The Spark

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

Lead Poisoning in Flint and the UAW

Feb 15, 2021

On January 14 of this year, the State of Michigan charged nine state officials with crimes connected to the lead poisoning of the entire city of Flint in 2014. From April 2014 to October 2015, state officials forced the city of Flint to change its water supply source and use untreated river water. The acidic water caused lead, plus other contaminants, to dissolve into the drinking water.

State officials first brushed aside Flint residents’ complaints, then actively covered up the lead poisoning when test results came in. That was seven years ago. No one has yet served a day in jail. But the crime was astonishingly big.

Lead poisoning is so bad that there is no safe level. It poisons nerves. It poisons the brain, and worst of all, it blocks the normal development of children’s brains. Their intellectual and emotional developments are damaged. There is no antidote. Their poisoning is permanent, lifelong. There were 8,657 children under the age of 6 in Flint in 2015.

Quietly evading publicity is the General Motors Corporation. GM protected itself from the untreated water. When the new water was hooked up and the engines at its Flint Engine Operations started to corrode, GM trucked in fresh water for its operations, installed filtration equipment, and in less than 7 months got itself hooked back into safe water. GM promotes itself as a good responsible member of the community. It is one of the most powerful companies in Michigan. But in seven years, nothing has come to light showing any GM actions to alert the community, or to push the governor to act fast for everyone else in Flint.

But there was another force on the scene which could have roused itself to respond, and did not. The workforce at the engine plant is organized in the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. Many of the workers, especially in inspection and repair, would have been first to notice the damaged engines and inform management. The production slowdowns would soon have had everyone’s attention, including local union officers. They in turn would have alerted higher level union officials, because of the possible impact on other UAW plants if engine production had to be cut back.

As with GM, there is no evidence yet revealed to show any action by the UAW to alert the Flint community or to bring its forces into play to demand urgent help. They would have added credibility to the scientific findings of the community, knowing immediately and firsthand that the water was not right. But leaders seemed to limit their responses to relief measures like donating bottled water.

And yet, Flint is the symbolic home of the UAW. By the northeast corner of the Flint Assembly complex, on city property, is Sitdowner Memorial Park. A massive sit-down strike wave in 1936–7, centered in a 44-day sit-down in Flint that paralyzed the entire GM corporation, inspired workers with evidence of their power—if they stuck together.

Workers in that time learned how they could fight for their own interests. Many of the most militant leaders were socialists and communists, with a vision of workers’ power not limited to workplaces, but extending to take in hand all the affairs of society. Workers make society run; workers should run society. The leaders of the 1930s and 1940s stood for that.

They often ran labor candidates for city and state offices. They knew they were up against the companies in politics as well as in the plants.

Today, leaders with that understanding have been all but lost. Corporations have influenced new union leaderships, not only in the UAW, and recruited them to the idea of “partnership.” Be “partners” with management, help the companies raise quality, help them reduce costs, and this will raise pay and expand jobs. They say. But the UAW deliberately signed onto this “partnership” cooperation forty years ago, in fact even as far back as the 1950s, and the promises have not come true.

The working class needs leadership that “partners” with its workers and the communities they come from, not with wealthy criminals.

It doesn’t occur to leaders under the spell of “partnership” to consider saying, in the case of an emergency like Flint: “Listen, Governor. If you want any auto production to happen anywhere in Michigan, you need to fix this Flint problem and right now.” Yet that is the force that could outweigh the selfishness of GM and the crimes of the politicians. In fact, if stopping auto production wouldn’t be enough to persuade the governor, there are many other workforces at many other companies that might like to lend a hand.

If we recover this kind of thinking, there are many problems waiting to be solved by applying the force of an organized working class.