Detroit Teachers Rebel against decades of degradation and the policies of Race to the Top

The Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) has not been much of a leader in working people’s organizations but this might be about to change.  The main concern of the union over the years has been to basically protect the bloated salaries and privileges of the trade union executives, like Keith Johnson, the pathetic president of DFT. In fact, union executives have been openly working with the school authorities in Detroit to force hundreds, if not thousands, of experienced teachers to retire, so they can be replaced by a low-wage instructors, forced to work in charter schools without the slightest rights or input on how children are taught nor any control over curriculum or the day to day running of the schools.

In return for this largess and sell-out support, the DFT has been given assurances from their president, Keith Johnson, and his executives, that it will continue to collect dues income from teachers, and will participate in the myriad joint labor-management committees to police teachers.  This is all a part of the Obama/Duncan Race to the Top. Sound familiar?  Sure it does, it is magically growing like a fungus all over the nation, as you know if you have been following the saga

The last year’s tentative three-year contract between Detroit Public Schools and its teachers union included the district essentially getting up to $10,000 in interest-free and un-secured loans to be funded by each of Detroit’s educators for forty weeks. The Detroit News reported teachers were being asked to agree to a $250 pre-tax deduction from 40 biweekly paychecks starting in January to fund the loan. Teachers would get the $10,000 back once they leave. It’s called the grotesquely labeled, Termination Incentive Plan (Associated Press, December 6, 2009  It is incredible that such a clause was even agreed to by Keith Johnson let alone sold to members who must shoulder the loan to the

In collusion with the corrupt DFT president and tally whacker Keith Johnson, Rob Bobb (the state-appointed emergency financial manager of Detroit’s public education) and the Detroit Public School system have already shut down dozens of schools in Detroit under No Child Left Behind, just like Arne did when he was the head of education in Chicago.  The Democonservative Governor Jennifer Granholm, who appointed Bobb, has passed through cuts in per-pupil funding of between $300 and $600 throughout Michigan, which will lead to the elimination of programs, classes, and bus routes, along with the closure of schools and teacher layoffs. This is happening state by state by democrats and republican ‘representatives’ and the experience only confirms the fact that both parties represent the corporate and financial elite of this country, not working people.

Devastation Capitalism

The controversy has been heating up for quite a while (see for more or  Perhaps soon-to-be-recalled, DFT President, Keith Johnson, late last year huddled with Robert Bobb, to put together the contract agreement that would force teachers to give up concessions demanded by the city, including a pay freeze, millions of dollars in cuts in health care, reduced prep time, the introduction of merit pay and the expansion of charter schools, and the $500 a month deduction from pay checks, insultingly packaged as an “investment” on the part of teachers (this is the Termination Incentive Plan).  Also contained in the illegal contract is what is called the Priority Schools clause.  The ‘clause’ allows an unlimited amount of ‘priority schools’ to be run as charter schools, by teachers being treated as Walmart associates or at will employees based on one year contracts.  The move would create a system of not just ‘associates’ but also would allow any administrator to cherry pick teachers, using favoritism and discrimination.  This is all an attempt to meet the market-based application requirements of Race to the Top.

In an effort to get the teachers to accept the concessions, both Robb and Johnson collaborated, using combined threats and lies in an attempt to push the contract through. Johnson warned teachers that if the contract were voted down, the union would not come back with anything better.  He echoed Robb and told teachers they would be faced with the prospect of a declaration of bankruptcy, mass layoffs and a permanent reduction in wages and benefits.  Johnson even went as far as to say that them, the teachers of Detroit:

not punish the children of Detroit because you are not satisfied with this benefits agreement (The way forward for Detroit teachers, (

When teachers denounced specific concessions in the contract, Johnson’s response was to insist that if cuts were eliminated in one area, they would have to be found somewhere else.  Johnson has played the role of courtesan or shill for the ruling elite of Detroit, as well as nationally.  The DFT head simply repeated the lies that there is “no money” to provide teachers with a living wage and properly fund education.  Keith Johnson as their union president wants to tell teachers that they are the ones responsible for decades and decades of the brutal economic, racial and political policies that have hollowed out Detroit and that they should shoulder the billionaire’s burden.

This certainly is not union representation any one can believe in.  However DFT teachers are no dummies; they know that to whether the onslaught and fight the “smash and grab” takeover policies of the corporate bankers and those wishing to turn education into an enterprise, they must develop new and more formidable strategies for fighting the privatization of schools.  The union vote, taken on January 14, 2010, might just be the beginning of this new strategy; let’s hope so.

Fighting Back!

