A few years ago, when Randi Weingarten and her colleagues at the American Federation of Teachers chose to set their 2012 convention in Detroit, the leadership of the nation's second largest teachers' union thought it would be nice to invest in the Motor City, a metropolis that once signified the innovation of the auto industry that had since become America's most visible example of the decay brought on by the recession.
"Detroit was in a period of real struggle," Weingarten, AFT's president, said in an interview. "We wanted to invest in Detroit. We wanted to be in a place that was the state that's the cradle of labor, where the auto industry was trying to make a comeback." The union had just negotiated a "tough contract" for its teachers, and eyes across the nation were on the impoverished, perpetually low-ranked Detroit Public Schools: if they could get better, so could anyone.
But since then, Detroit -- and particularly its schools -- has become a hotbed of labor-management tiffs. Over the last few years, Detroit's beleaguered public schools have been overseen by a series of "emergency managers," state-appointed leaders with near carte blanche power over education there. The most recent one, Roy Roberts, is actually a product of the auto industry, a former General Motors executive. But having all that power means not having to negotiate, which is what Weingarten and the local union alleges Roberts did.
After coming into office last year and saying he would uphold the current contract and try to negotiate with the union, a few weeks ago, Roberts offered teachers a contract that the Detroit Federation of Teachers asserted came after no back-and-forth at all. (The district -- and Roberts in this letter -- disputes the union's version of events, pointing to several meetings). The district, which has lost 100,000 students in the past decade and faces a $72 million deficit, is shuttering 15 schools and laying off hundreds of teachers. DFT president Keith Johnson called Roberts' contract a "farce" in a letter to his membership. Hundreds of teachers have protested, and the union is considering a strike.
That's why, after her keynote speech at the AFT convention Friday, Weingarten plans to take the 3,000 gathered teachers over to Roberts' office and demand negotiations. It is one of only a handful of local union affiliates where Weingarten, a union leader with a high profile and a reputation for political savvy -- or shrewdness, depending on who you ask -- will have visibly gotten involved.
"By walking away from the table, Mr. Roberts walked away from our kids and the community. That’s not the way to bring Detroit back. That's not walking the walk," Weingarten will tell delegates, according to prepared remarks. "Immediately after this session, I’m going to Mr. Roberts’ office to demand that he bargain with us."
On Thursday, Weingarten sent Roberts a letter announcing her plans, calling the contract "counterproductive." "Your choice to walk away from the table has denied thousands of teachers their basic rights," Weingarten wrote. She demanded that Roberts negotiate with teachers, a timeline for an agreement and an "impasse procedure," an agreement for what would happen should negotiations fail.
Roberts responded, agreeing to meet with Weingarten and saying that he has provided local union leader Johnson with a full picture of the city's troubling financial situation that necessitated the harsh contract. "We have respected organized labor by holding a comprehensive meeting with all unions' leadership," Roberts wrote, according to the letter, which was provided to The Huffington Post. "I am really surprised and disappointed that anyone would suggest that we would not want to further the conversation," he wrote, attaching a letter he'd written to Johnson offering further opportunities for feedback. But, he said, Johnson never took him up on that offer, adding, "At this time further rhetoric and unfounded public charges will not be effective or useful."
But on the eve of the convention, Weingarten was still dissatisfied. "Here you have the teachers of America investing in this city ... and we have this financial manager who turned his back on the educators," she said. "They should be embarrassed." She is also trying to get a measure on the ballot that would preserve collective bargaining rights.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Steven Wasko, a spokesman for Detroit Public Schools. "The process actually has had a great deal of respect for organized labor. ... The many public comments that have been made since the imposition of the contract that more discussion is needed are frankly unfounded. Mr. Roberts had been open to that for the entire cycle, and there's been no response or any new ideas from the unions."
In her speech at the AFT convention, Weingarten will address the perceived attack on teachers, including 100 bills in state legislatures that curb union rights, and take people like Mitt Romney, the Koch brothers, the Walton Foundation and Eli Broad -- who has invested in her charter schools -- to task. After a few years of signifying an openness to the policies known as education reform, a new lobbying and advocacy movement that stresses the use of data to spur student achievement, Weingarten is again making the overemphasis on standardized testing a more prominent focus. "A lot of so-called reformers try to dictate top-down, standardized test-driven strategies that are heavy on competition and short on evidence and resources," Weingarten will say, according to prepared remarks. "They don’t work."
The conference will feature Vice President Joe Biden and Diane Ravitch, a New York University education historian who outspokenly opposes the administration on many education issues. The AFT donated $467,900 to congressional candidates, spent more than $1 million trying to boot Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in a recall election and the union has endorsed President Barack Obama for reelection.
See Weingarten's and Roberts' exchange below: