Fight

Corporate Dictatorship – Alive in Michigan, Heading for Your Town

MT Bistro crowd SGZ webThree 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.

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Why Michigan’s Struggle is Important

Michigan today, perhaps in your town tomorrow

Why should you care about Michigan? Because the economic earthquake battering Michigan is headed our way. Michigan is our early warning system of how the 1% intend to keep the 99% in line as they keep raking in huge profits while workers continue to be thrown out of good jobs by the exploding laborless production of the electronic revolution.

The big question is WHY? WHY are workers scrambling all over the U.S. while corporate profits soar to new record highs every quarter? WHY does the small number of good jobs left continue to shrink? WHY do elected officials preach austerity to us while they give away billions in public dollars to help private corporations profit? If the economy is in recovery, WHY are all the profits going to corporate executives while workers actually lose ground? Do elected officials really believe private business can do everything better?

It’s NO ACCIDENT that the pressures on workers keep growing. There is an agenda behind the profoundly unfair combination of rising wealth and deepening poverty. It’s an agenda for complete corporate control of the economy, so it can be shaped for maximum profits as workers drop like flies. The key is that with laborless electronic production corporations don’t need workers like they used to. But they do still need profits.

The history of labor shows that companies ruthlessly throw workers on the scrap heap whenever they don’t need them anymore. Now the labor-replacing microchip has dramatically changed the landscape for all workers. The old industrial-age social contract of lots of good jobs with good benefits in exchange for a good day’s work is gone forever. Workers  have to play by new and much harsher rules.

Why isn’t this obvious to us? Partly because we usually don’t notice the national narratives that help shape our thinking. As one of the fighters in Michigan has said, there had to be a national narrative about the worthlessness of Native Americans to allow us to slaughter and displace so many of them. There had to be a national narrative about African Americans being subhuman in order for us to enslave and torture so many of them. There had to be a national narrative about the inferiority of women in order for us to treat them as less than equal to men for so long. National narratives are extremely useful tools for social control because we tend to accept them so easily.

Today’s national narrative is the need for austerity, and it’s being pushed most strongly by global corporations. The same corporations that are racking up the largest profits and cash reserves in history. When multi-billion dollar corporations and their millionaire and billionaire executives push austerity, they really mean continued maximum profits for themselves and austerity for the rest of us.

Michigan is important because the corporate agenda of doing away with anything that interferes with maximum profits is more advanced there, and more easily seen. But in fact, that corporate agenda is pushing forward everywhere. Let’s look at 4 examples – threats to democracy, water, pensions and privatization.

Threats To Democracy

In 2012 Michigan voters threw out a state law that disenfranchised citizens by allowing appointed Emergency Managers to strip all power and duties from public elected officials. Then the legislature and the governor, pushed by strong business interests, wrote an even more powerful Emergency Manager proposal and made it law. Appointed Emergency Managers now run 17 places in Michigan, including Detroit, leaving public elected officials there powerless.

In the Bay Area, the equivalent of Michigan’s Emergency Manager system runs San Francisco City College, once the state’s largest community college. Its original 85,000 enrollment has shrunk dramatically in the 15 months since an accrediting commission threatened to yank its accreditation. The threat had nothing to do with its quality of education and everything to do with shaping its curriculum to fit the corporate agenda.  Financial strategies, including pension and health care costs, were big issues.

The needs of corporations have won the battle for the attention of American public elected officials of both major parties. The few elected officials who still fight for working people find themselves isolated and defanged in their arenas of power.

Water

The right to water, the giver of life, is under attack. In Michigan, under Detroit’s Emergency Manager, the city cut off water to 100,000 mostly poor households that had fallen behind as little as $150 on their water bills. But Detroit didn’t shut off water to corporations that were as much as $400,000 behind. A United Nations committee was outraged, calling Detroit’s tactics a violation of the human right to water.

In California the worst drought in memory is making the right to water a huge issue. Farmers are already in trouble in the state that grows half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts used in the U.S. Big city residents, who haven’t felt the impact yet, soon will. Farmers use 80% of California’s water, much of it subsidized by taxpayers. It now costs them up to 10 times more than before the drought, up to $1,100 per acre foot. An acre foot is enough to supply an average Southern California family with water for 18 months. If the drought continues, is it people or corporations, including the vast corporate farms of California agribusiness, who will get priority for the water they need? And what will families do when they can’t afford the higher water bills?

Right now the oil companies that use enormous amounts of water to force oil and natural gas from deep underground, are suspected of pushing for scarce California water to be privatized and sold to the highest bidder. Oil companies are reported to be willing to pay up to $3,300 per acre-foot, and the huge Westlands Water District, which supplies water to almost 10% of California’s farmland, has been accused of making money by selling some of its publicly subsidized scarce water to oil companies.

Pensions

In Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has said wage, benefit and pension obligations to workers represent “a national problem” because elected officials in financially troubled cities “were not successfully managing their cities.” That means corporations have the right to maximize their profits, but public officials don’t have the right to meet the basic needs of their citizens, especially lower income citizens who populate financially troubled cities.

In California financially troubled Stockton and San Bernardino, the state’s largest bankrupt cities, tried at first to protect the pensions of their workers when they filed for bankruptcy. But as pressure from business interests mounted and Detroit retirees reluctantly accepted a 4.5% cut, both California cities backed away from trying to honor their pension obligations.

