Detroit Teachers Defy Court’s Back-to-Work Order

By Ann Bradley — September 30, 1992 3 min read

A Wayne County Circuit Court judge last week ordered striking Detroit teachers to return to work on Sept. 24, but only 58 of the city’s 10,500 teachers obeyed the order, according to officials of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

District officials, who argued successfully in court that the strike was causing “irreparable harm’’ to students, announced that students should report for the opening of school on Monday, Sept. 28. Classes were scheduled to begin Aug. 31, but have been delayed since then by the strike.

In issuing his ruling, Judge Robert Colombo Jr. ordered the union to hold a membership meeting to inform teachers of the order and to videotape the proceedings.

At the meeting Sept. 23, John Elliott, the union president, and members of the executive board read the judge’s order to about 8,000 teachers and recommended that they return to work.

Their remarks, however, were prefaced by another union member who told the gathering that the officers were simply complying with the court order.

The teachers chanted “Hell no, we won’t go,’' and “No contract, no work,’' while their leaders read the statements, said Gary Pagels, an American Federation of Teachers national representative who is assisting the union during the strike.

“It was very theatrical,’' Mr. Pagels said.

About 5,000 teachers also demonstrated outside the school administration building against the ruling. The following morning, when teachers were supposed to begin planning for the opening of school, “the picket lines were just solid citywide,’' Mr. Pagels said.

Talks Continue

Meanwhile, negotiators continued to meet late last week. The talks have stalled over money: The district is offering a 3 percent bonus for teachers who attend staff-development workshops, while the union is seeking a 6 percent increase in base pay.

The talks were assisted by local elected officials and a group of Detroit ministers who were anxious to get children back to school, officials said.

The issue of how to proceed with the district’s “empowerment’’ program, which gives individual schools greater flexibility, has been settled but not formally announced, officials said.

A key factor in the judge’s decision was the looming Oct. 2 deadline for counting Detroit students. That count is used to determine how much state aid the district will receive.

“These funds are forever lost when these children are lost,’' the judge said in issuing the order.

School officials also argued during the three-day hearing that the strike was hurting both dropout-prone students and those preparing to go to college.

It was not clear last week what, if any, action the district would take against teachers who refused to return to work.

In 1973, during a 43-day strike that was the longest in Detroit’s history, striking teachers defied a court order to go back to work. They were not penalized.

Elsewhere, the Rhode Island Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments late last week on whether teachers in Warwick should continue to work under an expired contract.

The school committee says the order would force the city to spend an extra $5 million to hire additional teachers and reconfigure classes and would cause taxpayers financial hardship.

Eighteen Warwick teachers spent a weekend in jail for defying a court order to return to work before a superior-court judge ordered the district to implement the terms of the expired contract.

The National Education Association reported last week that in addition to Detroit there were ongoing strikes in Harrisburg, Ill.; North Tioga and Abington, Pa.; and the city of Springfield in Mahoning County, Ohio.

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 1992 edition of Education Week as Detroit Teachers Defy Court’s Back-to-Work Order