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Barbarism Rising

Detroit and the International War of the Rich on the Poor

by RICH GIBSON

Every Detroit teacher was fired in the fall of 2012.

Apparently, the nation did not notice. Hence, this story.

On March 26, 2013, 78% of the voting members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers ratified a contract which DFT president, Keith Johnson, called, “terrible.”

The contract mirrors, does not improve, an edict imposed on the union by an “Emergency Manager,” Roy Roberts, a black 74-year-old former manager at the failed General Motors corporation, once the most powerful company in the world now commonly called Government Motors. Roberts was appointed by Michigan Governor Snyder, effectively setting aside all the key actions of the elected Detroit School Board–the third state takeover in 25 years. None of them repaired the school system.

The DFT contract, though, does allow the union to continue to collect dues, the pacified labor of its members sold to Roberts for the term of the contract. DFT president Johnson will continue to receive his $142,000 salary as the rank and file accept another set of wage and benefit concessions.

Concessions, DFT members should have learned, don’t save jobs. Beginning in 1996, the DFT made concession on concession until, in the fall of 2012, every Detroit public school teacher was effectively fired and forced to reapply for a position. Hundreds of them, including teachers with 20 years and more seniority, one of them a former DFT vice president, have never been recalled.

Even before Roberts arrived, Detroit Public Schools had been shifted into a “Good School/Bad School” system, somewhat parallel to the “Good bank/Bad Bank” plan of the bailout days. Good schools get funded. Bad schools organize decay.

GM, at nearly the time of Robert’s birth, was, faced down in the Great Flint Strike of 1937 by the militant, class conscious, United Auto Workers union–seizing buildings, fighting back cops and troops. The first industrial contract was won by direct action. Where is the resistance today?

We shall see how the DFT, UAW, Johnson, Roberts, and the union movement reflect one another as the world, Detroit, and Michigan, writhe in a rising tide of barbarism–booming inequality and a real promise of endless war–that can only be combated by the potential of a mass, activist, class conscious movement which connects reason to power–for equality and justice.

The parent body of the DFT, the American Federation of Teachers, was among the first, along with the UAW, to openly redefine the relationship of unions, their members, and employers. Once defined best by the term, “contradiction,” both unions at the top adopted what once AFT president Al Shanker, and later NEA presidents, called “New Unionism.” The UAW was more direct: “Partners in Production.” Long before the 2008-09 bailouts, the union tops joined government officials and corporate bosses to declare their unity, not noting that meant the rank and file, and most of the rest of the world, would be on the other side.

The DFT now has but 4,000 members, one-third its size a decade ago, while the UAW looks at the same fate, but about 25% of its size in the union’s heyday. Wages for Detroit school workers, like auto workers, have collapsed while, in the schools and the factories, new hires work for half what the more senior employees earn.

The Detroit Public Schools were once heralded as the finest urban school system in the US, serving more than 299,000 students. Those schools, like all capitalist schools, were never truly public but always segregated by class and race, even within the city. Depending primarily on birth-class, students were taught different “facts,” by teachers (whose dress differed) using different methods, in distinctly different facilities.

Today, the divide is even more glaring. The Detroit Federation of Teachers, in 90% black Detroit, is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two national teachers’ unions, representing for the most part, urban areas.

Suburban Michigan, overwhelmingly white, is represented by the Michigan Education Association, linked to the larger National Education Association. The racial divide between DFT and MEA hasn’t been demolished by the union leaders, and now it’s being used to demolish their members. MEA stood aside and let Detroit rot, doing nothing. Detroit’s conditions, and management demands for concessions, spread throughout the state–an injury to one preceding an injury to all, a slogan too dangerous for today’s labor bosses.

The same conditions prevail nationwide. Eighty percent of the US teaching force is white. Minority teachers mostly remain located in the most urban areas while suburban school kids are taught by a white teaching force. The national school system is as segregated as it was at the time of Brown vs. the Board of Education; white students being the most fully segregated body.

Not too long ago, most youth could project a somewhat better life than their parents. No more. The false promise of the Obama ruse, “Anyone can make it,” is statistically shattered by the fact that the generation exiting school will do worse that their elders; probably much worse.

