Policy: Labor

Union head opposes Detroit selling art to pay off debts

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Beltway Confidential,Education,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,Detroit,Analysis,Michigan

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she was opposed to Detroit selling off its renowned museum art collection, which is valued at $1 billion to $2 billion, to help pay down the bankrupt city's estimated $18 billion in debt. She said the collection should be kept since it would be a cultural boon to the city once it does recover.

"Detroit can be a jewel (again) in that state. I would caution against selling the kind of assets that that art collection is," she told the Washington Examiner during a Wednesday morning breakfast with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

She was cautious on the subject though, knowing that not selling the art works would make it that much harder for the city to get its debt under control without trimming pensions for city workers. Unions have fought the bankruptcy in court in order to prevent any such potential cuts. AFT represents between 3,000 and 4,000 workers in the city, according to Weingarten, though she added she was not certain of the exact figure.

The stance puts Weingarten at odds with other unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has pushed to "monetize" the art.

The future of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection -- which includes works by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne -- has been the subject of much debate in the cash-strapped city. Kevin Orr, the emergency manager appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, has hired the auction house Christie's to appraise the works for possible sale. "Let's be clear: That's a city asset," Orr told the Detroit Free Press Tuesday.

In a ruling Tuesday, a judge said the city's bankruptcy could go forward and indicated that the art assets could be used, though he urged the city to "take extreme care" in the matter.

The proceeds from the sale would take a considerable chunk out of the city's debt. Several creditors have urged Orr to do just that, arguing that possessing the art works does not amount to an essential service the city must provide. Art lovers in the city have opposed the sale, saying it would cost the city some of its most prized assets.

Weingarten said Wednesday she was in the latter camp. She compared Detroit's current situation to the one New York City faced in the mid-1970s when it came close to declaring bankruptcy. She said the city made the right decision at the time for its future by preserving its cultural "vitality."

"It could have made the decision to declare bankruptcy and it did not. It could have made the decision to sell its great assets and it did not. It made a decision — including the unions, who used their pension funds to buy city bonds — for long-term viability with lots of sacrifices throughout the '70s. That decision — if you think about what is happening in New York City right now, it oozes life. There is a vitality now the likes of which you don't see in the rest of the world," she said.

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