Retiring Detroit teachers union president starting a new professional chapter

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit – — Detroit Federation of Teachers president Keith Johnson does not plan to spend much time resting during his retirement.

He's already writing two books and plans to return to college in the fall to take classes with the ultimate goal of becoming an arbitrator.

"I want to stay involved in the labor movement," said Johnson, 59.

Johnson announced last week he would retire when his term ends in January after six years as president of the union that represents 4,000 members, including teachers in Detroit Public Schools. All told, he has been a DFT officer for 21 years.

He said it was time.

"I had to ask myself the question, can I give it my all the way I've always done it for the next two years, and if you have to ask yourself the question, you've already answered it," said Johnson. "If you have doubts, then it's time to step aside and let someone else in who knows they can do it."

Johnson leaves after a tumultuous tenure that saw teachers endure pay cuts, larger class sizes and layoffs as the state's largest district struggled to stem enrollment losses and persistent deficits.

Robert Bobb, who was emergency financial manager of DPS from March 2009 through June 2011, said Johnson, a former teacher, represented his members' interests while recognizing the need for changes in the district, which has battled low test scores for years.

Bobb, now the president and CEO of the Robert Bobb Group in Washington, D.C., said Johnson's retirement would be a "big loss for the DFT."

"He was a very staunch advocate for teachers, understanding both the management side as well as what was best for the teachers," Bobb said. "He was an advocate for teachers and learning, and that's why he was able to push forward a number of educational reforms, working closely with our educational team, getting teachers to understand it was no longer going to be business as usual."

But years of concessions — some negotiated, some imposed by state-appointed emergency managers — led some union members to criticize Johnson's style as too conciliatory toward the district.

His departure could be accompanied by a struggle for control of the DFT, as members choose a new president starting Nov. 17.

Steve Conn, a DFT dissident who narrowly lost a bid to oust Johnson as president two years ago, said he plans to run again this year, with a goal of replacing the retiring president's supporters. He blasted Johnson's leadership, saying he was "very happy to see him go, because he decimated our union."

"It's been terrible," Conn said. "He's caved in at every key moment since he first stood on stage with Robert Bobb in 2009 at Cobo Hall and announced their partnership. We've got a Herculean task of rebuilding our union. Step one is to sweep Keith's entire team out, starting with Vice President Edna Reaves."

Reaves, who has been DFT executive vice president since 2012, did not respond to phone and email messages Friday from The News.

Johnson said he kept the union together through tough times.

"Other than when I first was trying to achieve collective bargaining for teachers in the 1960s, I think the No. 1 thing I'd like to be remembered for is keeping it together through attacks from the Legislature, emergency manager," he said. "We were able to survive all of that and still maintain relevant."

Under Johnson, the DFT was able to fend off some givebacks, and even made gains in some instances.

Last month, after protests from teachers, parents and state school Superintendent Mike Flanagan, the district backed off plans to impose an additional 10 percent pay cut.

During negotiations last year under Johnson, the DFT achieved a contract with DPS that ensured members would pay dues through 2016 despite Michigan's new right-to-work law. The contract also restored binding arbitration and sick-pay cashout for retiring teachers.

That contract followed a series of disputes with Bobb's successor as emergency manager, Roy Roberts.

Roberts imposed contract terms in 2012 that included a provision allowing for class sizes as high as 61 students in grades 6-12. In the summer of 2011 and 2012, the district laid off all of its teachers before calling many of them back to work.

Also in 2011, Roberts imposed a 10 percent pay cut on teachers and other district employees in an effort to reduce DPS' deficit. That cut remains in effect.

Before becoming DFT president, Johnson served as a labor relations administrator for the union for seven years, then became director of staff operations in 2001.

He served in that capacity until 2007. In 2010, Johnson was elected a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and an AFT-Michigan vice president.

Johnson began his teaching career with DPS in 1980 and taught for 15 years, most recently at Finney High School.

He said his writing projects will draw on his experiences in education.

"I'm ... working on two books — a novel and another one on how does one dismantle a school district that primarily serves people of color," Johnson said.

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