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American Federation of Teachers takes to the streets on behalf of Detroit's teachers

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

The American Federation of Teachers is in Detroit for the group’s annual convention.

And they’re taking it to the streets—and to Detroit Public Schools’ officials—on behalf of the district’s teachers.

Earlier this month, Detroit Public Schools’ emergency manager Roy Roberts imposed new contract terms on the district’s teachers.

Those terms include a pay cut, larger class sizes, and less prep time for teachers.

Union leaders were furious. They said the new terms are absurd, and the district never even tried to negotiate with them. So now, the AFT is putting the pressure on Roberts.

AFT President Randi Weingarten went to meet with Roberts in Detroit. Before that, she rallied teachers outside district offices, with chants of “Roy Roberts! Negotiate now!”

“Today, we are all Detroiters,” Weingarten said.

But she had to deal with some additional shouting from some factions within the Detroit Federation of Teachers, who are pushing for a strike—which is illegal under Michigan law.

Weingarten said she sympathized with teachers who wanted to strike. But warned some of the more vocal members of the pro-strike faction to be careful what they wished for.

“I do think that this is a distraction,” Weingarten said. “They did this, three weeks before the AFT came into town, to try and provoke a strike. I think they did this because they wanted to stop the effort to get collective bargaining by constitution in this state.”

After meeting with Roberts, Weingarten described their talk as occasionally “contentious.” But she said the district agreed to at least look at a proposal to mediate collective bargaining.

“Where things are right now is not right,” Weingarten said. “And ultimately, even though Roy Roberts has the right to impose terms and conditions—even terms and conditions that we believe are wrong for kids—it’s not the right thing to do.”

Weingarten says they’ll hand that proposal over to the district on Monday, and “go from there.”

Roberts issued a statement saying: "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."

In the meantime, Detroit teachers say they’re just worn out after multiple years of emergency managers, radical changes, and continued cutbacks in an already-poor district.

“We pay for pencils. We pay for paper. Toilet paper, Kleenex, hand sanitizer…any kind of art supplies the kids need,” said Valerie Jakubus, a 12-year DPS teacher. “We’ve done that for a very long time.”

“But when your money is cut, and you’re making less than you did three years ago, you can’t even do that for students.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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