Teacher sickout ends; Detroit schools still facing tough times

After hearing that most Detroit teachers might not get paid for work they performed, members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) on May 2 and May 3 staged a two-day sick-out.

The teachers refused to go to work until they received a guarantee from the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) governor-appointed emergency manager that they would be paid in full.

After initially refusing to provide such a guarantee, Judge Steve Rhodes, DPS’ emergency manager, in a May 3 letter to the union wrote, “DPS recognizes the contractual obligation to pay teachers what they have earned and we assure all teachers that we will honor that legal obligation. This same assurance applies to all similarly situated employees of DPS.”

That appeared to satisfy the union’s demand for a guarantee, and the union’s leadership urged its members to return to class on May 4.

While the teachers were conducting their sickout, The Michigan House Appropriations Committee passed a bill authorizing $548 million to fund Detroit schools.

The bill, which had been stalled in committee, appropriates less than the $715 million that the state senate had approved in a similar appropriations bill. The two bills will have to be reconciled before the legislature can pass and send the reconciled bill to the governor for his approval.

The fact that the appropriation bill had been stalled in committee set in motion events that led to the sickout.

When it looked like no action would be taken on the bill, Judge Rhodes let it be known that without funding from the legislature, teacher pay would be in jeopardy.

The school district, according to Judge Rhodes, was running out of money, and if the House failed to pass the appropriations bill, there would not be enough money to pay teachers during the months of July and August.

About two-thirds of DPS teachers had elected to stretch their nine months worth of pay over a 12 month period, so that they would continue to receive a paycheck during the time school was out.

If no paychecks were issued in July or August, teachers who elected the 12-month pay plan would have been shorted two months worth of pay.

The union told DPS’ administrators that if they could not guarantee paychecks for July and August, union members were not about to work for free.

While legislative inaction may have precipitated the events that led up to the sickout, it is only one in a series of missteps that has put Detroit schools in a permanent state of crisis.

Like the city of Detroit, DPS’ problems can be traced back to problems in the US auto industry.

In the early aughts, Detroit was hit hard when US auto makers stumbled on tough times. Companies that supplied parts to the Big Three auto makers went out of business or moved production overseas reducing the property tax base that supported public schools.

Layoffs at auto and auto parts plants hit the working class hard, which further reduced revenue available to the public schools.

In 2009, the State of Michigan took control of Detroit’s schools, supposedly to put the school district’s financial house in order.

But things only got worse. Even though the state was now in control of Detroit’s schools, the state legislature failed to adequately fund the schools.

The lack of adequate state funding coupled with a decline in local tax revenue left DPS in even worse financial shape.

A succession of emergency managers appointed by Michigan governors tried to keep the schools open by borrowing heavily.

According to the Detroit Free Press, at the end of the school year, the school district’s debt will be $320 million, which doesn’t include $5 billion in long-term debt owed by DPS.

While state leaders were failing to fund Detroit’s schools, they were also pushing to expand charter schools in Detroit, a project that DPS’s emergency managers embraced.

As a result about half of Detroit’s school children now attend privately operated charter schools, which drain resources away from public schools.

The results have been devastating. Without adequate funding, DPS has been unable to properly maintain and repair its schools.

As a result, many students go to dilapidated schools that are poorly maintained.

The situation became so dire, that teachers held sick-ins in January to protest the filth and squalor of the buildings where they taught and where children were supposed to learn.

The lack of funding has also caused class sizes to increase well beyond a reasonable size for good learning opportunities.

The New York Times reports that “the planned class size in Grades 6 to 12 (for Detroit schools) is 38 students.”

Whatever amount that the legislature appropriates, it will not be enough to turn around Detroit’s schools because much of the money will go toward paying off creditors.

When school starts again in the fall, Detroit’s teachers, its students, and their parents will be the one’s left to deal with the residue of past decisions that crippled public education in the city.

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May Day demonstrations in France denounce proposed labor law changes

Five hundred thousand workers and students in France took part in 300 May Day rallies, marches, and demonstrations protesting so-called labor reforms that the country’s Socialist government has proposed.

Parliament on Tuesday will begin debate on the proposed changes.

The government says that labor law reforms are needed to reduce the county’s 9.2 percent unemployment rate.

But the proposals are widely unpopular, especially among young people who fear that the new laws will make their jobs more precarious.

The proposals have sparked a mass uprising of young people, whose nascent movement is called Nuit Debout (Standing Together Through the Night). It resembles the global Occupy movement of 2011.

The changes proposed by the government are designed to make the country’s labor market more flexible.

But according to Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “labor market flexibility” is just another way of saying that “it should be easier to fire employees” and “lower wages.”

France’s hard-won labor laws help protect workers’ wages, working conditions, and job security.

Many see them as a strong buttress against the insecurities inherent in a capitalist economy. Recent polls show that 58 percent of respondents opposed the government’s proposed changes.

The government is proposing changes that would make it easier for employers to avoid paying overtime for work in excess of 35 hours a week, weaken unions’ bargaining power, and weaken employment contracts that provide a modicum of job security.

The government’s labor reforms are in line with the conventional wisdom that labor laws that actually protect labor are bad for business and are thus the cause of high unemployment.

But according to Weisbrot, “the available economic research provides little or no evidence for this argument.”

“For example, there is no relationship between the amount of employment protection in different countries and their unemployment rate,” writes Weisbrot. . .  There are “a number of countries with high levels of labor market protections and low levels of unemployment: Austria (5.2 percent), Denmark (4.4 percent), Ireland (4.3 percent), the Netherlands (4.6 percent), and Norway (4.5 percent).”

Perhaps one of the most contentious pieces of the government’s proposal would make it easier to fire workers, especially those 26 years of age and younger.

The government argues that if it were easier to fire young workers, then employers will be more likely to hire more young workers.

This logic confounds many of the young people who have taken to the streets to protest the reforms.

 

On March 31, 1.2 million workers and students marched and rallied to protest the government’s proposals.

Since then, demonstrations have been taking place on a weekly basis.

In some of these demonstrations, rage against the proposals resulted in conflicts between youthful demonstrators and the police.

That rage has also manifested itself in other ways, most notably the rise of Nuit Debout, an activist movement of young people who gather in city squares at night to stand in unity with each other.

At these gatherings, people discuss and debate strategies and tactics for fighting the government’s labor reform proposals, but these debates and discussions are also more wide ranging.

Topics include a number of social justice issues such as the treatment of immigrants, inequality, a guaranteed minimum income, and more.

While the government tries to justify its labor reforms as a way to help young people enter the labor market, youth in Nuit Debout want more than low paying, precarious work.

As Adam Nossiter of the New York Times writes, the youth of Nuit Debout “want what (their) parents have, and then some.”

The youth of Nuit Debout showed up at the May Day demonstrations ready to fight to maintain labor rights guaranteed by the law and for more.

CGT, France’s largest labor confederation and one of the organizers of the May Day demonstrations, echoed this sentiment.

May Day is just the start of a month of struggle against the labor reforms and for a more just society, said CGT in its May Day statement. It also will be a month when young people, wage earners, and others  intensify the fight “for social progress” and to improve “the lives of each and everyone.”