It follows that the commonplace call to “Save Public Schools,” is rooted in myth. It’s a demand to more deeply empower what is now a full blown corporate state, promoting a unity which never existed, insisting on a tax increase that will invariably be aimed at those working people who still have jobs, and, importantly, it is a fountain of school worker opportunism: “Save my job, pay me, and I will implement the national curriculum, proctor racist high-stakes exams, and be silent about the militarization of every level of schooling.”

Inherent in “Save Public Schools” is the nationalist view that we all share a common goal to educate all kids in a democratic society. That’s never been the case. It is, though, a good way to make a war popular.

Better: Rescue Education from the Ruling Classes! 

“Save Public Schools” is usually followed by: “Stop Privatization;” targeting charter schools.

But privatization misreads reality.

The education project is an imperfect, but true, merger of the corporate, government, and military levels of US government–as were the bi-partisan bailouts of 2008 and the current bi-partisan wars.

Nearly all charter schools are, in fact, publicly funded, subject to public–if corporatized regulations.

In a word: state fascism. It cannot be made gentle nor more democratic. Why offer this perverse structure a cover of legitimacy and more power still?

Today, in fully segregated Detroit, there are less than 55,000 students. A charter system, mostly owned by private operations but funded with public money, holds another 55,000–if internal DPS figures can be trusted. Typically, they cannot. In DPS, for example, every employee at every level has had an interest in inflating attendance numbers. In capitalist schools, every child actually in a schoolroom represents a dollar value.

Corruption and incompetence ran rampant at every level of public life in Detroit for a century, but it hurt more as wealth left the city.

Days before the DFT contract ratification, the Council of Foreign Relations, led by war-hawk Condoleeza Rice (“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,”) issued its Education Task Force Report, demonstrating in clear terms that the education agenda is a war agenda: class and empire’s wars.

“Human capital will determine power in the current century, and the failure to produce that capital will undermine America’s security…Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy.”

In the midst of World War I, a general demanded that the schools become “human munition factories.” That capitalist schools serve a capitalist state is key to grasping the war project at hand.

We can restate that the education agenda is a war agenda from another standpoint: The school unions’ relationship with The National Endowment for Democracy and Education International. NED is a well-recognized CIA front while EI is the inheritor of the CIA sponsored international teacher unions.

Leaders from both school unions retire to Education International where their salaries are not disclosed. But NEA’s ex-president, Reg Weaver is there. He was paid $686,949 for his last year in office, in a union where many teachers live in house trailers. Former NEA president Mary Hatwood Futrell is at EI. Current NEA president Dennis Van Roekel ($465,000 a year and an expense account he can live on) will surely be there. He’ll join Ed MCelroy who “serves on the board of directors of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Education International, and ThanksUSA. McElroy is a member of the board of directors for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)-a private, nonprofit organization created to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts.” (AFT web site).

The vacillating reactionary, current for-profit press and education “reform” favorite, Diane Ravitch served at the NED and is still saluting the flag and God-blessing America with the best of them.

Labor imperialism, theoretically propelled by the idea that US workers will do better if the world’s workers do worse, and in practice the AFL-CIO’s backing of CIA-corporate adventures all over the world, may have served a relatively tiny number of US workers for a short time, but at the end of the day, it inevitably failed. The lack of international solidarity of working class people is destroying the lives of workers all over the world, and the members of the AFL-CIO as well. That the class war is also a classroom war is, due to de-industrialization, a significant particular, developing world-wide.

Inside the USA, both school unions’ leaders participated in the construction of the Bush No Child Left Behind Act, the Obama move of Race to the Top, and now the nationally regimented curricula, the Common Core standards which will redouble the frenzy around high-stakes testing–and merit pay. Elites know why they have schools, if the work force never considers it.

School workers produce value in capital’s markets. When educators and kids arrive in school, they confront a billion dollar business, more powerful than unorganized kids and teachers. This is part of the answer to the critical question that is rarely asked: Why have school? Educators shape the next generation of workers and military volunteers, labor power, and they generate hope, real or false; a lynchpin of social order, control. People in pacified areas become instruments of their own oppression.

