National teachers’ union leader seeks to smother Detroit protests

By Lawrence Porter and Nancy Hanover
11 February 2016

There is a concerted effort by the political establishment to smother the growing movement of teachers, parents and students in defense of public education in Detroit, with the most sinister role being played by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and its local affiliate.

The courageous sickouts called by teachers last month, in opposition to and independent of their union, and the subsequent protests by students and parents, have tripped alarm bells—from the mayor’s office in the Manoogian Mansion, to the paneled hearing rooms in the state capitol of Lansing, to the White House.

The incipient movement has also rattled the Washington, DC headquarters of the AFT, rousing its highly paid president, Randi Weingarten ($540,000 a year) to jet into the Motor City to try to squelch the protests. Having spent the last seven years suppressing every sign of opposition to President Obama’s corporate-driven “school reform” agenda, the AFT is losing control in Detroit and Chicago where rank-and-file teachers are rebelling against austerity measures imposed by the AFT’s Democratic Party allies.

Randi Weingarten speaking at a vigil organized by the DFT to suppress the sick-out of teachers in Detroit

The protests in Detroit threaten to undermine a deal that the AFT and the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) are crafting with Michigan legislators over the reorganization of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS). This includes plans by Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, and state Democrats to dissolve DPS and establish a new “Detroit Community Schools” entity, within which various for-profit education businesses will play an ever more dominant role.

Both parties are using the possible bankruptcy of DPS by April—driven by decades of federal and state budget cuts, the loss of tax revenue in the devastated industrial city, and growing indebtedness to big bondholders—to implement the restructuring plan. In this reorganization, both the Michigan AFT and the DFT have worked as partners with the Skillman Foundation, corporate interests and Democratic and Republican politicians.

David Hecker, the president of the Michigan AFT, is a point man in the process, a co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

Over the last year, disputes have raged between state Democrats and Republicans over the pending deal, ostensibly over the timing of school board elections and “local control.” None of this, however, has anything to do with genuine democratic control over decision-making, let alone the improvement of public education. Instead the dispute revolves around the distribution of positions and profits, e.g. how many seats on the school board will be appointed by the state versus the city, when elections will be held, who will be choosing the vendors for the most lucrative contracts, etc.

Even after the removal of the hated emergency manager, all spending decisions will remain under the control of a hand picked Financial Review Commission, which will answer only to the banks and bondholders. Meanwhile, the dismantling of public education in the state will be the source of profit for new edubusiness and charter opportunities.

This week the AFT/DFT has pulled out all the stops to draft teachers into a series of stunts to dissipate opposition. The purpose is to corral teachers behind the self-serving demand of “local control” and put an end to the dangerously rebellious walkouts. The purpose is to engage educators, students and parents in fruitless appeals to the Democratic and Republican politicians in Lansing—the very same forces conspiring to destroy their schools.

Tuesday’s “Day of Action” was composed of a morning “walk-in” at a few schools and an evening Interfaith Candlelight Vigil in a local park. It was timed to coincide with the state legislature’s debate on criminalizing the teachers’ sickouts, Senate Bills 713-715.

AFT national president Randi Weingarten rushed to Detroit and decided to forego campaigning for Hillary Clinton on the day of the New Hampshire primary, obviously concerned that the teacher sickouts represented a more pressing danger.

Every time a particularly dirty deal is needed, Weingarten comes in to take personal charge. She oversaw the 2009 sellout agreement imposed on teachers by the DFT contract, which forced educators to “loan” the cash-strapped district thousands of dollars and also to accept health care concessions. Weingarten went so far as to tout the deal in a New York Times ad as a model for educators nationally.

Weingarten joined a small group with the “walk-in” at Greenfield Union Elementary-Middle School Tuesday morning. Here she sounded the Detroit-versus-the suburbs line, claiming, “Why do other Michigan schools have art and music, but Detroit doesn’t? Why do other Michigan communities have local control, but Detroit doesn’t?”

This is both politically reactionary and untrue. Weingarten is seeking to throw sand in the eyes of teachers by pitting sections of workers against each other, using the thinly-concealed age-old ploy—the race card—to block teachers from linking up their struggles statewide and nationally. The claim that Detroit—a majority African American city—uniquely faces the challenges of education defunding has become a standard lie pushed by all those who want to conceal the class nature of the attacks on public education, which has been spearheaded by the Obama administration and the Democratic Party.

Like states across the country, education in Michigan has been under drastic assault affecting impoverished districts throughout the state. A number of districts have been placed under emergency managers, been dissolved outright or faced draconian cuts in programs, teachers and services.

The unions are opposed to uniting teachers because this would disrupt their close relations with the Democratic Party, which unlike the Republicans, generally prefers to utilize the services of unions to dismantle public education. In return, the union apparatus can continue to collect millions in dues money, including from a growing number of impoverished charter school instructors.

DFT interim president Ivy Bailey opened the Candlelight Vigil, explaining that she testified at the state hearings that day. “The legislators in Lansing, I think a few of them today heard our voices. A few of them spoke up on our behalf.” She concluded, “We deserve the same thing that everyone else across the nation receives. It is time for us to stop allowing people to destroy urban education.”

Weingarten spoke along the same lines, promoting “local control” as a panacea and making clear that teachers should subordinate their struggles to the dictates of state and federal politicians—as well as corporate interests and religious charlatans to boot. She lectured those present, “It can’t just be those of us closest to kids, it has to be the clergy, it has to be the businesspeople, it has to be the mayor,” concluding, “It has to be all of us going hand in hand to Lansing, going to Washington…”

The clear message at the vigil was that the AFT would do everything in its power to demobilize the teachers and work with the Democratic politicians, no matter the cost to the fate of public education in the city of Detroit or anywhere else.

This is not the first time Weingarten has rushed in to try to prevent a social explosion and shore up the discredited political and corporate establishment. A trusted political agent for the Democratic Party who has cultivated close ties with billionaire Bill Gates and other enemies of public education, Weingarten has a certain sense of the explosive dangers posed to the ruling elites by the growing movement of the working class to defend public education.

In 2011, as mass protests grew around the country against school closings and teacher layoffs, she came to Detroit to meet with the discredited DFT president Keith Johnson and prophetically warned she did not want a “Les Mis strategy” or “to see kids fighting a revolution.”