In August of this year, over 7,000 employees of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) gathered outside of Cobo Center in downtown Detroit chanting “No Contract, No Work!” They had rejected the demeaning offer of the Detroit Public Schools which included a 5.55 percent salary reduction and salary freeze, a 10 percent across-the-board raise in insurance costs, a reduction in sick days, and an increase in prescription co-pays.
Detroit teachers were already among the lowest paid public teachers in the state of Michigan. The teachers had also loaned the district five days of pay in 2005 and have yet to be paid back (and most likely will not be). Work conditions for the teachers include daily interactions with gangs, guns, and drug dealers. Most of the students are impoverished (three-times higher poverty rate than the rest of the state). The schools suffer from shortages of books, toilet paper, heat, running water, and other necessary supplies. Teachers often have to make up for the public schools’ shortfalls themselves. We aren’t talking about a few dollars either. To the credit of the teachers, they selflessly spend on average $1,200 a year on school supplies for students.
Detroit teachers are there for Detroit’s kids when little else is. According to the government report “The State of Literacy in America”, forty-seven percent of Detroit’s adults are functionally illiterate. Three out of four children are born to single mothers. Unemployment is as high as fifty percent in some parts of Detroit. Schools are in many ways a pre-prison, pre-minimum wage day care for the working poor. Also new to Detroit are a slew of casinos, aimed at increasing tourism, but which instead only drain the money from workers’ meager social security and unemployment checks. Detroit is the city of the future, the future of all cities under capitalism.
The teachers’s demands were not extravagant when they went on strike. They demanded a three-year contract, a five percent annual raise, for students who threaten a teacher to be transferred to another class, for students who assault teachers to be transferred to another school, union oversight of all school spending, and requiring the district to represent the teachers in school-related lawsuits.
The demand for union oversight over educational spending is not of secondary importance. According to many reports, Detroit has one of the most corrupt school districts in the nation. Fittingly, Detroit is also reputed to have one of the most corrupt city governments as well. William Coleman III, a school board member, refuses to release the school district’s budget. A 2006 audit revealed the Detroit Public Schools was missing nearly one million dollars in federal grants. This money must be paid back to the federal government. Coleman also hired his wife to a six-figure job and gave all administrators a ten percent raise. It would seem the Detroit School Board’s members (most of whom are Democrats) are learning lessons from corporate America, and playing the part of executives.
Michigan’s Draconian labor laws make it illegal for public employees to strike. Teachers can be fined a day’s wages and their union fined $5,000 for each day they don’t work. This is the way the state treats its workers. Yet while the state claims there is no more money for schools, new baseball and football stadiums, and possibly a new hockey arena are somehow affordable.
After a fierce and determined strike, the Detroit city teachers were pressured by the school board, local and state government to accept a “compromise” offer. They signed to a 3-year tentative agreement, with a 1 percent raise the second year, and a 2.5 percent raise the third year. The concessions also call for a 2 percent budget cut for the district, which means fewer services for the students and the community.
The teachers must now pay for 10 percent of their insurance co-pays. They will also lose pay for the days of the strike. The school day is now extended for many teachers, and they will have less sick days available. All of these things mean a pay cut in real terms, especially when you take into account the rate of inflation and the out-of-pocket expenses that will be needed to make up for the 2 percent budget cut.
In the days leading up to “student count day”, the day on which the school census is taken, Detroit Public Schools were missing 25,000 students. Each missing student would cost the district $7,450 dollars in state funds. This would force layoffs and school closings. Many students have left for charter schools or were lured to nearby districts by pricey advertising campaigns.
How would a businessman posing as a school board member respond? By bribing students to return for the census! Schools spent tens of thousands to offer children free breakfast, ice cream, cookies and movie tickets. Raffles were drawn for prizes such as gift cards from sports and electronics stores. A laptop computer was given away at each school. Some of the desperate schools held pizza parties and dances to encourage students to attend. This sad farce is what passes for an education in Detroit these days.
The profit motive of capitalism propels the educational system from one crisis to the next. Schools are seen merely as part of a multi-billion dollar industry, not places for a genuine education. Working people and their children deserve better. Detroit’s teachers should look to the example of the teachers of Oaxaca and the Bolivarian Circles of Venezuela, who are organizing grassroots working class action to fight for improvements not only in wages and conditions, but also for a fundamental change in the way society is run.
Thanks to Rich Gibson for his articles on this topic.