Three political activists from Michigan are bringing an urgent message to California’s working families: The corporate agenda of profits over people that continues to ravage the rights of Michigan workers has invaded the Bay Area and is spreading throughout the nation. Its goal is to keep record profits flowing into corporate coffers regardless of the suffering of workers and the damage to democracy.
“Democracy is under attack like never before,” said the Rev. Edward Pinkney, who Skyped in from his Benton Harbor home because a Michigan court refused to let him travel to California. “It’s time that the people take a stand, stand up and fight this monster . . . We can do anything when we learn to work together.” Then he began a chant that was picked up resoundingly by the audience, “Enough is enough! Enough is enough! Enough is enough!”
Just weeks after he fired up the crowds at the eight teach-ins described in this story, Rev. Pinkney was convicted of five felony counts of “forgery under the Michigan election law.” An all-white jury found him guilty despite testimony from three people who saw a woman making changes on mayoral recall petitions without Rev. Pinkney’s knowledge, and despite expert testimony that there was no way to tell who had altered dates on 5 petitions to recall the mayor of Benton Harbor, MI. Rev. Pinkney, 66, faces a possible sentence of 25 years to life, and plans to appeal his conviction.
Rev. Pinkney’s remarks drew applause from more than 50 Bay Area low income workers, political activists and students in the first of eight “Michigan Speakers Tour” teach-ins hosted in early October by the Women’s Economic Agenda Project (WEAP) and co-sponsored by many partner groups, including SEIU Local 1020, Laney College, College of Alameda, Merritt College and the Peralta Federation of Teachers as well as student and community organizations.
“The old social contract is being torn apart,” said Ethel Long-Scott, executive director of WEAP. “Today our topic is “Corporate Dictatorship, Austerity & Criminalization” – our goal is to examine the Michigan experience, and learn how their battles shape and influences our realty today and in the future. In Michigan it’s easy to see how a real corporate dictatorship has taken control of the political system.”
The thrust of the Michigan experience, panelists said, is that thanks to the electronic revolution, a rapidly growing global force of smart robots are able to produce large amounts of goods and services at very low cost. Corporations are responding to this by shedding good jobs as fast as they can, and cheapening the jobs that remain, resulting in “the creation of a new class of workers no longer needed by the production system.” As working families are forced into poverty by the loss of jobs, Michigan politicians are using dictatorship tactics like shutting off water to force low income workers out of their neighborhoods.
The Michigan activists cited many examples of how political leaders and elected officials in their state are following a corporate agenda of meeting this challenge by maximizing profits at the expense of workers and their families. Corporate tactics include privatizing land and services that were once public and available to all, and pushing elected officials to do what’s good for corporations instead of what’s good for working class communities.
Detroit’s water department drew international condemnation this year for shutting off water to 100,000 Detroit homes for overdue bills as small as $150 while continuing to serve corporate clients owing as much as $400,000. Bay Area residents said California’s severe drought is already hitting rural California, drying up wells in small towns like Porterville, raising water prices to farmers, cutting crop yields and redistributing who gets water and who doesn’t.
“The Egyptians who built the pyramids, they gave those workers water because they needed them,” said Claire McClinton of Flint, Mich. “The slaves who worked the plantations in America, they gave those workers water because they needed them. The farm workers who picked the crops, they gave those workers water because they needed them. Detroit shut off water because they don’t need us anymore!”
“We have to raise our awareness of the types of attacks that are coming not just on labor, but on all of us,” said Kimberly Moses, a chapter president in the Service Employees International Union. “The corporations have us all competing for low wage jobs.”
In Michigan elected public officials are summarily replaced with appointed Emergency Managers in financially stressed municipalities and school districts with a majority of low-income African American residents. Emergency Managers have the power to sell off public property, privatize public services and unilaterally alter union contracts – but not contracts with corporations. The California equivalent of an emergency manager has taken over financially troubled City College of San Francisco, as the state took over the Oakland public schools a decade ago.
“Sounds like a dictatorship,” one participant commented.
Slyvia Orduno, one of the Michigan Presenters, said foreclosed homes in Detroit are being purchased on the Internet by people who hope to make a killing reselling into gentrifying neighborhoods. In the Bay Area, people made rich by Silicon Valley startups are gentrifying working class neighborhoods, forcing low-income families out of their homes with rising rents and rising home prices.
“California has foreclosures, Michigan has property taxes . . . creating third world conditions” said Sylvia Orduno, a Michigan resident with a 30-year history of activism on behalf of low-income families. “We are looking at major human rights violations against the people.
