Detroit Teachers Strike Again

On Sunday, August 27, 2006, the assembled teachers of the Detroit Federation of Teachers voted with no noticeable dissent to strike against demands for massive concessions from the school board. There are about 9,000 DFT members. The board wants them to make $89 million in concessions (nearly $10,000 per school worker). The board threatens to lay off 2000 union members if concessions are not met. The strike begins on Monday, August 28.

Detroit teachers wildcatted in 1999, defying their corrupt sellout union leadership, defying the state law and the governor, defying the Detroit school board. They struck for “books, supplies, lower class size!” and wages as well. In some ways, they won practical gains from their wildcat, and, above all, they showed that rank and file school workers can indeed take matters into their own hands, and get away with it.

Despite threats of firing, jail, and docked pay (coming from the AFT union hacks, the governor, the mayor, and the school board combined), nothing happened to a single teacher—because they stuck together, withdrew their labor, and enforced the strike with considerable spontaneous community support. (Here is the longer story : http//

From 1999-2005 Detroit suffered through a takeover of the schools by the state (not a single member of the takeover board had a thing to do with education, they were all bosses of failed corporations, like Chrysler, one was a coke-head suburban mom who inherited a company, but was afraid to enter Detroit, so she was allowed to attend meetings by cell phone, citizens could hear here ordering her maid, Lucita, around in the background).

At the first takeover board meeting, SWAT teams with fully automatic rifles surrounded the meeting place, snipers on nearby roofs covered the scene, an armed personnel carrier was not hidden from view, and armed guards escorted the arriving takeover board members into the room.

At the beginning of the meeting, the chairman urged SWAT team members to attack a group of middle-school girls who had arrived carrying signs, and had done nothing more. The cops did attack them with riot batons, heaved them bodily out the doors, setting the stage for future meetings. The iron fist behind the velvet glove of schooling stood clearly exposed. But citizens, seeing themselves stripped of recourse, disrupted board meetings routinely, despite arrests and beatings.

The takeover ended in complete failure (test scores nosedived, the number of failing schools doubled), but the bond money that was earmarked for school construction was looted by members of the takeover board and their allies, and the schools spiraled deeper into ruin.

Detroit is the most segregated city in the US. It is a walled area of apartheid. In the early 1950’s, nearly two million people lived there. It was the number one city in the nation for single family homes. Working families could survive fairly well, with one person working. Now, there are less than 800, 000 people in Detroit. A common mayoral boast is that he can bulldoze 10,000 vacant homes a year. The main thing that caused the exodus was racism. Most white people living in the metro Detroit area never enter Detroit in their lifetimes, except to hurry in to a sporting event, and escape—not unlike how San Diego walls out its poor, in Mexico.

The city has a long, long history of radicalism, and resistance. The communist-led UAW once had a deep base in Detroit. The Detroit Rebellion of 1967 was a massive antiracist armed uprising, aimed mostly at the police. It was an integrated rebellion, and it took the 82nd airborne coming back from Vietnam to quell the fight-back. In the early seventies, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, and other Marxist-inspired rank and file auto caucuses led by young black workers, seized plants and fought the UAW leadership in the streets, just as their forefathers had fought the Ford cops and goon squads.

Most of the people who could afford to leave Detroit, have left. Some dedicated antiracists remain. But the city is still mired with corrupt leadership, incompetence at nearly every level of government, most of its leadership manipulated by white suburbanites.

Schools are key to the city’s survival. The Detroit Public School figures, which can almost never be trusted, show that more than 11,000 students have left DPS each year for the last decade. My figures suggest that far more than that left the schools (each year there is a bogus in-school count that is corrupted in an infinite number of creative ways), but 11,000 a year is devastating to a school budget.

Now, the DPS school workers are trapped once again. They fought back, heroically, in 1999, because they had to fight back. School conditions were really that bad. Ninety year old schools had no heat, or were heated with coal, giving everyone in the building asthma. There were few, if any, school libraries. Some buildings had more broken windows that went unrepaired for months in winter. Kids arrived hungry, only to be abused by administrators. Police sweeps, attacks on kids, were common. One principal scheduled each late August for a police sweep in the area around his school swept by cops, arresting everyone in sight, simply to set the atmosphere for the year.

In the spring of 2006, students at one high school staged a protest about the absence of books, supplies, even toilet paper. More than 30 of them were arrested and jailed. After they were released, the students complained that they had textbooks for but one in three kids, while the principal luxuriated in an office with a plasma TV. Principals and other administrators in DPS have, rightly, suffered a reputation of corruption and betrayal.

