Detroit Teachers Defy Union Officials, Win Gains

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In one of the nation’s biggest teacher strikes in years, 8000 Detroit teachers walked off the job on Aug. 31. The strike was carried out in defiance not only of their own union leadership, which urged them not to walk out, but in defiance of a Michigan law that rendered the strike illegal.

The teachers union and the school board had come to an impasse in their negotiations for a new contract when the old contract expired a day before schools were scheduled to reconvene.

Angry that the board was unwilling to bend on the most contentious points, the teachers ignored their union officials’ plea to extend the old contract and walked out.

The crucial points of contention included the following: Detroit teachers were paid less than teachers in the surrounding suburbs, class size was too large, the school board wanted to extend the school day from eight to eight and a half hours and it wanted to introduce a so-called “merit” pay plan that would have required teachers to compete against one another for pay raises.

The teachers organized and mobilized themselves. Three thousand marched at the head of a Labor Day parade in Detroit, the same day that the school board began to capitulate on the teachers’ demands.

The teachers’ gains included salary increases that amounted to 95 percent of what they demanded. The school board agreed to reduce class size for grades K to 3, in some cases down to 17 from twice that size. Previously the school board had only been willing to study the problem of class size.

And the school board dropped its “merit” pay and longer school day proposals.

Crucial to the teachers’ success was parental support. As The New York Times reported, “Although many parents last week suddenly found themselves searching for child care because of the strike, many parents in this union town supported the teachers in the walkout.”

Parents are the first to recognize that the quality of their children’s education is compromised when class size is too large and teachers are inadequately compensated.

Evidently the school board felt overwhelmed by a united show of force by the teachers, who in turn were supported by an army of concerned parents. The entire episode is another important lesson for the labor movement as a whole.

Working people can win when they mobilize their own ranks and reach out to their working class allies in the community.

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