Bus tour with teacherken: Michigan and Emergency Managers


Ken Bernstein is a recently retired National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher who was a 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher. Nationally known for his blogging as teacherken at Daily Kos and elsewhere, he served until his retirement as the lead building representative (NEA) at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt MD.

Tuesday the Stop the Greed Agenda Bus Tour made two stops in Michigan, which has seen both some of the most devastating effects of the Greed Agenda as well as some of the strongest pushing back. After I review our two stops, I will provide some detailed explanation.

The first stop was in Detroit, at the Michigan Labor Legacy Monument at Hart Plaza:




That put the bus on a busy road, just across the street from the Coleman municipal building and several other high-rises:


We had representatives of labor unions who joined us for the event, and also signed up to Stop the Greed Agenda


After Mariah Hatta kicked off the event with opening remarks, those assembled were addressed by Todd Cook of Mainstreet Strategies, formerly with the SEIU:


He spoke specifically about Proposal 2 on the ballot in November, which would restore collective bargaining rights to public employees.

He was followed by Tova Perlmutter of the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice:

IMG_1034 who said,

We stood up and said “No” when the Emergency Manager Act was passed last year.

She noted that the Act is an effort to pervert and corrupt the political process.

Next came the Rev. Charles E. Williams II of the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church

IMG_1035 who reminded us that the $400 million is being spent by the Koch Brothers to destroy democracy, and that we support Proposal 2 to make sure that everyone has access to collective bargaining. He was very blunt about what has happened under the current administration:

Democracy has been suspended in Michigan!

Our final speaker in Detroit was State Senator Bert Johnson of the 2nd District in Detroit:


Senator Johnson spoke about how the Koch Brothers set up innocent sounding groups such as Americans for Prosperity, or American Legislative Exchange Council , but that these are anti-people, pro-business organizations that are Koch-funded “astro-turf” groups. He was very blunt reviewing what had happened.

He reminded us Public Act 4, which established the Emergency Manager, is a state-led draconian takeover of local government which allows the Emergency Managers to sell city assets, break contracts, and privatize public services.

He discussed the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, based in Michigan and funded not only by the Koch Brothers, but by their partners in the Greed Agenda, the Waltons of Walmart and the Devos family of Amway. He offered a contrasting vision to what they propose:

At the heart of America should be a humanitarian effort to make sure all have a share.

We then traveled to Lansing, the State Capital. As you can see by this picture of Paul Woodson, our tour director,


we use the travel time to continue to work.

In Lansing we got to park in front of the State Capitol building:



which also put us directly across the street from the building housing government offices including the working office of Governor Snyder:


The primary purpose of our stop was to deliver a letter to Governor Snyder requesting that he break his connections with the Koch Brothers and the Greed Agenda.

We had three speakers, the first of whom was Zack Pohl of Progress Michigan, an organization which has been tracking ALEC for quite some time. He told us that 24 of the Republicans serving in the Legislature are members of ALEC, several having been in key positions in the organization. As a result, there have been 20 bills introduced that closely follow the model legislation of that organization. He stated forcefully

We’re not going to back down … It is time to stop the Greed Agenda!

He was followed by Jim Anderson, a professor of History at Michigan State University, who held up a Big Bird doll and told us

Big Bird, thanks to the Greed Agenda, is in big jeopardy.

He talked about student debt and the impact it is having on young people, noting that their huge debt burden was not there on those of us who attended college in the 60s and 70s. By contrast, he noted that the original post-World War II GI Bill of Rights was one of the best educational programs this country has had, as well as being a strong stimulus. It had grants for education. Had it been just loans, not as many could have participated, nor would it have contributed as much as it did economically to creating the strong middle class that helped America thrive.

Prof. Anderson then read the letter to Governor Snyder. The letter notes that the Greed Agenda proposes eliminating Veterans benefits. Prof. Anderson also mentioned the experience of Michigan in having to put up with poorly run cyber charter schools, which create profits for those who own them but do little to educate the students who are enrolled in them.

Todd Cook had traveled on his own to Lansing to join us again. He noted the importance of collective bargaining is not merely about wages, but about the right of policemen and firemen to bargain for better safety equipment. Collective bargaining also allows public employees like teachers and nurses to insist on service loads that allow them to properly do their jobs, so that teachers do not have 40 to 50 students in a class, and ICU nurses are not forced to try to care for 15-16 patients at a time rather than the recommended 5.

Let me try to explain what has been happening in Michigan. In 1990, Michigan passed Public Act 72 which authorized the state to intervene in units of local government that experience financial emergencies. The legislature that was seated after the election of 2010 passed Public Act 4, which updated that process and allowed the state to intervene much earlier.

Public Act 4 is titled “the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act.” Gov. Snyder signed it into law in March 2011. It granted unprecedented new powers to the state’s emergency managers, including breaking union contracts, taking over pension systems, setting school curriculums and even dissolving or disincorporating municipalities. The Emergency Managers, who are appointed by the governor, can “exercise any power or authority of any officer, employee, department, board, commission or other similar entity of the local government whether elected or appointed.” Emergency Managers can also suspend collective bargaining for up to five years and sell off municipal assets.