The organization, By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) began to organize to fight back along with the Detroit teachers against this virulent attack on public education and children.  They argued in their organizing literature late last year, when they were presented with a tentative agreement by management, that:

If we accept this deal, we will be helping Bobb pave the way for two school systems in Detroit: a system of private charters such as Thompson’s University Prep schools, which will run the better schools as more socially-stratified schools, with cherry-picked students likely to improve test scores and graduation rates, and a devastated, decrepit, warehouse/prison-like public school system for the majority of our students. If successful, this plan will relegate Detroit to the status of a depopulated, second-class city forever and to condemn the young people of Detroit to inferior educational opportunities (Stop the Destruction of Public Education in Detroit—

Vote “NO” on the Tentative Agreement

The teachers fought back and along with community members, collected 1,300 signatures from more than 60 Detroit schools to recall Keith Johnson.  Johnson, like Randi Weingarten, simply will not stand up for union members rights and instead is playing the politics of collaboration with capital.  Duncan is relying on such luminaries as Johnson, state by state, to keep the teachers under control.  Johnson is in the role of a corrupt union boss but instead of representing his members, he collects fees from them and then negotiates their wages down, their democratic rights down, and their ability to teach in their classroom in accordance with authentic curriculum down.

On January 14th, 2010 teachers finally refused to accept the economic blackmail of city, state and their employees and Detroit Federation of Teacher (DFT) members voted overwhelmingly on this date to relieve their current president, Keith Johnson, from his duties as DFT president until a recall vote is taken at the February 11th, 2010 membership meeting. The membership also voted for the DFT to join a lawsuit against the $250 million dollar TIP “loan” and to seek an injunction stopping any further forced deductions from their checks. They also committed to stand strong in the fight to defend their living standards and the right of their students to a quality education; the teachers are taking a stand for all working people.

The mass opposition of teachers and their courageous vote in these difficult economic times against the concessions contract signed by the Detroit Federation of Teachers and the Detroit Public Schools, deserves the full support of all working people.

According to an e-mail I received from members of

Early in the meeting, Johnson declared all efforts to recall him or support the lawsuit “out of order,” in spite of a clear majority vote that these questions be placed on the meeting’s agenda. When members refused to allow him to continue the meeting undemocratically, he walked out of the room, later returning to try to adjourn the meeting.  Refusing to adjourn, the members passed three motions:  (1) supporting the lawsuit against the $250 TIP; (2) setting the recall vote for the February 11th General Membership Meeting; and (3) relieving Johnson of  “his duties and obligations as DFT President pending the recall vote.”

DFT members are determined that the question of Keith Johnson’s recall be decided by democratic membership vote and in accordance with the DFT Constitution (   They are also determined to fight racial discrimination throughout Michigan by developing a strategy of uniting with the suburbs in an attempt to break down the division between city and suburbs that has driven segregation.  They look to strengthen public education by moving toward an integrated Metro-Detroit wise school district that can solve the crisis of education for Detroit students.

Decades of Budget Cuts and Give Backs has crippled the city and its working class residents: Johnson wants to put the blame on teachers

As a result of decades of budget cuts, teachers are forced to deal with decaying buildings, the lack of adequate supplies, and large class sizes, not to mention the increased poverty — children coming to school hungry because their parents are out of work.  Many working families cannot provide the basic necessities for themselves or their families.  According to the Huffington Post:

Officially, Detroit’s unemployment rate is just under 30 percent. But the city’s mayor and local leaders are suggesting a far more disturbing figure — the actual jobless rate, they say, is closer to 50 percent (Detroit’s Unemployment Rate Is Nearly 50%, According to the Detroit News 12/06/09

As many have noted, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which culls federal unemployment data, does not account for all of the jobless in its widely-quoted national unemployment figures. Among those omitted: part-time workers who are looking for full-time jobs and frustrated job seekers who abandon their job search altogether.

The whole state is witnessing a virtual collapse, as are many others.  In 2008, more than 40 percent of Michigan students were eligible to receive free or reduced federal lunches, according to Kids Count in Michigan, a report released by the Michigan League of Human Services. That’s up from 30.7 percent in 2001. (

Now, two years later, the statistics are even more hideous. The poverty rate in Wayne County, where Detroit is located, was 31 percent — the fourth highest rate among Michigan’s 83 counties.  Zehnder-Merrell a spokesperson for Kids Count, a group that monitors poverty rates, noted:

These statistics are going to worsen considerably (

The broad Kids Count report also says that more allegations of child abuse and neglect were investigated and confirmed in 2008 than in 2000.  God knows what it might look like now, close to two years after the crash.

Race to the Top in play in Detroit as it is in other cities

Like most other parts of the country and especially in large urban areas like Washington D.C., Houston, Tex., New York, Los Angeles and others, the administration of these schools is working in concert with philanthropists and capitalist entrepreneurs in waging a massive attack on the entire public educational system, which is having a devastating impact on the children of Detroit, Michigan, and the entire country.  These measures are aimed at destroying public education and creating a class-based privatized educational system that will provide good schools for a few and relegate the majority of working class and poor children to the most impoverished schools.

Many Michigan districts, including Detroit Public Schools, wanted to use the stimulus funds to fill budget gaps or pay for teachers’ health care costs.  But this, according to the Detroit News:

neither improves students’ educational learning (Detroit News, Editorial March 27. 2009

The conservative pro-business, anti-union corporate press is parroting the gospel from Duncan.  Duncan has publicly stated that districts that use the stimulus for such things as maintenance costs (teacher salaries and budget deficits) will hurt their states’ chances of receiving the remaining federal dollars. Duncan said in March of last year:

Only states and local districts that use the first round of funding on strategies proven to boost student achievement will receive the second half of stimulus money (ibid).

