A Bloodless Coup d’etat in Detroit

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Frank Hammer reports that in the grand bargain of the bailout, Detroit lost its democracy

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Detroit–as we knew it, the former home of America’s steel manufacturing, it produced arsenal for World War II, it was the automotive capital of the world, known for its union-made cars, a city that produced Motown music facilitating racial integration–have undergone a bloodless coup, according to our next guest, Frank Hammer. He is a retired General Motors worker and former chairman of Local 909 in Warren, Michigan. He has lived the better part of his life in Detroit, and he now organizes with the Autoworker Caravan. He’s also a member of the board of The Real News Network.

Thanks so much for joining us, Frank.

FRANK HAMMER, COFOUNDER, AUTOWORKER CARAVAN: Thank you very much, Sharmini.

PERIES: So, Frank, you want to give us an update on what’s going on in Detroit since the bankruptcy hearings were held. Tell us more.

HAMMER: Well, I think it’s important for people to frame what’s happened in Detroit correctly. This is a city that was known historically, going back to World War II, as the arsenal of democracy. And today that democracy is in tatters. And I think people need to understand that the city is now virtually colonized. It’s a neo-colony of U.S. empire. And what we have seen here through the bankruptcy I would characterize as a bloodless coup d’etat. As a result of the bankruptcy proceedings and the grand bargain, in exchange for close to $800 million, partly to help with the pensions of city workers that were being shaved severely, in exchange for that, we have lost our democracy. We are now in the control of a nine-member appointed commission, which consists of the mayor, as well as the head of the city council.

PERIES: And when you say appointed, appointed by whom?

HAMMER: Appointed by the governor of the state, Governor Rick Snyder, who is a Republican. And his appointees consist of sort of a corporate who’s who, along with the president of the city council, Brenda Jones, and Mayor Mike Duggan. So this commission is now having oversight over Detroit for a minimum of 15 years, and it has broad authorities. It has control of any expenditures that Detroit plans to make–over $750,000. It has control over any bargains or deals that Detroit want to enter into that are longer than two years. It controls basically the purse strings of the city and can therefore block collective-bargaining agreements that the city might want to make with its unions. It can virtually control exactly what happens in the city of Detroit.

And this has, really, another assault, a different kind of assault on voting rights, and especially of voting rights of African-Americans. This is a city that consists of about 85 percent black population. And basically their votes, their elections have been made virtually superfluous, because the control of what goes on in the city is going to be well beyond the reach of Detroit voters. It’s going to be vested in Lansing, and it’s going to be vested in a corporate commission that’s going to have oversight over what all intents and purposes is going to be a plantation.

PERIES: Right. Frank, give us a little bit more context. I mean, this was a very prosperous city in the ’50s. It’s known as the heart of Motown music, where racial integration was rapidly advanced in the city, and also in terms of American steel and automotive manufacturing. And you’ve lived there most of your life. Tell me the transition it has undergone and why we’re here.

HAMMER: We’re here because of, basically, the deindustrialization of Detroit, the escape of manufacturing from the city to the suburbs, from the city to other countries, mainly Mexico and other parts of the Third World. And we’re also here because of automation. The factories that remain, for example, mine that still is open, used to have close to 4,000 workers. And today, as a product of the things that I just described, it has maybe 400 workers. So the devastating consequences has been the depopulation of the city. We have a city with 139 square miles of area, but once over 2 million population today, maybe around six, seven hundred thousand. So the deindustrialization of the city has devastated the economics base. And as a result, the first decade of this century, we lost over 200,000 people that fled the city and migrated elsewhere.

So we’ve been economically devastated. And as a result, no surprise, the city would develop cash flow problems. These have been seized upon in the manner of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. This has been a shock to the system, to put it into the bankruptcy proceedings, and to emerge with an entirely different kind of city that was once a union stronghold. It used to be called union town. The control by a nine-member commission outside of Detroit unelected will certainly change that configuration. And the role of the citizenry in determining the future of Detroit has been severely limited as a result.

PERIES: And why do you think Detroit lost its competitive edge in terms of auto manufacturing, which was its stronghold?

HAMMER: Well, that’s a little bit of a story, but I think that basically the employers, the big three, the parts suppliers wanted to leave what became a union stronghold. I mean, Detroit was the cross-section, the crosshairs of union and civil rights and made a very popular, very massive popular movements that democratized the city considerably. The corporations, with globalization, escaped union strongholds. They set up production in the South, in the nonunion South, they set up production overseas, and they automated labor away, so that all of labor was weakened in the process, and certainly in the city. So it’s a combination of things.