In 2012, Michigan labor, the AFL-CIO and NEA combined, placed a bill on the state ballot to make collective bargaining a legal right. They were reacting to a legislative right-to-work bill the Governor said he would not sign. In effect, the bill sought to win by a vote what had never been won in that manner–rather, victory through building seizures a la Flint in 1937, strikes, and related job actions.

In an atmosphere in which unions had proved themselves to be concession machines on the one hand, and gobblers of the public treasury on the other, Michigan electors rejected the measure. Seeing that, Governor Snyder signed the right-to-work bill, which became law in 2013.

Instead of a vote; why not build for a statewide strike?

The last thing a labor leader in the US wants is a mass of truly class conscious workers who are ready to take direct action in order to control their work places on a daily basis. On one hand, if that was the case, the labor leaders would have nothing to sell the bosses, i.e., labor peace would not be theirs to peddle, but democratically controlled by the members and, on the other hand, such a conscious mass of people would never tolerate labor leaders who make four and five times the wages of average rank and filers, live completely different lives, more in common with employers.

Simultaneous to the issuance of the Council on Foreign Relations report, the Michigan legislature passed a bill that would spread “Emergency Manager” school powers throughout the state in an Education Achievement Authority. The EM is to identify and take over up to 50 state schools, those in the bottom five percentile on test scores. The school workers may be effectively fired, as in Detroit, and, if re-hired, have no collective bargaining rights. New hires would be placed outside the Michigan retirement system.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers, since 1997, did fight back. The members launched both authorized and wildcat strikes–the latter led by radical dissident Steve Conn, a teacher at Detroit’s Cass Tech High School. Conn led the 1999 wildcat, initiating it by shouting, “All in favor of the strike walk over here,” in a mass meeting in Cobo Hall. At least 90% of the members moved.

The DFT members struck again in 2006.  One of the more famous quotes by a teacher: “We asked for nothing and won less.” Time and again, DFT leaders lied about the nature of the contracts put up for ratification, until well after the votes were counted.

In each instance, the members were defeated, in the main, by their own elected leaders. In contract after contract, the DFT leaders, from John Elliot to Keith Johnson, urged concession on concession. Conn, who I believe was robbed of the DFT presidency in a fraudulent vote count in 2011, was “suspended” from membership for months–sidelined. He’s been silent since.

On the management side, a low was reached in 2010 when General School Superintendent Teresa Gueyser complained that Otis Mathis, school board president, “repeatedly fondled himself,” in front of her. Mathis was removed but not before current school board member Reverend (changed his name, not a “reverend”) David Murray complained, “well men do have these urges. He’s a young man. That’s just the way it is.” Murray has had his children removed from his care by Protective Services. And he was re-elected.

From the material angle, Detroit’s Takeover School boards, imposed by a succession of Governor’s beginning in the mid-nineties with former Wayne State University president David Adamany, did nothing to improve DPS by their own standard: test scores. School reform in the absence of social reform fails: think devastating poverty.

The Takeover leaders did build a dozen new schools in a district losing ten thousand students a year–and completely refurbished others, to the delight of suburban developers.

Now, the new schools sit empty, stripped by “Scrappers,” a respected local profession. When the district put fences around the empty buildings, scrappers took the fences.

In 2012, Arne Duncan, education attack dog for the demagogue Obama, called Detroit, “the worst school system in the country.” It’s a tough competition for the bottom, especially in Michigan, what with Flint, Benton Harbor, and other cities destroyed much like Detroit, but smaller.

 

When the Michigan right-to-work law banned dues check-off in 2012, DFT’s, Keith Johnson, complained in the union’s newspaper, the “Detroit Teacher,” that 86% of the teachers quit and wouldn’t re-sign.

 

Only a subsequent judge’s injunction now keeps the DFT financially afloat, a double-edged indicator-the courts want the union to exist since it has so helped heap concession on concession on the work force (10% pay cuts last year, gutted health benefits, etc., and this year, the contract imposed by the Emergency Financial Manager-EFM–even worse).

