AFT REPORTS), AFT delegates demonstrated solidarity for the DFT by knocking on doors in Detroit to educate voters about the statewide referendum on the November ballot for the reinstatement of collective bargaining rights. The teachers I spoke with at the rally told me about the recent court challenge to the referendum petitions: a technicality that the font size was not correct. [Point of information: This certainly must have been a coincidence. The AFT held its 2012 Delegate Reception at the Detroit Institute of Arts on Saturday evening, with a special notation for members to view the Diego Rivera murals. According to his DPS website bio, Emergency Manager Roy S. Roberts is a major contributor to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The museum has renamed a contemporary African-American art gallery for Mr. Roberts and his wife.]

After the rally, I was able to speak briefly with three of the students that were disciplined from the stage by President Weingarten. They were 8th graders who appeared to be younger.

Here is their interpretation of what happened: “She’s like, 'Mind your manners, little girl.’ Well, I’ll respect you if you respect me back.” They shared a few bad experiences they had in their school with what they described as a racist teacher; and if their descriptions were accurate, they are correct. They attended the Cesar Chavez charter school in which, according to a report on the BAMN website, 200 students staged a walk-out in May of this year, fighting to “demand a stop to the racist treatment of students.” The students I spoke with were definitely more energized than the teachers I met; however, this and other forms of emergency management (read: Shock Doctrine) as the modus operandi for the destruction of public education in the United States are extremely child abusing as well.

Full Disclosure: I am a Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) AFT Convention Delegate.


August 4, 2012 at 10:35 AM

By: Susan Zupan

information on Detroit class sizes

Please read Rich Gibson's report on what is happening in Detroit also on this August Substance page.

Apparently, the class size maximums as listed above from the DPS website are correct, however, they are meaningless under the emergency manager. No moves will be made to enforce these "maximums" (read: open another classroom and hire another teacher for it) until the numbers almost double.

Thus, instead of K-3 classrooms having a maximum of 25 students, that number will need to reach 41 until a change is made. The listed maximum number of 38 students in a room for grades 4-5 would have to reach 46 students in the room to trigger any changes. And, lordhelpDetroit, though the official maximum number of students listed for grades 6-12 is the bad-enough 38, the actual number of students allowed in a room until any change will be considered is 61.

Why is America allowing its "education policy" to become a bipartisan destruction of public education, not just in Detroit but all across America? for the greed of privatization?

Why is America allowing such bipartisan, institutionalized child abuse and neglect to form at the very foundations of its "national education policy"? How does any nation benefit from such?

Any bets on what those all-important testing outcomes in Detroit will be next year? This is what America is allowing? worship at the alter of standardized testing for those making all the money there as well?

What kind of a nation are we? Something about what you do to the least...

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

3 + 3 =