Detroit Sick-Out Critics Frustrated They Can’t Blame it on the Teachers Union

Detroit Sick-Out Critics Frustrated They Can’t Blame it on the Teachers Union

For the past several months, teachers in Detroit have been organizing to protest their unsafe and underfunded public schools. These working conditions, the teachers argue, negatively impact both their ability to teach and students’ ability to learn. And students are indeed struggling: Detroit public school students consistently earn the lowest reading and math test scores compared to students in other urban districts across the country.

More recently, teachers have been calling in sick, forcing schools throughout the city to shut down. At first it was just a few schools at a time, but earlier this month the teachers escalated to larger, coordinated mass actions. On January 15, for example, 64 schools closed—more than half in the city—as teachers gathered to rally for more resources. Thirty-one thousand students had to stay home that day.

The mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, toured Detroit schools following the protests and reported seeing freezing children wearing winter coats in class, a dead mouse on the floor, and severely damaged facilities. Yet Duggan has limited power over Detroit’s schools; the district has been under state control for nearly seven years.  

These “sick-outs”—as they’re dubbed—have garnered great controversy. While plenty have expressed support for the teachers standing up for what they believe in, others say these educators are selfishly depriving students of their right to an education, and in some cases, free meals. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said, “there are other venues and ways if people have issues. ... They shouldn’t be doing that at the expense of having kids not in class.”

Perhaps the group that is tripping over themselves the most is the so-called “pro-teacher but anti-union” cohort. It’s maddening for them that they can’t pin these sick-outs on the greedy scheming of the all-powerful teachers union. You know, the ones that just care about their salaries and pensions.

But the union did not spearhead these protests. The interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Ivy Bailey, has repeatedly said she does not support the sick-out approach. (She refuses to condemn the teachers, however, given what she says are extremely legitimate complaints that have gone long ignored.) 

Still, many, like the Detroit News editorial board, have framed their sick-out media coverage around individuals like Steve Conn, an “ousted union president.” By pinning these protests on a former union leader, rather than on the grassroots group of diverse teachers leading them the Detroit News aims to mislead its readers about the source and nature of, and motives behind, the sick-outs.  

Now, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has even filed a lawsuit, singling out 28 defendants, including Steve Conn, Ivy Bailey, and the Detroit Federation of Teachers in its complaint. In the suit, according to Governing, DPS takes issue with Conn calling the teacher sick-outs a “huge victory.” The suit also notes that Bailey has not ruled out the possibility of a district-wide strike.

While the union is not leading the protests, it is certainly offering support. Here’s a video the American Federation of Teachers helped to produce on life inside Detroit’s deteriorating public schools: