Detroit Teachers Stage Sick-Outs, Wage Legal Battle Over Flint Water Crisis

Darnell Earley

Darnell Earley

On Monday, two Detroit public schools were closed following a second wave of sick-outs. Teachers are protesting over the condition of the schools.  

On January 20th, 91 percent of Detroit Public Schools were closed due to sick-outs.  Over 800 teachers called in sick and more than 45,000 students were sent home.

The grievances brought forward by the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) include claims of low pay, sparse textbooks, large classes, poor benefits and facilities that pose a health risk or adverse learning environment. There have also been claims of rodent infestations, black mold, lack of heat, warped gym floors and leaky roofs.

The labor actions are part of a broader conversation of disenchantment among Michiganders, especially those in low-income areas, related to the Flint water crisis. Speaking to the Detroit News, Joel Berger, an English teacher at Cass Technical High School, explained that the citywide sick-out was a grassroots effort:

“Teachers, parents and students are just fed up with the injustices that are being done to our students.  It’s about (Darnell) Earley, who was the emergency manager in Flint when they switched their water over, and now he’s being charged with looking over Detroit Public Schools.”

DFT interim president Ivy Bailey also singled out Darnell Earley when explaining the rationale for the sick-outs to the Detroit Free Press:

“It is regrettable that the Detroit Public Schools seeks to punish those who speak out about the deplorable conditions in our schools. It would be so much more productive to actually do something to fix Detroit schools rather than file restraining orders against those who expose the miserable conditions.

Educators, parents and the community are fed up with Lansing’s inaction on the abysmal conditions that permeate Detroit public schools. No one has confidence in Gov. Rick Snyder or Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, who have the power to do something to fix the schools.

Earley took over Detroit Public Schools in January of 2015.  Before that he was the emergency manager of Flint.  Public records show that he earns an annual salary of $225,000.  According to Glassdoor.com, the average Detroit public school teacher earns $46,451.  

Following the January 20th sick-out, Earley and the Detroit Public Schools sought a temporary injunction against the teachers, naming 28 defendants including Steve Conn, the ousted leader of the DFT; interim union president Ivy Bailey, and several groups including the DFT, DPS Teachers Fight Back, and Detroit Strikes to Win.  A judge denied the injunction for a second time.

In her ruling, Cynthia Stephens of the Michigan Court of Claims said there was not enough information to prove that DFT or its interim president encouraged the mass teacher absences.  Another hearing has been set for February 16th.  

The situation facing the public schools mirrors the situation in Michigan on the whole.  The takeover of various institutions by emergency managers has lead to worsened conditions. As a result, citizens and public employees are calling for change.  David Douglass, an organizer with By Any Means Necessary, told the Detroit Free Press:

“It’s clear that the state takeovers and the elimination of democratic control across Michigan cities has only created more destruction in black, Latino and poor communities.  In Flint, we had Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, who said himself that to save money, they’d switch water from the Detroit water system to the Flint River.”

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