Members in two manufacturing towns refuse to lose
Calling out broken promises
YOU MAY HAVE HEARD about sickouts in Detroit this spring. What actually happened was more like lockouts.
In March, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill to provide $48.7 million for Detroit Public Schools, money that was supposed to pay school salaries through the summer. However, employees then were told they had no guarantee of being paid for work they’d already done.
Following an enormous outcry from parents, union activists and the public, DPS issued assurances that school programs would continue and staff would be paid.
There was no time to let down their guard, however, as school staff now face an even graver threat. The Michigan House of Representatives, ignoring fierce opposition from the Democratic minority, passed a dead-of-night bill in May that would take harsh actions against Detroit schools—the kind of punishment no other school systems in Michigan have to endure. The AFT and our allies are urging the governor to reject this scheme and move forward with legislation much closer to what Detroit schools need.
“The children of Detroit deserve the same great education that students in surrounding districts can count on,” says Ruby Newbold, president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees and chair of AFT PSRP. “These hateful bills would fail to pay the full DPS debt and would keep our schools in a chokehold. As a society, we have a moral obligation to fund an equal education for all our kids.”
Promises are being broken in Detroit. The community was promised that the state’s financial package would put a stop to ruthless school cuts. Detroit families were promised a school system that runs efficiently and fairly.
You may already know that workers in Detroit are doing what they must to rebuild their economy. What their schools need from state lawmakers is a helping hand, not a slap in the face.
Buying time to rebuild
Detroit is not too different from another factory town: Massena, N.Y.
Alcoa, Reynolds Metals and General Motors had plants along the St. Lawrence River. But a decade ago, GM closed its plant in Massena, ending 500 jobs. Baby boomers remember a golden era, growing up with comfortable childhoods and modest family vacations, thanks to good union benefits and job security. Then in 2007, word came that GM was closing, taking tens of millions out of the economy. And last year, another blow: the Alcoa plant, already downsized, prepared to close and lay off another 488 workers.
That was quite enough for the union families of Massena. They banded together to rally at their high school football field, discuss what to do and find a way to buy time. By speaking out together—the thing unions do best—the townspeople got the ears of their state officials. Late last year, the state stepped in and paid Alcoa $70 million to keep Massena’s plant open for about three more years.
When AFT activists Lori Jordan and Erin Covell told their story to members attending the AFT PSRP conference this spring, it resonated. Members asked questions and offered encouragement, after which they stuffed backpacks for Massena’s schoolchildren.
Because of union solidarity, said Covell, president of the Massena Federation of Teachers, town leaders had to pay attention. Getting different factions to sit down together and brainstorm was key, agreed Jordan, treasurer of the Massena Confederated School Employees’ Association. “The town is nothing like it was,” she added, “but what has remained is union power.”
Activists from Massena got a taste of that power when they visited McDowell County, W.Va., earlier this year. They hadn’t heard of the AFT’s involvement in Reconnecting McDowell, a coalition working to bring back an economy that had tailed off with coal mining. Their challenges are much the same: how to come together and replace lost jobs. These towns are fine places to live—if only they can employ their children. “That’s my thing,” Covell said. “I want our kids to come home.”
Thanks to its unions, Massena has bought itself some time. And hope.
“For me,” Jordan said, “that’s an example of how the good guys win, standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity.”