When last we checked in on American Federation of Teachers Local 231, the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT), Randi Weingarten at AFT national headquarters had attempted to restore order after the chaotic reign of former union president Steve Conn by placing the DFT in trusteeship. Instead of order, that move has brought chaos, with Conn’s radical factions staging so-called “sickouts” that have closed so many Detroit schools that officials estimate that 31,000 of the city’s 46,000 public school students have missed school time.
What the DFT members are doing is probably illegal—Michigan state law forbids striking by public employees, and the school district has filed for injunctions against those involved in the wildcat strikes. This isn’t the first time that Michigan public employee unions have become aggressively militant: Taking advantage of a 1965 law that removed certain penalties for public sector workers who went on strike, Detroit unions went on a strike spree with four major strikes between 1971 and 1986.
The result of these actions were vast wage and benefit concessions to the DFT and other public employee unions that helped drive Detroit into bankruptcy. In 1992, concessions given after a DFT strike forced the Detroit school system to make $20 million in cuts to offset the new compensation hikes—helping set the stage for the current disputes over school conditions.
The wildcat strikes illustrate a key myth of public-employee unionism. According to union supporters, public employees should be allowed to form and to hold privileges that oppose employee rights in order to preserve “labor peace” and ensure the delivery of government services. Supposedly, organized representation would ensure that wildcat strikes don’t occur.
However, that hasn’t happened in Detroit schools (and given the history of walkouts, unionists cannot just blame the state’s recent right-to-work law). Public unionism suffers from a fundamental contradiction: Unlike private-sector employees, public sector union members have the power to “elect” their management, giving them disproportionate power to get favorable working arrangements. In Detroit, the result has been unstable city finances that culminated in the city’s 2013 bankruptcy.