Against a backdrop of noisy protest, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten met with Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts Friday afternoon to discuss his recent decision to bypass collective bargaining and impose a contract on Detroit teachers. A controversial Michigan law called Public Act 4 allows Roberts to sidestep union negotiations.
Despite a raucous rally of about 500 teachers, school employees and their supporters chanting "Negotiate Now" outside of Roberts office in Detroit's New Center district, the outcome of the conversation was ambiguous.
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The Detroit Free Press reports that Roberts has agreed to review a union proposal calling for a negotiation process. Weingarten had hoped he would agree to negotiations and a timeline.
“We had a very candid meeting. It was contentious, at times. It was solutions-driven, at times,” she told the Free Press after the meeting. Roberts characterization of the exchange was more upbeat.
"The meeting was spirited and productive, and we share a commitment to finding a better future for all of us. From my perspective, because of this visit, she has a stronger understanding of the challenges we face," he said in a release.
Members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the local branch of the AFT, are upset about the recent imposition of the contract and other recent decisions by DPS, such as DPS' decision to hand pink slips to all its teachers during summer break for the second year in a row in order to rightsize its employee pool. The DFT has threatened a "monumental" lawsuit against the school district over the layoffs as well as teacher interviews and evaluations it alleges do not follow a previously negotiated collective bargaining agreement or state teacher tenure law. DPS disputes the allegations.
Weingarten is visiting Detroit this weekend to participate in the AFT's annual convention. She headed out to her meeting with Roberts following an address to union members in downtown Detroit this morning. Supporters from the convention were bussed to the rally outside of Roberts office.
Rochel Rusan, 57, a former DPS social worker, said she was glad Weingarten had decided to meet with the emergency manager.
"I'm grateful for all the support we can get," she said. "All the union wants is for Roy Rogers to sit down and engage in collective bargaining. He doesn't have to, but his contract allows him to and that what we want him to engage in."
O.E. Kimbrough, Jr., 57, who teaches French and Spanish, has been with the district since 1991. He said he was worried that DPS would eliminate teacher tenure.
"They want to get rid of veteran teachers. It's bad for the kids, bad for the city. They want to bring in teachers that are inexpensive, that they can pay dirt cheap," he said. "We've given away so much and they want to take more. It's like they want to destroy us."
Morton Rosenfeld is a teacher from Plainview, NY, who traveled to Detroit to participate in the convention. Rosenfeld was one of a number of out-of-town AFT delegates participating in the rally.
"It's much worse here than what we have at home," he said. "It's none too good at home either, but cities like Detroit have it much worse and that's why we're here to lend our support to them."
During the rally outside Roberts' offices prior to the meeting, militants pushing for a strike interrupted Weingarten's address to the crowd.
"I understand why they're so frustrated," she said. "They're frustrated by how they've been treated and some people have as a result said, 'Let's go on strike.' At this point a strike is premature. What we're talking about is negotiating now."