The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

If They Get Away with Destroying Detroit Pensions, Every Worker Is Next

Nov 11, 2013

The following are remarks from a public meeting in Detroit given by the Spark organization in October 2013.

Dan Gilbert, with his 40 buildings, not to mention large chunks of Detroit real estate is – to use his words – “Doing Well by Doing Good.”

Greed is good. That was Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street. He too had the gall to claim that the greedier he was, the better it was for everybody. It’s the same load of manure in real life as it was in the movie! Dan Gilbert and his greedy class are doing well. But it’s a disaster for the rest of us, for the population, for the city workers, for the city retirees, and for everybody around the city too. It’s a disaster. It was a disaster before Kevin Orr and his bankruptcy. It will become much worse, if you are not a member of the wealthy club.

They tell us it will get better, we just have to let them do what they are doing. Let them go through bankruptcy. Let them destroy workers’ pensions. Then it will all be better! But it won’t. Not for us. Their greed is not good for us!

The “60 Minutes” program on Detroit repeated the claim of Gilbert and his wealthy class, the claim that the workers’ pensions are to blame. It’s all lies. The Detroit pension funds are short of money because the city broke its contract with the workers. Year after year, they took the money that was owed to the workers to give to the upper classes, the people like Gilbert.

Gilbert brags about the fact he didn’t pay much for his buildings. What he forgets to mention is that the city gave him tax breaks on top of tax breaks to take those buildings. A tax break because some are old “historic buildings.” A tax break, because some of them were in an area declared to be a “renaissance zone.” He also forgets to mention that the city paid to clear the site where he is about to build a mammoth underground parking garage. The city paid to tear down the 25-story Hudson’s building. The city paid to take it down, rebuild the foundations and utilities – and charged Dan Gilbert not one penny for it.

Cities are Broke Because the Big Thieves Robbed Them

Dan Gilbert and his class are the reason the city didn’t pay enough into its pension funds. Dan Gilbert and people like him – the Illitch family, the Ford family, General Motors, Roger Penske who thinks he owns Belle Isle. The Karmanos family that got the land for its headquarters from the city for $1. And Chrysler. Chrysler got the city to buy the land for its Viper assembly plant, clear it, get rid of decades worth of pollution – Chrysler’s own pollution! – put in infrastructure, and on top of all that, give Chrysler a 100% tax abatement for 13 years. Thirteen years, no property taxes! Anyone here ever get offered a deal like that?

The city is broke because these big thieves, some of the richest capitalists in the world, pay no taxes. The pension funds are underfunded because the city took money that was owed to city workers’ pensions and gave it away in all sorts of deals to these big thieves. Who cares about promises to workers? The politicians had a city to give away!

If the bankruptcy were truly aimed at putting Detroit’s house in order, as they claim, the first thing that the Emergency Financial Dictator would have done was go after the big thieves, prosecute them, take back the property they stole from the city, get back the billions upon billions of dollars thrown to them. I mean the big thieves, I don’t mean the small fry.

But that’s not going to happen because that’s not what the Emergency Financial Dictator and his bankruptcy are all about.

Detroit’s bankruptcy is being used to set a pattern, a precedent: Pensions will be made a thing of the past. You may have been promised a pension, but that doesn’t mean you will get what you were promised. The greedy class intends to break all those promises. Detroit’s bankruptcy is being used to show that even promises that were guaranteed to be iron clad, gold plated, 100% sure, even those promises CAN and WILL be broken – if you are a worker.

California: Using a Referendum to Cut Pensions

You may think it’s just Detroit, or maybe just Flint and Benton Harbor and Allen Park. If so, look at California. Look at San Diego and San Jose. San Diego is California’s second biggest city, and base of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. San Jose is the third biggest city, plopped down in the center of the very wealthy Silicon Valley. Both of those well-off cities have just torn up the promises made to their retirees, proposing a series of changes that will reduce medical coverage, cut the pensions and force city workers to pay more into them.

Neither of those cities even bothered with bankruptcy to do it. Instead, mayors and other politicians cut city services, then cut them again, and then again – even while they were handing out big bucks to all those Silicon Valley high tech companies, and to all those contractors that work for the Navy in San Diego. The cuts in services may not be quite as extreme as the ones in Detroit, but they sure sound familiar. San Diego closes down firehouses on a rotating basis. San Jose politicians closed down four libraries and slashed almost half the city’s police force.