Pensions and health benefits are also under attack from the corporate agenda. In bankruptcy court hearings this year, Major banks and financial companies pushed Detroit, Stockton and San Bernardino to make drastic pension and retiree health care cuts so that the corporations could be paid more. The California cities were forced during bankruptcy negotiations to back away from their initial attempt to protect pensions. Detroit’s Emergency Manager took the city into bankruptcy partly to circumvent Michigan’s constitutional protection of pension benefits, said McClinton, a 30-year auto plant worker.
The results have been uneven. Two different federal judges ruled that federal bankruptcy law invalidates the pension protections written into Michigan’s constitution and California state law. The November agreement paving the way for Detroit to emerge from bankruptcy calls for a 4.5 percent cut in pensions and a 90 percent cut in health care benefits. But an Oct. 30 agreement in Stockton protects pensions and benefits.
“There are too many poor people in a nation so wealthy,” thundered Pinkney. “Our task today must be to create discomfort in the house of the powerful around the nation . . . An economic system that does not feed, clothe and house its people must and will be overturned . . .
Privatizing public property is one way of gentrifying neighborhoods by forcing people to move out, the Michigan speakers said. In Benton Harbor the Emergency Manager leased part of a lakefront public park to a private developer, which turned it into an expensive private golf course. “Jean Klock Park used to be free,” said McClinton. “People got married there. People had reunions there. Now you have to pay to get in. How they move the people out is they steal our public assets.”
In the Bay Area, cities like San Francisco and Oakland use public money to lure in private profit-making corporations by giving them expensive tax breaks and other subsidies. The companies usually argue they are bringing in jobs, but studies suggests there are usually fewer jobs than the companies claim, and that they don’t economically justify the public subsidies.
“I see a common theme in what we’ve heard,” said one participant. “Do what the corporations want, not what working people need.”
Unions, which one union member called the last ladder to the middle class, have been under attack in Michigan and other Rust Belt cities for decades. There is now a concerted attack on public service unions in California, the strongest in the nation. Bay Area employers have broken promises to restore wage and benefit cuts that were supposed to be temporary, demanded even more givebacks, and brought in high-priced union-busting consultants like BART management did in 2013.
“We need to raise our awareness and learn from the leaders who are present. The fight is here, and we need to pay attention,” said Moses, president of SEIU 1021’s Port of Oakland chapter.
Pinkney said another way of gentrifying neighborhoods is criminalizing low income people. It begins with outsourcing jobs, he said. As neighborhoods lose income police start harassing residents instead of protecting them. Predatory poverty vultures of various kinds, from drug dealers to payday loan offices, descend on the area. Young people who gather together are called gang members by the authorities. Before long people who can afford to are moving out and the neighborhood becomes a target for housing speculators, which hastens the exodus.
Detroit’s Emergency Manager is on record that city workers and retirees should bear part of the cost of putting Detroit back on a sound financial footing. Cutting pensions and health care would force that. Peter Brown, representing the Peralta Federation of Teachers, raised the issue of who should make whole a city that was hoodwinked into bad financial deals by the Wall St. banks and other corporate creditors. He pointed to ReFund and ReBuild Oakland, a coalition of community groups determined to protect housing, public services and education by forcing “big banks and corporate interests” to pay for the damage they caused. Cities should spend their money on the workers who keep the city healthy, not on the banksters whose actions helped destroy city finances, supporters said.
Many people applauded a video, “Humans Need Not Apply,” that showed how roboticized production of goods and services will eventually make human labor as obsolete as automobiles made horses – “Not immediately, and not everyone,” but enough so that most people will be unemployable “through no fault of their own.” At the same time, the video argued, goods and services produced by robots will become abundant and cheap, raising the question of how people will get the things they need if there are no jobs. The 15-minute video is available on YouTube.
“Our democracy is imperiled,” said Long-Scott. Look at the engine that is driving this process, the microchip revolution. We can’t just look at fighting with the tools of the last century. This is a whole ‘nother game.” She cited police confronting peaceful protestors in Ferguson MO with tanks and guns, “Ferguson is an indication of how things are changing,” she said.
“These new tools can be good for us if we control the tools,” said Moses. Under capitalism the tools will kill us, she said, but “if we have those tools in our control we probably could have a society where we only have to work maybe 10 hours a week because the tools are powerful enough to create everything we need.”
Pinkney, a 20-year fighter against the corporate forces pushing to privatize and gentrify working class neighborhoods in Benton Harbor, had to be Skyped into the teach-ins on a large video screen because he faced trial on charges of voter fraud. He and his supporters say the charges were trumped up in an effort to silence his outspoken organizing against the Whirlpool Corp., headquartered in Benton Harbor. He was charged with illegally altering petitions he was circulating in an effort to oust Benton Harbor’s mayor, who supports Whirlpool’s efforts to gentrify the majority African American city with a 42 percent poverty rate.