Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Detroit Struggle Escalates to Defend City From School Closings, Attacks on Workers and Pensions

Detroit Struggle Escalates to Defend City From School Closings, Attacks on Workers and Pensions

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

A citywide meeting was held on March 27 at the Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit to call for a united effort to address the escalating attacks against working people who are being threatened with school closures, layoffs of educational and public sector employees as well as plans to seize municipal pension funds, downsize the city and sell the Medical Center to an outside Tennessee-based corporation.

Sponsored by the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs, the gathering of local activists, political officials and community people filled the second floor of the church. Resolutions were adopted calling for opposition to school closings, a mass demonstration on April 20 at City Hall, support for the May Day demonstration as well as the May 8 national march for jobs in Washington, D.C. that is being called by the Bail Out the People Movement (BOPM).

This meeting came in the aftermath of the burgeoning political struggles in Detroit around the privatization of the school system and the conflict between city workers and the Bing administration which escalated on March 23 with two major demonstrations against the crisis in the public education system and Mayor Bing’s corporate-engineered plans to “downsize” the city.

Mass Demonstrations Express Outrage

Outside the offices of the state-appointed emergency financial manager 2,000 union members, community people and youth demonstrated demanding an end to efforts to dismantle k-12 public education in the city. The picket was organized by the Coalition of Detroit Public Schools Unions including the clerical workers, teachers and other employees. This event was also attended by the bus drivers from the Safeway transportation company whose contract has been terminated in favor of First Student Transportation out of Ohio.

The bus drivers have traveled to Lansing, the state capital, at least three times in the last two weeks to protest and meet with lawmakers. On March 23 they went to Lansing again and won a pledge from the state legislative appropriations committee to hold hearings on the bidding process surrounding First Student.

The elected Detroit Board of Education, whose powers are being abrogated by the emergency financial manager Robert Bobb, went to court on March 23 seeking an injunction to stop the proposed closing of 45 schools. A hearing will be held on April 16 in Wayne County Circuit Court.

Support for the unions and the forces opposing the dismantling and privatization is growing daily despite the intensive propaganda campaign being waged by the corporate media and the private foundations such as Kresge and Skillman. These entities are praising the plans delivered by Bobb and Bing and ignoring and attacking the unions and community organizations that are challenging them.

After the demonstration at the DPS headquarters, over 100 people marched down Woodward Ave. to Orchestra Hall where Mayor Bing was slated to give his "state of the city" address. A demonstration was already called for outside the venue beginning at 5:30pm.

The demonstration was called by Moratorium NOW! and AFSCME Local 207. There were between 200-300 people who participated in the picket line between 5:30-7:00pm. Leaders from the DPS clerical workers union and other city locals joined the protest outside Bing's "state of the city" address.

Both events were successful in illustrating the outrage among people in the city over the attempts to privatize education completely, force wage cuts and concessions on the city and county workers, to seize the municipal pension funds and to sell the Detroit Medical Center.

Bing's plan to "downsize" the city has been challenged by Moratorium NOW! and others. The ruling class interests represented by Bing are now compelled to respond to allegations of forced displacement and the dismantling of the city governance structures by corporate interests.

On March 23 WWJ Radio, the local CBS-affiliate, ran reports all day on Moratorium NOW!'s opposition to downsizing the city and the demand for the declaration of a state of economic emergency and the imposition of a halt to foreclosures, evictions and utility shut-offs.

Moratorium NOW! issued a poster that pointed to the role of the banks in the crisis. This poster points out in plain language that there are hundreds of millions of dollars being paid in debt service while workers salaries remain frozen and cut, schools are being closed and the capitalist are openly advancing plans in the media to further dislocate and oppress the people.

People at both the demonstrations outside the School Center Building and the mayoral address picked up the posters. The slogan "Bail out the people, not the banks," was quoted in the Detroit Free Press coverage of the demonstration in front of the building where the mayoral speech was delivered.

