Accepting union challenge, Kamala Harris spends day with teachers
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., talks to students at Miller Elementary School in Dearborn, Mich., Monday, May 6. | Paul Sancya / AP

This article was originally published on May 8, 2019.

DEARBORN, Mich. (PAI)—Accepting a challenge from national union leaders to Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., spent a day in Michigan walking in workers’—in this case, teachers’—shoes.

And between reading to elementary schoolers in Dearborn and fielding their questions, and answering adults at a town hall meeting sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Detroit, Harris declared her support for hefty raises for teachers all across the country.

Accompanied by Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Michigan AFT President David Hecker, and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., Harris sat in a rocking chair and read to 4th-graders at Miller Elementary School. When they asked what she thought of teachers, Harris called teachers “superheroes” and touted her proposal to give them a big raise.

Her proposal would cost $315 billion over 10 years, and Harris said she would pay for it by raising the federal estate tax—which Republicans scheme to virtually abolish.

Ironically, Trump Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, who got her job by being a GOP big giver in Michigan and a foe of public schools and their teachers, also backed raises for teachers the prior week—coupling that with a snide crack at Weingarten’s pay.

DeVos also used her speech, to the Education Writers Association meeting in Baltimore, to denounce the wave of teachers forced to strike in various states, most of them “red” Republican states. But the latest forced walkout, over crumbling buildings, outdated textbooks and—after that—low pay, is scheduled for “blue state” Oregon on May 8.

Meanwhile, Harris was praising teachers and their dedication to their kids, despite low rates of pay they don’t deserve. “I want to pay your teachers more money,” she told the kids, with a laugh when their heads turned to their teachers. “If you look closely, you’ll see that they’re wearing capes.”

Harris later expanded on that at the town hall at Marcus Garvey Academy in Detroit by saying her proposal would give the average teacher a $13,500 yearly raise.

And she told the town hall she chose a fiction book with an anti-bullying message. When one student asked why, she replied, “The sign of a real leader is that they’re kind to everybody.” At her later stop at the town hall, Harris referred to the book again and added: “Let me tell you how much our president could learn from a 4th-grader.”

Weingarten took her own shots at DeVos, noting Harris spent more hours in a public school classroom in one day than DeVos—a strident advocate of yanking federal and state funds away from public schools and giving them to private and charter schools—has in her life. Her campaign had mixed success in Michigan, her home state. DeVos, part of the rich right-wing Amway fortune family, never went to public school.

Weingarten also noted Trump’s and DeVos’s education budget calls for steep cuts in public school funds even as DeVos “owns more yachts than I have fingers.”

In making the Detroit-Dearborn trip, Harris opened her campaign in a key state in the 2020 presidential contest and answered a call first uttered by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

He declared each presidential hopeful—the number of Democrats is 21 and counting—should spend a day at work with union members, field their questions and then, probably in September, answer other questions from union leaders.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.