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Frank Hammer: In 2009, Obama offered a vision of jobs through building a green economy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. This is part two of our interview with Frank Hammer. We’re discussing President Obama’s address on Labor Day in Detroit. Thanks for joining us again, Frank.

FRANK HAMMER, FMR. PRESIDENT, UAW LOCAL 909: Good to be with you again.

JAY: Frank is a retired autoworker. He used to be a president of UAW local in Detroit, and he’s an activist working with the Autoworker Caravan. So let’s go back to something some of the workers say to you, you told me off-camera beforehand, is, you know, President Obama really didn’t have a choice. This–you know, at least this was better than the whole industry closing down. All they really could do was this kind of structuring. There wasn’t any–really any other political possibility. So what else could have been done? How do you answer that question?

HAMMER: Well, I think that there are a couple of things. One of the good things that Obama did that probably isn’t mentioned very much is that he lifted the CAFE standard considerably–with the support of the UAW, by the way–which is sort of a guarantee that the auto industry going forward was going to have to go more, much more into the electric and hybrid cars, which was very essential in regards to the whole other elephant in the room, which is global warming and climate change. So I think that was a good step. In 2009 in his Labor Day speech, he mentioned that he was going forward with renewable energy, with redoing an energy grid, with broadband, and with high-speed rail.

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Our commitment to innovation, much of it still to come in the months and years ahead; doubling our capacity to generate renewable energy, building a new smart grid to carry electricity from coast to coast; laying down broadband lines and high-speed rail lines; and providing the largest boost in basic research in our history; all of which will put people back to work–steel workers, plumbers, pipefitters, engineers, you name it.

HAMMER: And what was striking about the speech here today in Detroit is that none of that was mentioned, and it’s as if the problem has gone away, and the problem has not gone away. Global warming is becoming an increasing reality. We had the head economist of the International Energy Agency say that even with the downturn, the global downturn economically, that they had anticipated that carbon emissions would be declining, and instead they increased. And now they’re really calling out an alarm that if our carbon emissions continue at the rate that they’re going, then we’re going to reach a tipping point in regards to climate change by 2020. So the question of climate change, the question of global warming is an extremely real one. And it seemed to me that–I took note that Obama mentioned the Arsenal of Democracy at one point in his remarks today, and what he’s referring to is the conversion of Detroit back in 1940, where in an eight-month period we transformed all automobile production for wartime production, and it was done in a rapid rate, and it was done because it was a larger danger looming on the horizon in the form of German fascism. And if we understood that the threat of global warming represents a similar threat to the globe, to the planet, and that we have to move expeditiously to address it, much in the same way that the threat at the beginning of World War II was addressed, then what Obama would have unfolded in Detroit today, or maybe that he would have done Thursday, is that the conversion of our closed plants, first of all, and then the plants in general, to the manufacture of renewable energy and to the manufacture of public transit components–. And he could’ve mentioned that we have a light rail line going up the spine of Detroit here in Woodward, that it could be manufactured in these plants by US workers. And he could’ve also mentioned that the high-speed rail that’s being proposed from Detroit to Chicago could similarly be built in the Midwest, not only to provide laid-off workers jobs, but also to address the question of global warming, which is like a time clock–time bomb ticking.

JAY: Well, he didn’t mention any of that. In fact, what he did do recently was overrule the EPA on some very important piece of the environmental regulation, and essentially has kind of adopted the language that environmental regulation is in the way of creating jobs. This idea that Detroit could be the sort of powerhouse of a new, green economy, it’s completely off the agenda. Now–but I guess part of that is is that the reality of politics in Washington, that he–and reality of politics in America, that he’s lost–and he lost that debate if he ever really fought it.

HAMMER: Well, you know, a lot of the debate goes down to the question of global warming. And you have Rick Perry, the would-be next president of the US, dismissing the reality of climate change, and there’s no response to this lunatic’s idea that global climate change is not reality. And yet this is a governor that’s speaking from a state that’s been on fire for a couple of months now and might be on fire until November. And last I understood, the size of state of Rhode Island has already burned in Texas, and this is being directly connected to climate change. And so you have this foolish governor talking about he wants to be the president of the United States. And it seems to me that the response from Obama should be: this is a lunatic fringe. We have to address global warming, and if we wanted to address it adequately so that we don’t have to have droughts and prairie fires in Texas, then we have to convert to renewable energy and we have to convert to manufacturing rapid transit and light rail and so on,–

JAY: Well, just to be fair–.