The conservative, pro-business Detroit News went on to call for merit pay for teachers, commenting in their editorial that:

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan should create a merit-based system to dole out state-controlled stimulus dollars. He should also work to ensure the money is spent on long-term strategies such as a statewide program to cut the dropout rate (ibid).

They are not alone.  Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers came out for merit pay on January 11th, 2010, coincidently 8 days before applications were to be turned in for round one of Race to the Top, the ingenious privatized overhaul put in place by Arne Duncan, Obama’s new Secretary of State.  In a speech delivered January 12, 2010 in Washington, Weingarten called for more frequent and more rigorous evaluations of public schoolteachers, and she says she will assert that standardized test scores and other measures of student performance should be an integral part of the evaluation process (Herbert, Bob, NY Times, 1/11/2010,  She should be targeted next for removal by the rank and file; her stature has been nothing but capitulation to the whole idea of the Arne Duncan Race to the Top and she is clearly selling out her members to get in bed with the for-profit and non-profit charter gang.

Two years  ago, when Weingarten was president of the United Federation of Teachers (the  huge AFT local that represents New York City public school teachers  and aides), she bought into a “merit pay” plan pushed by New York Mayor Bloomberg and NYC schools chancellor Joe Klein. That scheme was organized and funded by Eli Broad, the philanthro-capitalist.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Ms. Weingarten was one of the trainers for the first class of trainees from Broad’s Urban Superintendents Academy.  In last year’s New Yorker article on Steve Barr and his Green Dot Public Schools, Weingarten is   quoted as virtually saying:

I’m with you, but I need some cover if I’m going to get my members to go along (McCray, Douglas, “The Instigator”, May 11, 2009, The New Yorker,

Weingarten is also not missing a beat to throw out one hundred or more years of tenure law in her rush to collaborate with the Arne Duncan plan.  She even went so far as to point to Detroit as a beacon for trusting and respectful labor management relations.

The union has asked Kenneth Feinberg, the federal government’s so-called pay czar, to develop a more efficient method for disciplining — and when necessary, removing — teachers accused of misconduct.  Feinberg was appointed by John Ashcroft to head the 911 fund (Herbert, Bob, NY Times, “A serious proposal” January 11, 2010  The assumption of course is that teachers are hurting public education when it is the politics of disaster that is the culprit.

This summer at the national AFT union convention, one can be sure there will be a fight, much like Detroit teachers are waging against Keith Johnson, to remove Randi Weingarten whose sell-out representation has left public schools under tremendous threat and working people without representation.

Heroes and Villains

All of this is an attempt to paint working class teachers as villains when in fact the culprit is the economic devastation caused by over thirty years of unregulated capitalism accompanied by apartheid education, more separate and more unequal.  It is also an attempt to drive down teacher pay, kill labor unions and abandon teachers to the marketplace where they will be subordinated as ‘associates’ to CEO’s who are clueless about education but often penal in their management.

The real villains, of course, are the enablers, the politicians and the muscular business-talking entrepreneurs who think an investment in education is good for their portfolios – the privatizers who push charter schools on our kids and communities.  The fact is they neither care about education for minority youth, nor have they blasted the system of racial apartheid that has grown up in and around Detroit over decades.
Detroit is a city that is 80% African American and many African Americans over decades, regardless of income levels, have been indirectly or even in some cases directly, forced into living in neighborhoods that were segregated through redlining and other means.  The suburbs have captured the imagination of the white middle class who have been escaping the city for years, trying to hunt down better education for their kids.  But the segregation has severely affected the city and the economic policies of the neo-liberal agenda of allying government with corporate power and control has been economically decimating for residents of the city

The egalitarian principles that underlie public education are incompatible with the high levels of extreme social inequality that characterize American society today. Therefore the fight to defend the right to universal access to high-quality education is inextricably tied to a broader struggle for social equality and the reorganization of society in the interests of the working class.  This is the same struggle we see in the health care debate.  The corporatist city administrators and union executives say there is no money for education, but as noted:

This claim, promoted by the entire political establishment, is simply a lie. Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan will cost an additional $30 billion a year. Thanks to an unprecedented government bailout of the banks, the top 23 Wall Street firms will hand out an estimated $145 billion this year. The $200 million deficit of the Detroit Public Schools—which serves 94,000 students—would be wiped out with the money being paid out to a half dozen investment bankers and traders this year (The way forward for Detroit teachers, (

It is very clear now that teachers throughout the country must follow Detroit’s lead and unite with other public workers to demand better pay, oppose No Child Left Behind, loss of tenure and merit pay as the undergarments of the Race to the Top and save public education in favor of a corporate model; they will need to mobilize parents and students along with community members and other public unions to rush down to city hall and make their voices heard and their feelings felt.  The good news is that this is now happening as teachers, parents and the community of Detroit deal with the reckless and tsunami policies of neo-liberalism.

You can contact: Donna Stern, of By Any Means Necessary for more information at: or contact By Any Means Necessary at