Of course they blame the labor movement for this taking place, but in reality it was really the imperial juggernaut that was able to infiltrate countries, certainly in this hemisphere, able to get cheap production, two-tier wage structures in places like India, for example, where GM has a facility where the pay $0.97 an hour to the first tier and $0.42 an hour to the second tier. With that kind of production overseas, the producers decided they did not–they wanted to leave places like Detroit and automate the work that remained.

PERIES: Right. And yet Pittsburgh that went through perhaps a similar transition have transferred its economy to what is now, I think, pharmaceuticals and hospitals and so on. Why was Detroit not able to do something of that nature?

HAMMER: Well, it’s not clear that Detroit won’t do that. The question really is going to be who is going to benefit. There is a vast population in Detroit that is–already received gentrification, for example of Midtown, of the Downtown area. There’s an influx of young, mostly white entrepreneurials coming into the city. And the question is going to be, if there is going to be an economic resurgence in Detroit, who’s going to be the winners and who are going to be the losers. And it seems right now that the population of Detroit is not going to be included in this, any kind of Renaissance that may occur as a result of new economic opportunities on the ashes of the old Detroit.

PERIES: So they’ve basically broken the back of Detroiters and the workers and unions, which has led to this kind of overtaken, as you called it, the coup. Now, who orchestrated the coup?

HAMMER: Oh, I think that the instrument for the coup was certainly the politicians in Lansing, including the Republicans, who’ve been in power now for the last five, ten years. And with their corporate backers, all the way from–you know, I think all the way from the White House, Washington, all the way through the corporate boards that are the dominant players here in Michigan.

So the Koch brothers would have something to do with this. They’re very much tied in with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which is a right-wing think tank, and I think that they’ve been orchestrating this for quite some time.

PERIES: Now, we’ve heard, of course, of the water wars, and we’ve reported on what was going on in terms of ordinary people that are still there and living in the struggles that they’re having with just public utilities, for example. So what’s happening now at that level?

HAMMER: Well, there’s sort of a mixed bag. For the first time, the street that I live on is lit up on a consistent basis. It did not used to be like that. They introduced new lighting. But it came with privatization. The water wars are continuing. There was a momentary pause, but water shutoffs still going on. And Detroit is facing a crisis this year of monumental proportions. It is now predicted that there will–may be 40,000, maybe up to 60,000 tax foreclosures on properties in the city in this year.

So, as I was mentioning earlier, the question of an economic renaissance here, the question really is, well, who’s going to benefit? And if all these thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of people are going to be forced out of their homes due to tax foreclosure, who’s going to be gaining? Who’s going to be waiting? The city’s going to be devastated. And I should mention that in one of my prior interviews I talked about the attempt to create a community benefits ordinance here in the city. And I see that the Republicans, true to their word, have resurrected a new language and new legislation in the state which they’re going to vote on maybe in spring–I don’t know–that will severely limit the city from even negotiating living wage agreements with employers who even get subsidies through tax dollars. So the ability for Detroit to exercise its democratic will is extremely limited and being severely attacked, so that this is going to be a city of–no power in the city, no power in the city.

PERIES: And yet Detroit still, up until and perhaps even during the bankruptcy, was one of the best-organized actions and protests, and resistance from various community organizations were mounted. What’s happening to these organizations, and where are you at in terms of resisting all of this?

HAMMER: Well, there is an active resistance, and there are many different fronts where this is going on. For example, there’s a very growing and robust eviction defense movement in this city, and they’re being able to actually rescue people and keep them in their homes, they’re appearing in courts in great numbers, and there is a strong movement in that corner. There’s a strong movement in defense of water rights. There is a strong movement against emergency management. And there is a considerable amount of activity, and it’s quite robust. But it needs to capture broader segments of the city, probably people who are just day-to-day trying to survive and make ends meet with poverty wages that they’re experiencing. And so it’s also a city, I think, that’s to some extent in a state of shock and is still trying to get its bearings as to what has happened to the city. And I think it’s going to take a while for these movements to grow.

But I feel confident that as people understand more readily what’s actually going on, that these movements will reach out to new nonactive constituencies. So I see burgeoning movements that are sometimes in great collaboration with each other, which has not always been the case in the time that I’ve lived in Detroit.

PERIES: Frank, we look forward to ongoing updates of what’s going on in Detroit. I hope you join us again very soon.

HAMMER: I look forward to it. I want to add just a PS. We’re going to have, I think, a lot of discussion about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I think that Detroit in some ways serves as an illustration of what will become of many governments and many countries when we talk about what is going to be the impact of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, not just on a city, but on whole countries bordering on the Pacific.

PERIES: Right. And if you want to know more about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, you should see Thomas Hedges’ piece that’s published today on The Real News Network.

Thanks for joining us, Frank.

HAMMER: Thank you so much, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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