Interviewed in late 2012, Joel Scott, a former 15 year Cass Tech teacher, said, “Keith and AFT’s boss, Randi Weingarten, killed their own golden goose. What were they thinking? They must have known that even the last contract would kill the union, and now this one did. I think they must believe that the end is coming; they’ll grab whatever they can, keep deceiving people, and run away at the last moment. They’re the flip side of finance capitalists.”

Scott went on, “The real tragedy is for the kids and the rank and file members. Detroit kids will get doubly mis-educated, learn again not to like to learn, and the members are going to lose homes, after all their sacrifices.”

Now in Detroit, Scott says, “It’s a vampire city. All the lights on Warren are off; pitch darkness. [Warren is a major street on the west side]. Nobody is going to send their kids to a failed Detroit school. That will be the end of the system. It’s done.”

Emergency Manager Roberts projects a gloomy DPS future–but brighter than probably reality. He believes there will be 38,488 students by 2015. His predecessor, Robert Bobb, paid $450,000 a year, projected 58,000, but the slide continues while false hope in shape shifter forms is dangled before the kids and parents of the city–perhaps in real hopes of preventing another urban uprising.

The steady loss of students places the school system, like the city, on the edge of bankruptcy.

The ongoing sorting to the suburbs and to charters means that 20% of DPS kids are in special ed, requiring extra finances the system does not have.

In December 2012, the US Department of Education issued a report saying but 7% of DPS kids in the 8th grade were “proficient in reading.” Only 4% were found proficient in math.

Schools, everyone from the Skillman Foundation to for-profit reporters to me, knew, are the key to the city’s survival. Detroit needed young people with kids, central to recreating the city’s tax system, filling the empty homes to overcome the scary crime rate and to make Detroit truly liveable, as it was, a delight, 40 years ago.

In the nineties, several literacy studies reported that nearly 50% of Detroiters are functionally illiterate. That is not my experience, not at that level, and having lived there half of my adult life, I say it’s a stretch, but I’ll agree the adult educational levels are more than troubling. A recent study concluded that half of Michigan residents read below the 6th grade level. In many cases, four generations of Detroiters never had a job. Unemployment among city youth is well over 50 percent.

Crime grows. Rapes and robberies were up 23% in the first months of 2013. Murders often do not get investigated: statistics are murky. Officially, murders were up about 10% at 379. A top official said, “We have lost respect for life in Detroit.”

Two-thirds of the buildings in the city, public and private, are vacant, the Mayor making unfulfilled promises year after year to bulldoze thousands of them.

Like the schools, Mayor Bing (yes, the suburban basket-baller) wants to divide the city into the Good Area/Bad Area zones. Pockets of the city are still peopled. Bing hopes to force those in areas which are mostly vacated to move into the more densely populated areas. But homes in Detroit are nearly worthless. Who will pay the moving expenses?

Detroit city government itself was taken over by an Emergency Manager on March 25th. The city, like the school system, is broke–in every conceivable way.

Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his father were convicted, in March, of a variety of felony embezzlement charges. The former police chief is in jail. Monica Conyers, wife of Congressman John, was just released. The chief of homicide has been charged with corruption and perjury. City Council President Charles Pugh had his home foreclosed.

The city has not produced a single honest and competent top leader since the death of popular radical lawyer Ken Cockrell Sr., more than twenty years ago: 1989.

Emergency Detroit Manager Orr is a bankruptcy specialist; worked on the auto bankruptcies. Many, probably most, see him using the weapon he plainly declared he held: a bankruptcy that could wipe out contracts, wages, benefits, and pensions, a la the auto bailout which cut auto workers pay by nearly half, with the UAW’s blessing and their cheers for the demagogue, Obama.

One way rulers stay in power is to choose and back the opposition’s leaders. Orr promised to keep City Council members’, and Bing’s, pay at current levels. A hug-fest ensued.

Poverty hustler Jesse Jackson quickly arrived in Detroit while the local preachers mounted a fake resistance. Mysticism, on the rise world wide, will not solve Detroit’s crisis. Proof? The counterfeit Arab Spring.