HAMMER: –transform the–to make it a carbon-neutral economy.

JAY: To be fair, there is some debate about whether these specific things are connected to climate change or not, even amongst scientists who think there is climate change. But amongst the majority of scientists, there’s certainly no argument: the long-term trends are climate change is real. But all that being said, when it comes back to what–his speech in Detroit, he seems rather happy about the current situation, the restructuring. He made a little reference to some factory, one plant that he wasn’t–didn’t say which plant it was, and that apparently half the workers in one plant returned to work because of some new battery technology. But that was pretty meagre stuff, given the way he talked, as you said, in 2009.

HAMMER: Yeah. I’ll give you another example. We have a plant that’s been shut down by Ford, I think since 2007, which is a Ford plant that used to manufacture Lincolns in Wixom, Michigan. And what’s really marvelous is that Ford had made an agreement with a company from California and a company from Texas that wanted to come to Michigan to produce renewable energy components. One half of the plant was going to be dedicated to solar cells; the other half of the plant was going to be dedicated to heavy industrial equipment to convert wind energy to electric power. And they were going to invest $700 million in the plant. They were going to hire 4,000 workers. Michigan, the state of Michigan had already conceded to making all these tax breaks for the two new companies. And the only thing that hung it up was getting $500 million of loan guarantees from the Department of Energy over in Washington. And I’m thinking, if Obama so grievously overturned EPA regulations on smog, he certainly would have the power to overturn the decision by the Department of Energy to not grant these loan guarantees, so that we could begin to produce renewable energy here in Michigan, so that we can hire manufacturing workers that know how to do these things. So that’s another example. It seems to me that was an opportunity–that’s an opportunity lost. And it would have been great if Obama had come to Detroit today and said, oh, no, no, I’m going to reverse that and make sure that that Wixom plant is going to be operable, going to be hiring 4,000 workers, and it’s going to contribute to a green economy

JAY: Alright. So when you have these discussion and debates with your co-retired workers and active workers, I’m sure one of the things you hear is, well, what’s the choice? Perry? Bachman? You know, if we don’t go out there and fight for President Obama, you know, we–you want us to have a Republican president? How do you answer that?

HAMMER: I think there is no question that–and it’s been made abundantly clear that the number one agenda item for all the Republican candidates, their number one mission is to make Obama a one-term president. And they’ll do anything, as we’ve seen. I mean, they’ve held the global economy hostage in order to get their way, and still they’re going to go after Obama to make him a one-termer. And I think that it behooves us, which are all the union members, all the people that live in Detroit, the people that live in Michigan, that we have to press upon Obama that he needs to aggressively move on the question of climate change and he has to aggressively move on jobs, and that he can do that together by incentivizing and getting green production going, and doing it at the scale that was done by FDR at the beginning–before the beginning of World War II, and that kind of transformation. And that’s what we have to impress upon him. And he’s going to have to give up on his free market ideas. Unfortunately, he’s sort of bought into this free market idea. FDR did not rely on a free market to prepare for World War II, and we can’t rely on a free market to prepare and deal with global climate change.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Frank.

HAMMER: Thank you very much.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the donate buttons, which are somewhere around here, because if you don’t do that, we can’t do this.

End of Transcript

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Frank Hammer is a member of the Real News Network Board of Directors, and has been a social justice activist for nearly 50 years. He spent the last 40 years in the labor movement as an autoworker and a member, elected officer, staff representative, and now retiree of the United Auto Workers. Frank was the former president of the Greenacres Woodward Civic Association in Detroit, and he currently represents the association as a member of the Michigan State Fairgrounds Advisory Committee. He is a lecturer in the Labor Studies Programs at Wayne State and Indiana Universities. He’s a board member of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, an activist with South East Michigan Jobs with Justice, the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW-UAW), and the Autoworker Caravan.