Stockton now proposes converting $544 million in lifetime retiree health benefits into a $5.1 million one-time payment. That gives workers just under a penny for every dollar promised them. And a judge’s ruling due any time now could declare Stockton’s workers no more worthy of protection than any of its corporate debtors. Such a ruling could encourage other California cities with large pension debts to file for bankruptcy to cut worker pension payments.

For about a year San Bernardino stopped paying into California’s public worker pension fund, called CalPERS. While it is once again making payments, it has refused to make up $13.5 million worth of back payments. A court-imposed gag order prevents a proposed settlement from being publicly disclosed.

Privatization

In Benton Harbor The Rev. Edward Pinkney has been leading a 20-year fight to keep the Whirlpool Corp. from gentrifying the city and privatizing a public waterfront park. His tactics include recall petitions against local officials who side with Whirlpool’s agenda. Now officials have filed phony vote fraud charges against him for the second time. It is a clear attempt to silence an effective critic.

In California, Silicon Valley millionaires are driving an expanding gentrification that is turning Silicon Valley into Silicon Bay Area. Gentrification is an important part of the corporate agenda because it drives the poor out of sight, and raises neighborhood incomes to the point where they can afford privatized services like security and education. Yet corporations are fighting against a livable minimum wage. Business lobby pressure watered down minimum wage proposals in Berkeley and Richmond, and killed a state legislature proposal to raise the state minimum wage.

Workers in California are also under particular attack from employers trying to lower wages and benefits and even break public employee unions, which are some of the strongest in the nation. A weakening of unions would allow more public services to be privatized.

Successfully fighting the corporate agenda requires new tactics, because of the way electronic laborless production has changed the employment game. In Michigan it was a coalition of grassroots organizers, labor unions and community groups that put together the referendum which overturned the first Michigan Emergency Manager law in 2012. People from different stratas of the working class came together to fight for something in all of their interests. This was an example of a working class response to what is clearly an ongoing ruling class attack.

In Ferguson, MO, the uprising against the murder of unarmed teenager Michael Brown showed that to be effective, such coalitions have to be in place long before an emergency comes up where you need them. Building them means working to build mutual support for other people’s issues, as long as the goal is a better deal for working people.

The military-style crackdown against peaceful protesters that police mounted in Ferguson is another example of a battle plan that serves the corporate agenda. Poverty has increased dramatically in Ferguson over the past decade and law enforcement has been searching for ways to keep dissatisfaction and unrest from exploding in ways that would be bad for business. We have seen this played out in various ways in Bay Area protest demonstrations, including the crackdowns against Occupy and against the shutting down of the Oakland Port.

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California Drought

By Sal Sandoval, M.D.
May 2014

 

pt.2014.05.10_drought

MERCED, CA —This has been the driest year in recorded history. The Sierra snowpack is 12% of normal. Delta water may be unavailable for many Central Valley farmers. In some counties ground levels are sinking as groundwater is pumped out. With fields left unplanted, up to 20,000 farm workers won’t have work this year. School districts will lose money as children move with their families in search of work. Beef prices may rise by 40%, and milk prices by 50 cents per gallon. Seventeen valley towns may go without water as pumps run dry. Five billion dollars in loss of revenue to farms, trucking, and food processing have prompted a state of emergency by Governor Jerry Brown and a visit to the Valley by President Obama.

In this irrigated desert, the most productive agricultural area of the world, water is on the verge of being privatized and sold to the highest bidder.

Into the third year of the drought, a political fight that has long been simmering is starting to boil over. Variously blamed on environmentalists, bureaucrats, fishermen, greedy farmers, wasteful homeowners, all sides are clamoring for relief.

Lurking behind the scenes, however, is a potentially more ominous player at the water trough. And that is the oil companies, who utilize enormous amounts of water to extract oil and natural gas from deep under the ground in a process called fracking.

It is suspected that the Westlands Water District is selling its water to oil companies. The water was obtained at subsidized prices and then sold at a profit to farmers and to Southern California. If farmers are charged $30 per acre foot of water and oil companies are prepared to purchase water at $3300 per acre foot, who is likely to get the water, particularly since Kern County where the Westlands Water District resides is called “oil land”?

All of the proposed “solutions” to the water crisis, whether Democrat or bipartisan happen to benefit the Westlands Water district, which is 49% controlled by Beverly Hills billionaire Stuart Resnick, who has made financial contributions to both political parties.

The drought and the upcoming elections signal that we are at a crossroads. One road enriches billionaires and career politicians, as it impoverishes and indebts the rest of us, and further degrades our environment. The other is a radical break from the two-party system.

The Green Party platform, for which Luis Rodriguez is California Gubernatorial Candidate, is the only one which recognizes that we exist in a fragile balance with our environment upon which our survival depends, as well as promoting an economic bill of rights of sustainable jobs, financial reform, and real democracy where production is planned to nurture us and our future generations.

Vote in the June primaries so that Governor Brown is forced to debate a candidate with a platform that serves our real interests and not those of profiteers who don’t care about us and our children’s future.

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Copyright © 2014 People’s Tribune. Visit us at http://peoplestribune.org

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