by Bill Onasch
Leaving No One Behind
While I have visited the Detroit area on numerous occasions it’s mainly been to attend conferences in suburban chain hotels. My one extended stay in the downtown area was around a convention of the Young Socialist Alliance in 1965. Upon learning I was not familiar with her city, one of the local comrades offered to show me some of the attractions. It turned out we spent almost all of our time at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Most of that was in the Rivera Court. My guide had become somewhat of an expert who was able to explain in detail every message-packed square inch of the 27 panel Detroit Industry fresco, painted on wet plaster over an eleven month period by arguably Mexico’s greatest muralist–the Marxist Diego Rivera. My recollections of the convention I attended 48 years ago have grown hazy but that day with Detroit’s cultural centerpiece remains unforgettable.
I haven’t been back to the DIA since and long ago lost touch with my guide that day. What jogged this little trip down memory lane is the imminent danger facing this rare crown jewel, justly cherished by the people who have maintained it with pride, as the ruling class moves to liquidate the sparse remaining Detroit public assets through bankruptcy. Some say its treasures might fetch three billion or so but since there has never been such a mass dump of precious art it’s anybody’s guess.
Leaving aside dollar amounts, looting the DIA is equivalent to a bill collector demanding not only all your money, car, and TV set but also your family pictures, wedding rings, and your kid’s bronzed baby shoes. The conquering Roman and British Empires were soft hearted compared to the Governor of Michigan, his appointed gauleiter now in charge of the Motor City–and the bankers they front for.
It’s important to understand Detroit is different than even the mean-spirited austerity programs being imposed in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and other countries by European bankers or the IMF. Nor does it totally resemble the White House dictated bankruptcy reorganization of General Motors and Chrysler that had such a big impact on Detroit. There are no bail-outs in store, no plan for recovery. It is more akin to the asset stripping of mines, mills, and factories by private equity firms who have left industrial ghost towns scattered across North America.
Detroit is in bad shape–not even Fiat-Chrysler’s advertising agency can refute that cold reality. In 1950 Detroit had a population of 1.8 million and was the fifth largest city in the country. By 2007–when the UAW agreed to massive concessions to the Big Three automakers to “save jobs”–the city’s population had already shrunk to half the 1950 number. Today–after President Obama scuttled 100,000 auto-related jobs, including many in Detroit, through the scripted bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler, and the Great Recession and Jobless Recovery continued to impoverish workers in Detroit as elsewhere–it stands at a little over 700,000.
The population loss began in prosperous times through the curse of Urban Sprawl. It was fed not only by typical white flight from inner cities but also many Black “middle class” workers in the heavily unionized Detroit area. Plant closings in the Eighties inspired others to leave the newly dubbed Rust Belt altogether, heading to places such as Houston and Phoenix. Steadily, Detroit became a two-tier city–a few pockets of affluent whites walled off from mostly poor Black, immigrant, and elderly white workers and pensioners with no where to go. The city’s official unemployment rate is sixteen percent but many more have simply given up looking.
This disgraceful chronic decline of a once great city has been long ignored or dismissed as hopeless. This gave the new right-wing reactionaries an opportunity to take the initiative. As Jane Slaughter explains in a good piece in Labor Notes,
“Detroit hit the Trifecta yesterday—the third in a series of body blows that politicians have landed on the city’s working people. The Michigan legislature passed ‘right-to-work’ in December and gave the governor the right to impose ‘emergency managers’ on cities two days later. When Detroit’s emergency manager Kevyn Orr announced Chapter 9 bankruptcy Thursday, he was following a predicted trajectory that will lead to further impoverishment and privatization.”
The Washington Post identifies Orr,
“Long anonymous to most of Washington, Kevyn D. Orr is among a tiny handful of prominent African American corporate turnaround lawyers in the country. Until recently, he was perhaps best known for helping guide Chrysler through its wrenching but ultimately successful 2009 bankruptcy.”
The “success” at Chrysler, bankrolled by U.S. and Canadian government loans, as well as plant and dealership closings, and give-backs by workers and retirees, was limited to making the company profitable once more under its new Fiat ownership.
Cities are not supposed to be profitable. Any profit potential in Detroit’s assets will indeed be sold off at bargain basement prices to the private sector, as sister Slaughter asserts.
Jane also points out the dog-eared page in Orr’s playbook tackling the “retiree burden.” She writes,
“The bankruptcy will enable an appointed judge to impose further cuts to city expenses and to void union contracts. A prime target for cost-cutting is the pensions owed to 21,000 city retirees and 9,000 active workers.”
AFSCME Local 207 has called a mass demonstration in downtown Detroit this Thursday. It’s good that some unions of city workers are ready to fight to defend themselves. The streets will be a more effective venue than the courts.
The ramifications of bankruptcy will be felt far beyond the city limits of Detroit. Motown is not the first municipal bankruptcy but it’s far the biggest–and it takes place in what was the cradle, and once the pace setter, of industrial unionism in this country. We owe them. And defeat in Detroit can quickly spread to other cities with similar problems such as St Louis, Kansas City–even Chicago–to mention just a few. That’s why this battle is a battle for all workers. We cannot leave our wounded Detroit comrade behind.
* I came across an interesting article reprinted on the National Nurses United site entitled How Climate Change is Fueling a Rise in Deadly Diseases. It concludes, “… illnesses that currently impact other countries could flourish in the United States if they were to find their way here. Rift Valley fever — which causes fever, vertigo, and neck stiffness — is also spread through mosquitoes. Public health officials in Europe and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have publicly warned that populations should prepare for a rise in these diseases as a consequence of global climate change. But currently, only eight states have taken measures to prepare to combat the public health consequences of climate change.”
* Worth reading is an article by Leo Panitch, Why are Canada’s Trains Vulnerable? Good Old Capitalist Cost-Cutting.
* From the New York Times, “A Canadian company’s plan to build an oil pipeline that will stretch for hundreds of miles through the Midwest, including through many sensitive waterways, is quietly on the fast-track to approval — just not the one you’re thinking of. As the Keystone XL pipeline remains mired in the national debate over environmental safety and climate change, another company, Enbridge Inc. of Calgary, Alberta, is hoping to begin construction early next month on a 600-mile-long pipeline that would carry tar sands from Flanagan, Ill., about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, to the company’s terminal in Cushing, Okla. From there the company could move it through existing pipeline to Gulf Coast refineries.” Missouri’s Democrat Governor Jay Nixon and Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill, are cheerleading this “job creation.”
* New York Times auto editor Bill Vlasic sought a silver lining in Detroit’s cloud, Last Car Plant Brings Detroit Hope and Cash. The “last plant” is “More than 4,600 workers staff Chrysler’s sprawling Jefferson North factory nearly around the clock, making one of the most profitable vehicles on the market, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The plant, painted white and surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire, generates about $2 billion in annual profits and is a huge contributor to the health of Chrysler, the nation’s third-largest automaker, and Fiat, its Italian parent company.”
There were many other important story links on our companion Labor Advocate Blog.
That’s all for this week.