Friday, September 08, 2006

Judge Orders Striking Detroit Teachers Back to Work

PANW Editor's Note: This strike by 7,000 Detroit teachers has gone against the trend in recent months with this labor union standing up against attempted imposed cutbacks on salaries and benefits. The bankruptcy of Delphi and the massive losses on the part of Ford and GM has been met with limited response from the UAW. Even the Detroit city employees, who had a 10% wage cut forced on them earlier this year, did not strike in opposition to this act of economic warfare.

This is why people in Detroit have rallied in defense of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT). Today's mass rally outside the Detroit Public Schools headquarters enjoyed tremendous support from the public and other union members. All during the hours that thousands of teachers marched and surrounded the building, motorists and pedestrians blew their horns repeatedly and lifted their fists in solidarity with the marching educators.

The teachers could decide to defy the court order by Judge Susan Borman and refuse to go back to work on Monday. In 1999, when the conservative state takeover was in full force, the teachers struck and ignored the order to go back to work.

Judge: Detroit teachers must return to school

September 8, 2006

Wayne County Circuit Judge Susan Borman today told teachers to return to work Monday. (REGINA H. BOONE/Detroit Free Press)

A judge ordered 7,000 striking Detroit teachers today back into classrooms without a new contract, saying the state’s largest school district will be crippled and its students’ educations irreparably harmed if the 12-day work stoppage was allowed to continue.

“The ultimate concern in this case revolves around the over 100,000 students’ welfare,” Wayne County Circuit Judge Susan Borman said in her order stopping the strike.

It was still unclear, however, whether members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers would return to the classrooms on Monday —or whether they would remain on the picket lines in violation of the order.

Borman, who ruled after hearing testimony from school officials who painted a bleak picture of district finances and the prospect of thousands of students fleeing to other schools in response to the strike, ordered DFT lawyers to meet with members over the weekend.

Keith Johnson, director of operations for the union, would not predict whether teachers will defy the court order and continue to strike. He said he would have preferred a fair and equitable contract through bargaining, adding: “That is what will get schools open.”

Teachers and the union’s other 2,500 school workers voted to strike beginning Aug. 28 after contract talks with the district failed to produce a deal both sides could accept.

The district, which is dealing with a $105-million deficit, is asking the teachers for $88 million in concessions including a 5.5% pay cut and an increase in what teachers pay for health benefits. The union wants a 3-year contract with 5% pay increases each year.

If they return to work Monday, it will be under the old contract, which expired June 30 — and negotiations will continue under the judge’s order.

The idea of returning to work without a new contract was frustrating to many teachers, more than 1,000 of whom rallied earlier Friday outside the Fisher Building in New Center.

Janice Rowley, a Cooley High School English teacher, said she’ll wait until she hears from the union to decide what she will do.

“I’m numb, I don’t have any feeling,” Rowley said.

Many other teachers said they will wait to hear what the union recommends before deciding whether to go back to the classroom as required.

If teachers hold out, some parents said Friday they won’t send their children to school.

Janice Sanders said her daughter, Mandy Jones, 8, would stay home from third grade at Greenfield Union Elementary School if the teachers defy the judge’s order.

“If they’re not there, I can’t send her,” Sanders said. “I’m all for the teachers and I’m wishing them luck, but I also want my daughter to get an education.”

Johnson and other union officials said they were disappointed that no resolution came from bargaining. They expect to recite the court’s order to the membership at a meeting Sunday.

“I can’t predict what teachers will do,” Johnson said, adding that the district has asked for $152 million concessions the last two years.

Detroit Public School officials, however, were eager to get classes started again.

Jerome Watson, the lead attorney for the district, said the judge’s decision was another step in the process, but it’s not a resolution.

Until schools are open, teachers and kids are in classrooms and a contract is reached, the work is not done, he said.

“We hope there will be school on Monday. We expect there will be school on Monday,” Watson said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with the teachers for sure. If they disobey a court order, I imagine there are remedies for that. It’s time to work together to get this done, and we’re willing to do that.

“We want this matter settled. We don’t want to have bad relations with the teachers.”

During the court hearing, district officials and other witnesses complained that the strike would cause irreparable harm to the school system, worsening an already bad situation and possibly leading to financial ruin. The witnesses said the district is bleeding students — and every student that leaves the district means $7,400 less for the system.

Nearby schools reported that they were seeing huge numbers of students from Detroit wanting to leave the city. Redford Union Public Schools reported a 2 1/2-foot-high stack of applications, estimated to represent 200 students, applying for their schools this fall — all from Detroit. Oak Park schools said it has more than 500 new enrollees from Detroit this year, compared to 200 in a typical year.

The strike had Johnna Jenkins planning to send her son to a charter school if classes hadn’t been back in session by Monday. Now, she’ll wait to see if teachers show up.

“I’m going to take him Monday morning. Hopefully he has a teacher and he can go to class. If not, then we’re coming home,” Jenkins said. “I hope the teachers do show up to school. But they deserve what they’re asking for. They’re asking for things within reason.”

Outside the Fisher Building Friday morning, Jeanne Bunn, a veteran teacher at Hutchinson Elementary School, said the teachers are unified.

“I’ve never seen the teachers so much together, ever,” Bunn said. “We were deceived last year when teachers were frozen at pay levels. In some cases, that’s cost teachers $19,000. Then we loaned the district five days pay because we thought they needed it to open schools last fall, so we gave and gave.”

School district officials were still processing Friday evening what the court win would mean.

“We’re pleased with the ruling. It’s a good thing for the students, the schools and the city,” said Lekan Oguntoyinbo, a spokesman for the district.

Contact PEGGY WALSH-SARNECKI at 586-469-4681 or
Copyright © 2006 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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