It is worth noting that the law has been targeted at poor communities of color. Detroit has a population that is almost 90 percent African-American. The city of Inkster with more than 25,000 of which more than 70% were black, also got an Emergency Manager (EM). Having EMs in both cities would mean that more than half the state’s black population would fall into the hands of unelected officials. Among the other communities which have seen imposition of Emergency Managers either for the entire municipality or for the schools are Flint, Muskegon Heights, Benton Harbor, Highland Park, and Pontiac. The law does not require all that much background for the position. PA 4 requires “a minimum of 5 years’ experience and demonstrable expertise in business, financial, or local or state budgetary matters.” In 2011 Michigan ran 2 day training sessions done by companies that provided outsourcing services to local government. Yet despite these minimal qualifications and training, Public Act 4 made the emergency manager more powerful than anyone else in a city which he ran.

Thus a person with minimal experience, who has not been approved by the voters, now under this law can supercede any decision those chosen by the people might want to make. It is hard to see how this can be considered as anything other than a superceding of democracy.

The impact of Public Act 4 upon schools has been severe, so the Michigan Education Association has been closely tracking the impact of the law. They focus on two school districts that have had their school systems sold to charter management companies.

You did not misread, nor did I write that incorrectly. In both Muskegon Heights and Highland Park, the entire school system – staff, students, and buildings – could be sold to the lowest bidder. Muskegon Heights was sold to Mosaica, and Highland Park went to Leona. What is interesting is that at the time they got control of these school systems, between them the two companies had only 1 school operating at the 50th percentile of Michigan schools, and they had several performing at the lowest level.

What happens when a charter operator takes over the school system? Let’s look at Muskegon Heights. All of the teachers were immediately discharged and told to reapply for their positions. Less than 50% were hired back. Note that level, because it is important. If at least 50% had been hired back, according to sources in the Michigan Education Association (NEA), there would have been a continuing union basis – by keeping the level under 50% the union is locked out.

Here I must note that in Muskegon Heights, the state is funding the operating of the school at at cost of $7397 per student (which according to the MEA is all coming from a foundation grant) while the local district is retaining all local tax revenues that would go to the school in order to reduce the debt burden that was the occasion of the state intervention. If nothing else, the financial crisis this and other communities (often of color) have experienced is one reason we may need to seriously rethink our practice of funding public education primarily through local real estate taxes: such an approach cannot help but perpetuate economic inequity.

Both unions are affected by what is happening. Highland Park is an AFT district. So is Detroit, but the situation there is different. The district signed a consent decree to avoid full takeover under the older law. Still, control was ceded to an outside manager whose actions have led to an explosion in class sizes.

Voters in Michigan were furious at the impact of Public Law 4. It was not just teachers, but all public employees, including police and fire, who were losing collective bargaining rights. Efforts were made to overturn the legislation. Signatures were gathered and two proposals eventually made it onto the ballot. The first, Proposal 1, would repeal the Emergency Manager Act. This is the proposal that received much of the national attention, because it was strongly opposed on all kinds of grounds, including the argument that the wrong font size was used on the petitions. Eventually proponents of the proposal prevailed in the State Supreme Court and the proposal is on the ballot for November 6. Once it was certified for this election, Public Act 4 was, under Michigan’s Constitution, suspended. However, Emergency Managers continued in place, only now they had to operate under the provisions of 1990’s Public Act 72.

What is not clear is what happens if Proposal 1 is passed by the voters. Some public property has already been sold. What happens to that? Do the Emergency Managers already appointed continue, albeit under the rules of Public Act 72, as they are doing now? Passage of the Proposal will undoubtedly lead to a series of court battles, but proponents are willing to undergo that to stop the depredation of democracy that was occurring under Public Act 4.

For organized labor, Proposal 2 is critical. It protects collective bargaining by amending the state constitution. As the text of the proposal appears on the ballot, it would

  • Grant public and private employees the constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively through labor unions.
  • Invalidate existing or future state or local laws that limit the ability to join unions and bargain collectively, and to negotiate and enforce collective bargaining agreements, including employees’ financial support of their labor unions. Laws may be enacted to prohibit public employees from striking.
  • Override state laws that regulate hours and conditions of employment to the extent that those laws conflict with collective bargaining agreements
  • Define “employer” as a person or entity employing one or more employees.

I realize that this post gets somewhat into the weeds. It had to.

What we know is that when voters realize what is happening, it is possible to organize and to push back against the Greed Agenda. Ohio saw a massive effort to repeal Senate Bill 5, and the effects of that pushback are continuing to play out in the current election cycle in both the Presidential and U. S. Senate races.

In Wisconsin, to which the Bus Tour goes on Wednesday, the pushback was only partially successful. The voters succeeded in changing control of the State Senate through recalls, but were unsuccessful in recalling the Governor and Lieutenant Governor whose administration had so perverted democracy. Still, the pushback started with the occupation of the State Capitol and that uprising did fuel pushbacks in other states.

We do not YET know what the results will be in Michigan. The polling data is not yet conclusive, and after all the only poll that will ultimately matter is what the voters decide to do on November 6. Thus it is timely for the Stop the Greed Agenda Bus Tour to visit Michigan, to help support their efforts to reclaim democracy and stop and if possible roll back the damage already done to Michigan by the Greed Agenda.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *