School unions rally to stop 3,200 layoffs

DETROIT – Over 800 members of the Coalition of Detroit Public Schools Unions rallied at the Detroit Public Schools Board meeting on June 17 to protest the board’s plan to lay off 3,200 workers, including 900 teachers, before September.

On June 11, hundreds of custodians, skilled trades and transportation workers, secretaries, engineers, and security officers received layoff notices. Edward Coffey, business representative for the Greater Detroit Building Trades Council, told the rally that 194 of his 260 members – including sewer workers, plasterers, cement workers, roofers, and electricians – have been laid off.

Phil Schloop, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 547, which lost 137 jobs, pointed out that declining enrollment has led to loss of state funds. But he said the unions have long argued that early retirement programs and the elimination of expensive schemes could avoid such layoffs.

Local 547 members voted to donate two hours’ pay to help defray the cost of health care for laid off members, to refuse overtime, and to ask retired boiler operators who fill in for absentees not to fulfill these requests so laid off members can work.

The board canceled the meeting, a tactic they usually employ when forced to meet with irate citizens or workers asking questions.

The board says that there is a projected deficit of $80 million for this fiscal year, ending June 30. This is the same amount being paid to Aramark Service Master, a billion-dollar corporation, to privatize plant operations and food handling services.

This current school board was appointed by former right-wing Republican Gov. John Engler, taking away Detroiters’ right to elect their own representatives. This undemocratic move has a racist tinge, because Detroit’s population is 80 percent African American, with a considerable Arab American population, a number of Native Americans and a growing Latino community.

The coalition of unions, which represents 11,000 school workers, is demanding an early retirement plan, reduction of unnecessary outsourcing, maximizing use of grant and federal funds, and the restoration of essential services to schools.

Some observers pointed out that the board’s actions are part of a more general attack on public education. State, county, city and local governments are in a financial crisis while more than $168 billion is being spent on the Iraq war.

A group of ultra-left radicals, misleading a few frustrated laid-off workers, have protested the board’s plan by trying to stop school buses, thereby interfering with the children’s education.

Ruby Newbold, president of the Coalition of Detroit Public School Unions, said, “We are not a part of this, we aren’t trying to disrupt the school system. We want to get these people back to work.” The unions have always opposed any action that will take away from decent quality education for the students.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.