Widespread public support for teachers strike in Detroit, Michigan, suburb

By Lawrence Porter
11 October 2008

Wayne-Westland teachers on the picket lineThe first Michigan teachers' strike outside of Detroit since 1994 took place in the city's suburb of Wayne-Westland this week. Teachers in the 13,500-student district went on strike for four days against the refusal of the school board to bargain in good faith and address demands for lower classroom sizes and the maintenance of the teachers' health plan.

On Thursday, the fourth day of the strike, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Macdonald ruled in favor of a request by the Wayne-Westland Board of Education to force the teachers back to work. The 900 teachers returned to work on Friday.

Macdonald also ordered that no disciplinary measures be taken against the striking teachers. The judge will oversee the bargaining process going forward.

On Friday morning, the first day of classes, several hundred students outside of John Glenn High School, held an impromptu rally in support of the teachers, chanting, "No contract, no school," with more than 100 deciding not to attend classes.

"I love my teachers, and my biggest class has 47 students, and there is nowhere to sit down," 17-year-old Katie Burns told the Detroit News. Burns said she was not planning to go to school. "My art teacher doesn't have enough supplies for anybody."

The strike has won widespread support among students and parents who joined the picket lines. A school board meeting was packed earlier in the week with parents and students angrily denouncing the board for refusing to meet with the teacher's union.

At a rally to announce the decision of the court, the union president, Nancy Strachan, head of the Wayne-Westland Education Association, an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association, said the union won a victory despite the order to return to work. Strachan said later, "I don't feel it's a sign of surrender. The teachers want to be back in school and be back with the students, but at the same time, they want a fair and equitable contract."

In fact, there is no guarantee that any of the demands of the teachers will be met in the negotiating process.

The strike was being carefully followed throughout the state, where more than 12 school districts are in stalled contract talks, as school boards have refused to negotiate expired contracts.

According to the Michigan Education Association, to which the Wayne-Westland teachers are affiliated, eight districts are on a "critical list," meaning they are in some stage of bargaining crisis. Many have broken down over the same issues as Wayne-Westland.

In Troy, Michigan, teachers have been organizing pickets at board meetings over the lack of a contract. In Redford, Michigan, where there are 263 members of the union, teachers have been working without a contract for five years.

The Wayne-Westland teachers contract expired at the end of August. The union agreed to a 30-day extension that expired on October 1. The union went on strike Monday, October 6, after the board refused to negotiate.

Teacher's strikes are illegal in Michigan. According to a state law enacted in 1992, a judge can fine each teacher a day's pay for each day they are out on strike. The law also gives the judge the discretion of firing teachers who participate in a work stoppage.

During the past 16 years, Michigan teachers have not organized strikes, with the exception of Detroit. In Detroit, which has close to 7,000 teachers, it is difficult for a court to enforce an anti-strike ruling, and it is difficult for the school board to hire replacement teachers.

On Tuesday, an administrative law judge, Doyle Conner, of the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, ruled that the school board had violated state law in the way that it had negotiated with the striking teachers. Doyle ordered the district to provide more complete records and the costs of the insurance it wants the union to accept.

The union also wants to keep the same health plan it has had for years, controlled by a MEA affiliate, the Michigan Education Special Services Association, or MESSA. According to the union, the insurance plan proposed by the school board is more expensive than the one the teachers currently have.

The WSWS spoke to students and parents who were on the picket line at John Glenn High School.

Students on the picket line at John Glenn High SchoolJosh Stothers, a senior at John Glenn, said class sizes last year were extremely large. "I think my first hour class last year had 46 kids, and it had to be cut down to 36." This meant that many students cannot get into desired classes. Josh said the impact is widespread, affecting even the Advanced Placement classes for students taking college-level courses.

Gloria Girgis, also a senior, told the WSWS, "I think the teachers are 100 percent right."

"To have a good education, we need to have smaller classroom sizes. Teachers realize that. Colleges have a 24 to 1 ratio. Why are we having 36 or 40 to 1? That's ridiculous. So, teachers need to take a stand, which they have. And I totally support them."

"My largest class size was 36 in Chemistry. Math class was 40 before it was cut down."

Girgis said she was upset with some parents who were against the strike. While cars were honking support for the strikers as they drove by, others were opposed to the strike because it was inconvenient.

John Retzer, vice-president of the teachers' union and a political science and economics teacher, said the three issues were class size, benefits and salaries.

"We have some exceptionally large class sizes. I have had class sizes into the 40s."

According to Retzer, the school board is indifferent to the conditions facing teachers and students. "The School Board Superintendent (Gregory Baracy) makes $253,000 a year, not including his bonuses." Retzer said Baracy is paid, in addition to his salary, overtime pay and receives a clothing and car allowance.

"The governor only makes $172,000 a year," he noted.

Nicole Holland and her familyNicole Holland was on the picket line with her husband and four children. Nicole said, "I am here to support the teachers and my children. The class sizes need to be smaller. I think it is unfair the way the teachers are being treated. Yes, they walked out, but it is all for good intensions."

Nicole said she followed the positions of the school board and the teachers' union carefully and agrees fully with the struggle of the teachers.

"I have been in the classrooms with these teachers, and they are packed. I am a mother of four, imagine how hard that is. Now imagine 30-plus kids, I would lose my mind. They are not getting what they deserve."

Nicole said her family was an example of the problems in the school. "My son is a prime example of it. He failed four classes, and nothing was done about it. They put him back in the seventh grade."

"It is not the teachers' fault. It's the administration. The teachers were teaching, but my son was not getting the attention he needed."

Several of the teachers said the administration has repeatedly said there is no money to meet the demands of the teachers. They refuted these assertions, noting that there is plenty of money when it came to bailing out Wall Street.

"Look at AIG," said one teacher, referring to the insurance giant that has received more than $100 billion in bailout money from the US government. "They were given money and they spent it on a luxury trip in hotels. They can't tell us there is no money."