Meet Steve Conn, Former Teacher Union President, and Now a ‘Union Buster’

As summer turns to fall in Michigan this year, top bosses of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union (DFT) might well be tempted to paraphrase cartoonist Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he used to be our local president.”

Interim President Ivy Bailey, who took the reins of the DFT union after her predecessor Steve Conn was ousted in August, and other teacher union officials are furious at their erstwhile chieftain because he is now calling on rank-and-file teachers and other employees of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) system who continue to support him to exercise their freedom under Michigan’s two-and-a-half year-old Right to Work law not to bankroll an unwanted labor organization.

For this “offense,” Bailey is denouncing Conn as a “union buster” with an agenda of “destroying unions and collective bargaining . . . .”

Why are Conn and his former fellow union bosses now at each others’ throats?

During his brief tenure as DFT president, Conn repeatedly angered the hierarchy of his organization’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). For example, Conn reportedly tried, against the AFT brass’s wishes, to affiliate the DFT with the fiery and far-left group By Any Means Necessary. But it seems clear that what upset the national union most of all was Conn’s apparent refusal to forward a portion of teachers’ and other employees’ forced dues and fees to AFT headquarters and the statewide union AFT Michigan.

In August, the DFT executive board sided with the AFT brass by putting Conn on trial, finding him guilty on several counts, removing him from office, and ousting him from the union. Conn then tried to get his job back by demanding that a rank-and-file membership vote on his reinstatement be held. At a September 17 membership meeting, he won a majority of votes, but not the two-thirds majority he needed to prevail.

That’s when, from the perspective of AFT czarina Randi Weingarten and her allies in the DFT local, things got really ugly.

At a September 18 rally outside Detroit’s Masonic Temple, Conn called on members, as indirectly quoted by Detroit News reporter Shawn Lewis, to “quit [the DFT], stop paying dues, and join” an as-yet unnamed union that Conn is now organizing. (See the link below for more information.)

Unfortunately for Conn and his supporters, DFT union bigwigs argue that, since they “renegotiated” and “extended” their DPS contract just before Michigan’s Right to Work law took effect in March 2013, they can continue forcing dissident educators to bankroll the incumbent union until June 30, 2016.

The fact is, there are an array of good reasons why independent-minded teachers and other school employees in Detroit might want to stop bankrolling the DFT as soon as they possibly can do so without being fired.

For example, talented and conscientious teachers in the Motor City and around the country reasonably believe that they are dragged down by union work rules that make it almost impossible in practice for school boards to dismiss their worst-performing colleagues. As a consequence of such union work rules, good teachers often have to spend a large share of their work time trying to repair the damage done in the last grade.

Detroit school employees who want to cut off their financial support for the DFT because they support Steve Conn may have very different ideas than other independent-minded teachers about how schools should be run.

The bottom line is, the individual employee is the best judge of what “benefits” him or her. And that’s why it will be an important advance for sound public policymaking when Michigan’s Right to Work law finally takes effect for DPS employees late next spring.

Longtime union activist and erstwhile Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT/AFT/AFL-CIO) union President Steve Conn is now encouraging rank-and-file teachers and other school employees to exercise their prerogative under Michigan’s Right to Work law to resign from and cut off all financial support for the DFT. Image: WDIV-TV (Detroit, Mich.)

Conn urges DFT members to quit, join a new union