Detroit, Education, Emergency Managers, Interview, Labor, unions — May 4, 2016 at 8:46 am

INTERVIEW – AFT President Randi Weingarten: “This is the DFT that I remember…the mighty, mighty DFT


Over the past few months, teachers in the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have had to resort to “sick outs” to get attention to the egregious working and teaching conditions they and their students are being forced to contend with. From black mold, rats, and cockroaches to warped gym floors and, this past week, the threat that they would not be paid for their work because the district is out of money, none of these issues would have been made public without them taking these measures. By law, teachers in Michigan are not allowed to go on strike so sick outs have been their only recourse.

In response to these actions, Republican State House Speaker Kevin Cotter chose to issue this offensive and disgusting statement on Teacher Appreciation Day:

The Detroit Federation of Teachers is once again putting the wants of adults ahead of the needs of children, specifically the 40,000 Detroit schoolchildren who were left out in the rain this morning. At an absolutely critical time for a city on the path to recovery, Detroit’s next generation has now lost more than 1,000,000 instruction hours they will never recover to cheap political stunts.

These egotistical teachers have lashed out at the children who rely on them and accomplished nothing but disrupting their students’ education. Their selfish and misguided plea for attention only makes it harder for us to enact a rescue plan and makes it harder for Detroit’s youngest residents to get ahead and build a future for themselves.

Cotter’s characterization of Detroit teachers – heroic men and women working in one of the most challenging conditions ANY teacher ANYWHERE will ever experience – as greedy, selfish, and misguided is beyond the pale. The sick outs are definitely a plea for attention but they are not a “stunt” and they are anything but misguided. They are sadly necessary given how they have been treated.

Republican House Rep. Al Pscholka – the father of Michigan’s anti-democratic Emergency Manager law followed Cotter’s lead in expressing his utter disdain for these amazing men and women, telling them, “You are going to get paid. Get back to work.”

The sick outs that took place Monday and Tuesday this week were the result of DPS Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes informing the union – the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) – last Friday that the district would be out of money and that teachers were not guaranteed to be paid after April 28th. After working through the weekend to secure a guarantee, DFT and national American Federation of Teachers (AFT) leaders to share this information with their membership, prompting the sick outs that began Monday. The union is characterizing the district’s action as a “lockout” insofar as it is telling teachers they must work without a guarantee they’d be paid.

Yesterday, after intense negotiations and discussions, AFT and DFT finally got assurances in writing that teachers WILL be paid. Here is his letter:

I spoke to AFT President Randi Weingarten by phone last night after she and DFT leaders met with their membership and urged them to return to the classroom today. Weingarten was effusive about how teachers have come to realize they have power as a united group and how they were able to achieve their goals working together. She told me that they are now setting their sights on the current legislation for DPS that will reform the district. The plan splits the district in two with one holding all the debt and the second responsible for educating students. As part of the plan, all union contracts are terminated and will need to be renegotiated.

Here is our conversation.

One of the questions I wanted to ask you is what you accomplished today and it sounds like a part of that was a rekindling of the spirit of labor within your membership.

Yeah, and for them to see why a “union”, as a opposed to individual actions, are so important. What you saw in the fall through the winter was a lot of frustration and for legitimate reasons. People have a right to be frustrated. Now, Judge Rhodes is a totally different cat than the former Emergency Manager [Darnell Earley]. With him you have someone with integrity. We don’t like the fact that he’s in the position he’s in but he has integrity.

What happened here is that, on Friday, the whole world changes from Thursday. We did this rally on Tuesday and then all of a sudden on Thursday and Friday, we’re being told through rumors that the teachers are not going to be made whole on their salary, particularly those who take their salary over 12 months instead of over 10 months. And when we asked the question about when does that go into effect, we hear it’s April 28th. When it’s already past April 28th, we have an obligation to tell our members immediately. They have a right to know.

All weekend long we tried to get the assurance, as I called it “the guarantee”, that the pay that’s been earned is of course going to be paid. And when we couldn’t get the guarantee, that’s when it was clear that this wasn’t a “sick out”, this was a “lock out”. They essentially acted like private sector employers that close up their shops and lock people out but with one exception and that’s that, in some ways, they were much less forthright which was to not level with the parents and the kids about what was going on. And then they pretended that it was okay to have teachers work without any kind of assurance that they’d be paid.

The notion that the payroll for the teachers was not going to be a priority for district when teachers are the backbone of the district was reprehensible. And people together for the last two days said, “NO!” and I think that they saw that we were serious and that they blinked. So Judge Rhodes and, frankly, Mayor Duggan both tried to find solutions to this mess. But you see that it always does take two to tango when you’re trying to get something. So, the fact that the governor blinked, too, was important.

I think people were shocked. I think people in the membership meeting were just shocked because it was so different than what anybody expected. What I loved is that there was a real focus, without missing a beat, on, “Okay, what are we going to do about Lansing now?” And that is the union I remember. This is the DFT I remember when I was in New York and there was the mighty, mighty DFT.