At the March 27 Town Hall meeting, the Moratorium NOW! Coalition stated that its present task is to raise the level of the political struggle so a clear connection can be made between the assault on workers and the community in Detroit and the overall economic crisis in the capitalist system at present. Many workers and community people have exclusively focused on Bobb and Bing as culprits in the process. Although this is true in appearance, however, both of them are acting on behalf of the interests of finance capital, which views the public sector, public education and municipal pension funds as ripe for seizure and exploitation.

In response to the crisis, community meetings are being held daily and there is a sense of urgency emerging among the people. Consequently, the Moratorium NOW! Coalition will be making a major push to both convey the necessity of united action but to also stress the underlying causes of the crisis which is not confined to Detroit but encompasses the entire state and country.

Demand That City Addresses Debt Service to the Banks

As a result of the March 27 Town Hall meeting, Moratorium NOW! wants to more forcefully demand that the city administration openly address the debt service payments to the banks and the role of the financial sector and the corporations in the crisis.

Moratorium NOW! is demanding the city administration appeal directly to the federal government to create jobs immediately in Detroit. A letter to Bing was delivered two months ago and a resolution to the City Council has been submitted to this effect as well.

The Mayor and City Council have not responded for various reasons including the corporate-orientation of Bing and the stranglehold that the financial institutions have over Michigan’s largest municipality. There is also a newly dominant group within the City Council which was endorsed by the two daily newspapers. The corporate media has promoted the school closings, downsizing and pension fund seizures as the only logical response to the economic crisis.

However, Moratorium NOW! reiterated at the March 27 Town Hall that a political struggle will have to be waged in order for these issues to be broadly taken up by the people. Therefore, the organization has called for a mass mobilization on April 20 to further pressure the corporate-backed officials and the banks to impose a freeze on foreclosures, evictions, utility shutoffs, school closings and downsizing.

On March 29, there was a rally at Cooley High School on the city’s northwest side to oppose the closing of the building by June. Later the same day, the emergency financial manager Robert Bobb held an invitation-only meetings at Henry Ford High School to discuss the building closings.

At Cooley 200 people rallied outside the school and marched through the streets surrounding the building. The demonstration consisted of current students and alumni of Cooley dating back to the 1950s and 1960s.

The hearing at Henry Ford attracted 300 people from the various schools in the city and the general public. Despite the non-public character of the meeting called by the emergency financial manager to hear reports from the parents, students and staff of numerous schools facing closure, organizations distributed literature outside against the policies of the state-controlled emergency financial manager and went in to the school to attend the hearing.

On March 30 another hearing took place in front of the City Council involving the introduction of a state legislative bill that would take over the municipal pension funds. 500 union members, pension trustees and members of the public attended the hearing and spoke out overwhelmingly against the transfer of control of the funds to the Municipal Employees Retirement Systems (MERS) which is grossly underfunded.

Members of AFSCME, the Teamsters and the Firefighters unions attended the hearing and spoke out during the public comment section against the state legislative plan to transfer control to MERS. Other issues were also addressed including the closing of schools, the need for a moratorium on foreclosures, evictions and utility shut-offs, the plans to "rightsize" the city and the proposed sale of the Detroit Medical Center to the Tennessee-based Vanguard group.

Judging from the public sentiment against the seizure of the pension funds by the state of Michigan, the City Council passed a resolution to oppose the plan and admonished Mayor Dave Bing for entertaining such a proposal. The administration was criticized for not coming to the City Council or the pension trustee boards to discuss the plans prior to the introduction of legislation in Lansing.

One state legislator present at the hearing, Shanelle Jackson of Detroit, said that efforts were underway to block the pension take over bill from getting out of committee in the state capital at Lansing.

Representatives of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition attended the City Council hearing on the pension funds and spoke against the take over plans. Moratorium NOW! also addressed the role of the corporate community and the banks in the recent bold attacks against the interests of working people in Detroit with its majority African-American population.

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