Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Unions, Community Organizations to Challenge Major Restructuring Moves in Detroit

Unions, Community Organizations to Challenge Major Restructuring Moves in Detroit

Schools, city government, pensions and medical center targeted

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

During the week of March 15, several key initiatives were unveiled by
the corporate interests in the Detroit area that are designed to
further the usurpation of local control of the city. The emergency
financial manager for the Detroit Public Schools Robert Bobb announced that 45 buildings would be closed by June as a supposed cost-cutting measure to address the over $300 million deficit plaguing the district.

Bobb, who is an appointee of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, released the plan at Renaissance High School on the northwest side to an invitation-only audience of several hundred people. The address was broadcast live over a number major of corporate media radio and television outlets indicating that these plans have the approval of the leading capitalist interests in the metropolitan area.

Outside of Renaissance High School over 100 community activists and school employees picketed the address by Bobb. At one point the demonstrators marched into the Renaissance auditorium chanting “This is Our School.” Some of protesters denounced the Skillman Foundation executives who were present for their role in developing plans to dismantle the public school system in Detroit.

According to an article in the New York Times, the plan to close 45
schools by June “would eliminate as many 2,100 jobs, in the face of a deficit expected to peak $316 million and a dwindling student
population.” (New York Times, March 17)

Bobb announced a purported academic plan that would result in smaller class sizes, a 98 percent graduation rate for students and new schools built with a 2009 voter-approved bond proposal of $500 million.

However, the reality is that the only policy decisions being implemented at present are resulting in a burgeoning deficit of $100 million since Bobb was appointed, the lay-off of school employees and the closing of buildings.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) immediately rejected the
school closure plan announced by Bobb and backed by the Governor, the corporate media and private foundations that support the downsizing and eventual elimination of public k-12 education in the city. At a community meeting on March 17 held at the Detroit Public Library main branch, the Coalition of Detroit Public Schools Unions called for a mass demonstration on March 23 beginning at the DFT headquarters and ending at the school system headquarters in the New Center area.

At a DFT meeting on March 11, the union voted to demand that Bobb be removed as emergency financial manager over the Detroit school system. The appointee has only managed to aggravate and isolate unions and community organizations in carrying out the state’s arbitrary dismemberment of the DPS.

The impact of the school closings will constitute another frontal
assault on the people of Detroit. A city with an official
unemployment rate of approximately 28 percent, a foreclosure problem that is worsening every year and city governmental leadership that is working exclusively on behalf of corporate interests, will be further weakened with the privatization of public education and the firing of workers and administrators.

However, the attacks on Detroit are not isolated and confined to this
majority African-American city. Throughout the entire region of
southeastern Michigan there are large-scale cutbacks and layoffs of
employees in the public sector. Schools will be closed in Southfield,
Lathrup Village, Livonia and other suburban communities.

On a national level, the trend is moving in the same direction toward
school closings and massive downsizing. In Kansas City it was
announced by the School District that 28 schools would be closed for
the 2010-2010 year.

Carol Dantzler-Harris, a professional educator, wrote on the
advanceweb.com site that “These school closings usually happen in
areas that can least afford it. Some of the schools were in trouble
prior to the country’s economic woes;’ low performing schools result
in parents pulling their children out to seek a better education.
These schools have a difficult time attracting the best teachers and
lack the resources they need.” (advanceweb.com, March 22)

Dantzler-Harris continued by pointing out that “The recent school
closings got me thinking about the impact this will have down the road on post-secondary education. Many of these students will not be
prepared for college-level work. They will struggle with basic reading
comprehension, math and writing skills; this lack of basic skills can
result in some students failing placement tests.”

Unions Threaten to Strike Over Forced Cutbacks

In Detroit municipal employees unions represented by the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have held demonstrations against the attempts to impose a 10 percent wage cut and the slashing of benefits. On March 16 AFSCME workers picketed outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center against the efforts by Mayor Dave Bing to impose pay and benefit cuts. Over 500 workers then attended a special hearing with the Detroit City Council to protest the proposed cuts.

Catherine Phillips, AFSCME’s lead negotiator said that city officials
must hear from workers who are making between $25,000 and $30,000 a year. The benefit cuts proposed by the city administration includes demands that employees must purchase generic drugs when available, the elimination of paid lunch breaks, the suspension of tuition reimbursements of up to $2,000 annually, the reduction of dependents health care coverage from 22 to 19 years of age among other concessions.