Both California cities used the big lie that they were running into debt because of the massive amounts owed on pensions. They said it, repeated it, and the media repeated it. Finally, they put a referendum on the election ballot calling for mandatory cuts to pensions. Now, a part of the population in those two cities is quite wealthy. No problem for them if city workers lose their pensions! But the worst part of this whole deal is that a part of the working class in San Jose and San Diego also voted to cut pensions. Workers themselves fell for the propaganda that the “rich” city workers’ pensions were creating city debt and forcing the cities to cut services.

Having succeeded in San Diego and San Jose, California politicians now are working to put a referendum on the state ballot to let all cities and counties in the state cut pensions, too, tearing up whatever promises were made. Pushing their propaganda, they hope to get one part of the working class to vote against another part.

In Detroit, workers have been under attack a lot longer. Maybe more of them feel in solidarity with the city workers, maybe more of them understand that the attack on city workers is also an attack on them. Everybody has been catching hell and probably the politicians couldn’t do their dirty work here by a referendum vote. Probably that’s why they need a financial dictator and a bulldozed bankruptcy.

Cutting Their Pensions Today, Your Wages Tomorrow

But in Detroit, also, and for sure outside of Detroit, there are some working people who believe that the cuts to Detroit workers’ pensions don’t matter. Some people think it’s not them because they don’t work for the city. Some may say that they personally don’t have a pension, so what’s the big deal? Some who are in bad shape may even resent the city workers who have not only pensions but regular jobs. If you don’t have a job and you can’t find a job then you wonder, why are they crying?

We shouldn’t ever kid ourselves. If we let one worker go down, then sooner or later it will be our turn to go down another notch from wherever we are. It may be someone else today who is attacked, but tomorrow it will be you. You may not have a pension, but they can cut your wages. Or cut your job. Or cut your kid’s back to school clothing allowance, or raise your electric rates. And while they cut city workers’ pensions and jobs they will cut the services that city workers deliver in your neighborhoods. Goodbye libraries. Goodbye 911. Goodbye EMS and fire stations. When they get away with one thing, they come for another, it spreads out. It goes on and on until they are stopped. When they come for your neighbor today, if nothing happens to stop them, then they will come for you tomorrow. Count on it. Did you ever see them do any different?

Two-Tier in Auto Spreads to Everyone

I have experience. I’m a UAW retiree. The year after I retired, in 2003, the UAW agreed with GM and Delphi that new hires at GM’s former parts plants could be paid half the wages of current workers. Some of the workers at GM’s other plants said, “Well that’s a shame, but that’s not us.” And the UAW told them it was only the new hires, only at Delphi.

A few of us knew it was a lie and a threat. We spoke up wherever we could. We knew Delphi was only the beginning if it wasn’t stopped.

Sure enough, it was only the beginning. Those two-tier low wages spread from the new hires to the old workers at the parts plants at GM-Delphi and Ford-Visteon in 2007. In that same year, much lower two-tier wages spread to some new hires at all of the Detroit auto plants. Two years later in 2009, it spread to all new hires. And then the next year some older workers were targeted. At GM’s Lake Orion plant, older workers were told that regardless of seniority, if they wanted to keep their jobs at that plant, they had to take the two-tier pay. From $28 down to $16 or else they had to transfer to other plants – if there were openings.

Still no one in auto got organized to stop it. So, bosses being bosses, they didn’t stop in auto. When auto can cut and get away with it, that’s an invitation to every other company to cut. That’s why so many people today in this area are working at minimum wage or just above. When we let the auto companies get away with pulling down wages, then everyone else is going to be pulled down even further from wherever they are.

We Are All Us

Today when you see Detroit city workers losing their pensions, don’t tell yourself, “That’s not us.” If you live in the suburbs and you look at Detroit, don’t tell yourself, “That’s not us.” We are all US. Whether we like it or not doesn’t matter. We are all US just like Dan Gilbert and his wealthy club are all THEM. They are their own class. We are our own class. They stand together. We need to stand together. Divided we fall. But united! United we can show the Dan Gilberts how little they really are.

It is US. And we are in this together.