It’s a big deal that the union stayed together. It transcended the internal issues and it stayed together and when some people in the meeting tried to create the internal friction again, the majority said, “No, we’ll move ahead and operate as one union.” And now our focus is on Lansing and getting Lansing to do its job to, not just save this district but, as Detroit is rising, ensure that Detroit’s children have the schools they deserve.

I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy. This is going to be a big, big fight. But it was also interesting that the appropriators, their vote was very, very close and there was a bipartisan vote against the demise of the school system. Let’s be honest, the House bill is essentially the demise of the school system. It has to be called for what it is. It is stripping people of a voice. It is stripping the school system of any wherewithal to do its job. It’s a very cynical measure that is simply a prelude to privatization.

Even the Senate and even the governor understand that the history of this state is steep in labor unions. Then you have the Majority Leader of the House calling teachers who are simply asking for their pay “egotistical”? On Teacher Appreciation Day? The level of animus is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. It’s not simply appalling, it is shocking. And the fact is that they don’t even care about kids in Detroit. Basically whatever the DeVos family tells them to do, they do.

One of the things that Judge Rhodes said was that your “choice for a drastic call to action was not necessary”. It sounds like you would disagree with that. It sounds like you believe you wouldn’t have gotten the guarantee unless there had been a call to action.

Right. At the end of the day it’s not as if there’s been an earned trust in Detroit just like there’s no trust in Flint. And remember, it was the same Emergency Manager. So Judge Rhodes inherited a very, very tough situation. But nobody was going to trust them after the judge said, “I can’t guarantee that you’re going to be paid after Saturday or Sunday.” Nobody was going to trust a, “But I’ll try very hard.” To his credit, he recognized that we were serious. It’s not like the last few days were fun. There was a lot of anger between everybody in the last two days but we tried to find a solution and we did.

Some of the more strident folks in the DFT like Steve Conn and others are calling for a continued sick out to get more and more and more. Why do you think that’s not the right approach?

Because you have to have clear goals. What happened here was that it was clear to the public why we believed this was actually tantamount to a lockout and what we needed to come back to school. The public wants us to teach. They love our teachers. They know people have sacrificed. But they want us to teach.

We’re not ruling out actions in the future but the actions have to be focused on the particular goal in mind. And, ultimately, we need to focus our attention now on Lansing. And that is the focus now. So, when people raised this issue, there was no momentum towards it, there was no movement towards it. When people tried to get a vote, when Steve Conn’s folks tried to get a vote and tried to disrupt the meeting to get a vote to go on strike, frankly no one followed them.

It’s not that people aren’t mad about being disrespected. But they understood that was not the right action for this moment. We need to fight to get Lansing to right by kids, community, and educators in Detroit, but that at this moment, staying out was not how that was going to be accomplished. At this moment. As I said, you can’t rule anything out. But even when you had healthy skepticism about why you would trust Judge Rhodes now when he says there is a guarantee when he said exactly the opposite a couple of days ago, we said we got the assurances in writing that we needed.

The Detroit school legislation that passed out of committee today…

Is horrible.

Right. Truly horrible. It did not include funding for an audit of the school district even though Democrats pushed for that. Is that something that’s still on your list of demands?

Yes, of course. There has to be an audit. There has to be audit for DPS. Frankly, every state has controllers who do that as a matter of course. I’m just surprised that one needs to actually get legislation passed to do that in Michigan! It’s not something that doesn’t get done. But, of course there has to be. Just in the last few weeks there’s the issue of federal pension dollars not being put into the pension fund as they should have been and what happened in terms of the school supply issue, so of course there needs to be an audit. Because, at the end of the day, the public has to feel some trust in the management of the school system.

I think the most galling thing is that Emergency Managers were imposed on DPS to supposedly fix all the corruption and waste that was going on and, in every instance, they haven’t done that.

Right. And Emergency Managers actually made the situation worse. Nobody is saying that the management before was good but the Emergency Managers made it worse. There is a bigger deficit. They enable ideology to trump good instruction coupled with terrible austerity. That’s why part of the demands here are not simply dealing with the debt that the Emergency Managers ran up and the DPS deficit but that there’s at least a minimal amount of resources to turn the page and think through how to fund adequately or even fund minimally a Detroit Public School system and how to give local control back in a real way and that includes local control over the pop up of charter schools.

And the House bill goes totally in the opposite direction.

It’s sad that it’s considered a major achievement for the union to simply get a written assurance that teachers will receive a paycheck for the important and critical work that they do. But that’s the state of things in the state of Michigan right now. The next step, as Weingarten put it so well, is to make sure the legislation that is eventually passed to resolve the ongoing crisis in DPS is done in a way that is sustainable and that honors students, parents, the community, and the teachers who have already sacrificed so much under the current regime of anti-public education Republicans in Lansing. This should be a priority for EVERY Michigander and anyone who values the very American value of free public education in our country.

Kudos to the teachers in DFT who stood their ground this week and over the past six months. You’ve taken an important step in making sure that DPS has a future where everyone succeeds and Detroit school children get the education that they deserve and that is, in fact, guaranteed by our constitution.