Schoolhouse divided

During the last two monthly meetings of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, News Hits has hovered nearby, trying to keep tabs on what's happening behind closed doors.

We can tell you with certainty this much: Things are getting really ugly inside the New Center headquarters, and besieged union president Keith Johnson, attempting to stomp out an effort to recall him, hasn't been able to keep his membership under control, despite the use of both private security guards and Detroit cops.

This is how things have gone: Johnson opens the meeting and asks for a vote on the agenda but, as allowed by meeting rules, an addition is offered by Heather Miller or Steve Conn related to the recall effort. Married math teachers, Conn and Miller have long opposed the district administration but now are focused on Johnson for what they say is a horrible contract. They also don't like how close he is to Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to clean up the district's monetary mess. 

Declaring that finances reach into every aspect of the district, Bobb has brought in new textbooks, new tests and new consultants. He also pushed hard for approval of a new teachers' contract. 

Despite a vote by teachers in favor of the pact at the end of last year, Miller and Conn are now enjoying unprecedented support from the union ranks for their effort to oust Johnson — mainly over contract provisions that have each and every teacher making a $10,000 "loan" to the district through salary reductions. The teachers, in theory anyway, are supposed to be repaid when they leave the district. Some have joined a lawsuit challenging the legality of the provision.

Miller and Conn gathered about 1,300 signatures from the DFT's 7,000 members and submitted the recall petition. They say they met the requirement for the number of signatures and the number of schools represented to hold a recall vote.

But Johnson and the executive committee claimed the charges as stated in the petition were "vague" and disallowed the petition, calling it "invalid." 

As such, at the last two union meetings — the most recent on Feb. 11 — Johnson refused to allow a recall vote. Following that, his opponents prevented the meeting from going forward. The only order at last week's gathering came when Johnson asked for a moment of silence for a former union official who had died.

For less than a minute the chants of "recall" subsided, but then started back up as the beleaguered union leader struggled and failed for the second month to have a meeting where anything actually gets accomplished.

Regular union business — reports on legislation in Lansing, explanations of health care, plans for attendance at a national convention — isn't happening. And that means teachers aren't standing together against the hijacking of a significant amount of classroom time for preparation for standardized tests, the nature and amount of tests themselves and Bobb's highly effective public relations campaign that has virtually every media outlet in this town eating up his message and spitting it out to the public with even more sugar on it. 

Both months, Johnson has called Detroit police, though no arrests have been made, and the union's privately contracted security staff has escorted his opponents from the meeting.

At the January meeting, a teacher who left the meeting asked the security guard, "Why did you threaten Heather Miller that you would fuck her up?"

The guard replied, "I'll say whatever the fuck I want." Nice.

Last week Johnson tried to get consensus on the meeting agenda, but a voice vote was louder for those who opposed it. He then had the membership stand up and be counted in an attempt to determine support and opposition to approving the agenda. "136 to 115 in favor of the agenda," Johnson announced. Shortly after that, two plainclothes police — badges hung around their necks — entered the union hall.

Teachers started leaving, many of them saying Johnson's count was clearly bullshit. 

Johnson tried to appeal to his supporters, or at least those that oppose Conn and Miller's tactics. "This is your union. Don't let a few dissidents keep you from hearing information relevant to your employment," he pleaded. Some teachers agreed, saying they were sick of the behavior.

But chants of "recall" continued inside. Johnson kept threatening to eject those who wouldn't quiet down. He directed security to confiscate a bullhorn that one of his opponents had smuggled in.

Teachers continued to leave. One man compared the election committee to a corrupt dictatorship for what he said was a miscount of votes about the agenda. "It's sickening," he muttered as he left.

As Johnson tried to restart the meeting at about 5:15 p.m., people leaving said a fight had erupted. By 5:40 all hope of getting anything accomplished had vanished. Also gone — at least for the time being — is any evidence that this union is capable of anything other than extreme dysfunction.

And that's bad news for anyone looking for some force capable of acting as a counterbalance to the currently unchecked power being wielded by Bobb.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.