WUOMFM

Detroit teachers' union talks strategy, sickouts as payless paydays loom

Mar 21, 2016

Former DFT President Steve Conn is pushing for continued teacher sickouts.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

As the clock ticks down toward possible payless paydays in the Detroit Public Schools, the Detroit Federation of Teachers is trying turn up the pressure on state lawmakers.

DFT leaders are also trying to tamp down on a faction within the union that is pushing for more radical action to force Lansing’s hand.

The district needs state money in the short term to avoid running out of cash early next month. It also needs a longer-term rescue package to help shed crippling debt and reorganize as a new district.

The DFT’s strategy centers around building a “community campaign” to pressure lawmakers into passing a $48.7 million supplemental bill to keep schools through June, and a larger, $715 million package to pay off the district’s operating debt, much of it run up by a series of state-appointed emergency managers.

What it doesn’t include, union leaders took pains to clarify Monday, are more teacher sickout protests.

A group within the DFT, led by the union’s ousted former president Steve Conn, is pushing for more mass sickouts and possibly a city-wide teacher strike.

“In our opinion, that’s not productive, and doesn’t get us to the goal line,” said DFT Executive Vice President Terrence Martin.

“The DFT represents and speaks for its nearly 4,000 teachers and school employees, not someone who freelances and tries to bring the press out, and quite frankly doesn’t have a viable message to share.”

Martin admitted that a series of sickouts earlier this year helped draw attention to the dire conditions within DPS, but the focus has now shifted to Lansing and “long-term solutions.”

Conn and a group of followers had announced sickouts at two DPS schools Monday. Those plans fizzled, and no schools closed.

But Conn was undeterred, saying teachers need to again gear up for radical action and go “toe-to-toe” with Gov. Snyder and hostile state lawmakers.

“I’ll tell you, without it the teachers are going to lose terribly,” Conn said. “I think they know that. We’re going to have continued cuts including their pay, their health care, their job security, all the rest. They’ve got no alternative now.”

DFT administrator Ann Mitchell, who’s running the union in trusteeship for the American Federation of Teachers after Conn’s dismissal by the union's executive board, disagreed.

“There are many points of leverage. We don’t want to be a one-trick pony,” Mitchell said. “We can be smart and strategic, and we can be aggressive all at the same time.”

The sate Senate needs to pass the short-term funding package this week, or risk interrupting the current school year.

The House passed that bill last week, adding language that would put DPS under the oversight of a state-appointed financial review commission.

Detroit lawmakers like State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo called that provision a “redundancy and a waste of time” that’s “sending the wrong message.”

But, “We could not afford to gamble with the possibility of school running out of money for operations on April 8,” Gay-Dagnogo said.

Detroit leaders and the DFT are basically on the same page when it comes to the longer-term restructuring package: They insist it must pay off the district’s operating debt, and return it to local control as soon as possible.

The Republican-dominated House and Senate are considering different versions of such legislation, but both contain caveats and delayed timelines for returning local control.

Mitchell said there are “certain bottom lines we won’t be able accept” when it comes to the final package, but she declined to specify what those are for the moment. “Everything is very delicate right now,” she said.