Other than the courageous fall 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, which has profound problems with its cries to “Save Public Schooling,” and “Save Our (sic) Schools” an ideological cul-de-sac which fails to address the whole of the problem, silent about the wars as well, there has been virtually no resistance from the US school worker force, the most unionized people in the US.

Indeed, even after four years of bashing from Democrat Arne Duncan, the personification of George W. Bush’s education program on hyper-speed, more than 95% 9,000 members of the NEA, rank and file teachers, voted to endorse an Obama second term. By the same percentage, they voted not to discuss the bi-partisan wars, an indicator of the power of the empire’s bribe.

What explains the absence of resistance in poor and working communities? Surely, there have been false flags. The Occupy movement, declaring neither leaders nor ideas, occupied nothing significant, was swept away by “hope and change!” and some minimal, if co-ordinated, police violence.

More:

*The initial anti-war marches involved hundreds of thousands of people early in 2002, yet they have vanished, evaporated. Why?

*The massive Mayday Immigrant Rights marches have been repeated, but only under nationalist and religious banners as they to begin to disappear.

*The anti-tuition hike actions, mainly in California but all over the US, were attacked, and seduced—gone.

*Wisconsin and Michigan were farcical electoral moves and both states are right-to-work bastions—where once unionism originated.

*The Arab Spring, posed in the corporate press as a series of revolutions, became the Muslim Brotherhood’s Summer.

Consumerism plays a role. With two-thirds of the US economy based on debt-driven consumption, American society is not likely to produce the solidarity built into industrial work places. Rather, the buyer faces the seller, at odds, each playing to get the better of the other.

Spectacles: the best in the Southwest being the annual Miramar (north San Diego) Air Show’s conclusion: The Wall of Fire. There, 250,000 people, adults holding babies aloft for a good view, witness a massive series of explosions, not merely a wall of fire, but burning napalm. Nobody seems to remember the burning children of Vietnam, echoing Chalmers Johnson’s thought: “Americans know so little history they cannot connect cause and effect.” Johnson predicted, before his death, the Drones would fly at home. Now they do.

Militarism: war means work and now, the military poses its mission as “a job, not an adventure,” as it moves to recruit women for combat because American men are too uneducated, too addicted, too convicted, and too unfit to fill the numbers needed for cannon fodder.

Nationalism. Racism. Sexism. The usual suspects added in do not sum up to a good explanation of the mass hysterical conversion crisis that produces a world of barbarians, top to bottom, Obama to Hillary to Kerry to Afghanistan’s Karzai to Morsi of Egypt to the guardians of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the lowliest 14-year-old suicide bomber purchased by the Pakistan Taliban, or Al Qaeda, for $4,000.

With many people of the world rejecting Soviet-style socialism, never much more than capitalism with a party at the top promising benevolence in the distant future–which was all of socialism–and either rejecting, or failing to grasp, the West’s twins, capitalist exploitation and imperialist war, the project noted at the outset, connecting reasoned class conscious to unified power for equality and justice, is more urgent than ever, and surely more interesting than the shopping decade of the nineties.

More united than ever by systems of capital–transportation, communications, technology, science, exploration, marketing and more–the world is as divided as ever through nationalism, racism, sexism, mysticism, and the rise of fascism as a popular movement in varying forms–picking sides perhaps for World War III.

Even so, school workers are situated at the centripetal organizing point of North America’s de-industrialized life. The do not have to operate the school-to-war pipeline. Indeed, if they begin to recognize the contradiction between why they think they are they, and why elites want them there, perhaps those educators can rescue education from the ruling classes—then help to expose the false mandate from heaven that offers dishonest and incompetent leaders legitimacy they do not deserve,

At base: it’s vital to grasp the whole of why things are as they are and that it is right to rebel. Justice, however, demands organization. It is that, or barbarism.

Dr Rich Gibson is emeritus professor of Social Studies at San Diego State University. He lived most of his adult life in Detroit, most of that at Ardmore and Seven Mile Road. He worked as a foundry worker, an ambulance driver, a pot and pan washer, a teacher, a social worker, and as a Wayne State University professor in the College of Education. With about ten other people, he helped to found what is now the largest local in the UAW, local 6000, not auto-workers, but state employees. He can be reached at rgibson@pipeline.com