The 2006 job action will be different from the spirited wildcat of 1999 which only took place because one courageous teacher stormed onto the speakers platform, seized a microphone, and said, ‘everyone who wants to strike, walk to your left; everyone who does not want to strike, walk to the right.’ More than 90 percent of the school workers walked left, and hit the picket lines, making the protests of their union bosses irrelevant.

The 2006 strike, to begin on August 28, Monday, is endorsed by the DFT leadership, always a signal that a trick may be in the works.

School for kids in Michigan does not begin until after Labor Day, the result of heavy lobbying from the tourism industry in a state where the collapse of heavy industry decimated employment and profits. That start date means the strike will drag on for a week, meaning nothing at all as it is a ‘teachers-only,’ week.

In this wasted week, teachers will be drilled with threats about the illegality and disruptive nature of the strike. Union leadership, which has done virtually nothing to prepare for the strike, will be able to soften the teachers with days and days of useless picketing, yet earn a bogus reputation for militance while they issue spurious reports of tough bargaining .

And, in after a week, it might be easy for the union leadership, in collusion with the board, to cut back on falsely monstrous concession demands (say $60 million rather than $90 million), split the work force by making entry- level school workers take most of the burden, and declare a victory.

Or, the strike could spin out of control. It may be that the school worker force really does have the DFT leadership cornered between impossible concession demands, and the fear of their well-paid staff jobs. However, that kind of resistance would require serious organizing, a rank and file opposition well-prepared with a sensible plan for resistance, and none of that is on the horizon as yet.

It did not have to be this way. The DFT leadership, or their rank and file opposition, could have easily seen this strike coming months ago.

They could have used the tremendous potential power of school workers, centripetally positioned in a city where the pivotal point of most peoples’ lives is school, and walked door to door, explaining their struggle, the need for unity around not merely books, supplies, and lower class size, but around a just tax system, taxing wealth from multiple sources: Tax the rich. After all, if human needs and education are the issue, Detroit needs about double the work force, not 1/4 less.

Equally, if not more, important, would have been to carry with that door-to-door, person to person, campaign, a plan to establish freedom schools for people who not only are desperate for the free baby-sitting service provide to corporations which refuse to offer it to employees, but people who truly want their kids to learn something of significant, something that will help them learn why things are as they are, how to understand and change the world—-something that is offered in nearly no schools now.

Freedom schooling, imbued with a curriculum of the critique of capitalism, aimed high at democracy and equality, and buttressed by parent/student/teacher/community solidarity, could be a showcase of what schooling could really be. And it would send shivers up and down the weak spines of the school board, and the wealthy interests they serve.

But these preparations have not been made, although they quickly could be made during the phony strike week before Labor Day.

Both sides, the DFT and the board, claim a strike could destroy what remains of the once-model Detroit Public Schools, destroyed by, above all, the connection of racism, opportunism, and profits. A fine case could be made that the Detroit Public Schools are already in ruins, and all that is left is to bury them. Thousands of students are flocking to charters inside the city, others cross the district boundary to enter collapsing school systems like Oak Park, while others are simply forced out of the state as their parents search for work.

An equally good case can be made that Detroit is now completely ghettoized, that those who remain in the city are fully trapped, and that the extermination of education in the city is only indicative of a society which has nothing to offer black youth but prison or the military, fighting the enemies of their enemies. Most Detroit schools can be easily described as either pre-prison, or pre-military, though some elite few (Renaissance High, Cass Tech, etc) still get the basic supplies necessary to conduct, say, pre-teacher training.

People who are trapped and without hope tend to rebel, as evidenced in the city’s past uprisings, or, at a distance, the rebellions in France of 1968 and 2005.

In the past, though, Detroit’s rebels were always able to hold something hostage; not people, but property. Buildings could be, and were, put to the torch, looted, as were police stations. Now, there is little of value left in the city, other than sports stadiums in an easily defended, and largely unpopulated, small downtown area.

Given that segregation carried on to the extremes of Detroit always means, at the end of the day, death (life expectancy alone is a good indicator), a rebellion could trigger repression that might be compared to Hurricane Katrina, where racist neglect allowed more than 1400 people to die, and left the poor of New Orleans devastated, while the rich now see opportunities to exploit.

Where is hope in all this? Hope is owed to no one. Hope is created in the persistent and usually wise resistance that the vast majority of the people in the world must engage if they are to survive. Hope is also, however, located in wise leadership, something that Detroit school workers must create, fast, if their struggle is to be won.

RICH GIBSON lived and worked in Detroit for most of his adult life, teaching at Wayne State for the last six years. He moved to San Diego State in September 2000. He can be reached at:



Rich Gibson is an emeritus professor at San Diego State and a co-founder of the Rouge Forum.