Chants of “Strike! Strike! Strike!” emanated from the crowd during
the public hearing before the City Council . “We have no choice but to
shut the city down this time because we are not going to take these
concessions,” said Michael Mulholland, AFSCME Local 207
secretary-treasurer, during the hearing called by the City Council’s
Internal Operations Committee. (Detroit Free Press, March 18)

Richard Mack, an attorney who represents AFSCME Council 25 stated that the Bing administration’s deficit elimination “is not an effort to save money, but an effort to break the union, to break all these unions.”

Patricia Williamson told the workers at City Hall that “I don’t know if the mayor can be impeached. Recall him. Whatever it takes. He needs to go.”

At the same time that workers are being threatened by the
corporate-oriented Mayor Bing, his administration is moving forward
with schemes to “rightsize” the city in line with plans proposed by
the corporate community. A private foundation, the Kresge Foundation, will subsidize a so-called urban planner to relocate in Detroit to implement plans to reconfigure the city that will result in the mass dislocation of residents.

The Detroit News reported on March 18 that “The Kresge Foundation
confirmed Wednesday it is paying the undisclosed salary of Toni
Griffin, the director of community development in Newark, NJ, who has led efforts to revive its downtown.” (Detroit News, March 18)

“The question of how the city thinks about the future, its form and
functions are so large that it seems to me any help that Toni can
provide will be invaluable,” said Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge
Foundation. “My sense is it’s going to be an extremely valuable asset
to the city. It’s up to the city to figure how to use that asset.”

Even the Detroit News acknowledged that “The announcement underscores the influence of private foundations in Mayor Dave Bing’s downsizing initiative. Foundations, including Kresge, helped fund Data Driven Detroit’s block-by-block study of vacancies and housing conditions that could serve as a blueprint for neighborhood consolidations.”

A spokeswoman for Mayor Bing said that Griffin will “develop a smart
growth alignment.” She went on to say that the city is putting
together a “downsizing team” and that it “will expand as the effort

Griffin’s resume indicates that she served in Washington, D.C. as
deputy director of revitalization planning and in Harlem as a
redeveloper. She has also had some affiliation with Harvard University as a visiting design critic.

Plans to Takeover Municipal Pension Funds and Sell the Medical Center

Other plans for Detroit were announced as well to have the state
legislature in Lansing pass a bill that would effectively eliminate
the elected municipal pension board that oversees in excess of $5
billion in funds contributed by city workers. The legislation would
transfer control from the pension boards to the Municipal Employees’
Retirement System (MERS) which is facing a crisis of underfunding.

The pension fund boards have been accused by the corporate media of making questionable investments. However, most employees and retirees feel that the city pension system is run efficiently.

In regard to Mayor Bing’s effort to transfer control of the pension
fund “This is going to be the biggest war he’s ever fought,” said Ron
Garcia, vice chairman of the General Retirement System. “How dare
they try and do some (expletive) like that.” (Detroit Free Press,
March 19)

Also the non-profit Detroit Medical Center has announced a proposal
for Vanguard Health System to acquire the institution. DMC board
Chairman Steve D’Arcy told Crain’s Detroit business weekly that
“Vanguard Health Systems is proposing the biggest private investment in the city of Detroit in history.” (Crain’s , March 21)

Crain’s points out that “The deal requires the approval by Michigan
Attorney General Mike Cox. And the main DMC campus must be named a tax-free zone for 12 years.”

Detroit Receiving Hospital, which is a component of the DMC, provides health care to people who are uninsured. It encompasses a trauma unit and is staffed by well trained physicians and nurses. The takeover by Vanguard, a Tennessee-based firm, could change the entire character of the DMC and its policy on treating uninsured patients.

Fightback Efforts Continue

On March 23 there will be a mass demonstration outside Mayor Bing’s “State of the City” address at the Max Fisher Center on Woodward Avenue. The Moratorium NOW! Coalition and AFSCME locals have issued flyers and are mobilizing for the demonstration which is demanding that there be a freeze on lay-offs and pay cuts along with a moratorium on debt service payments to the banks by the city of Detroit.

The Moratorium NOW! Coalition is demanding that Mayor Bing declare an economic state of emergency in Detroit and demand that Gov. Granholm enact a halt to all foreclosures, evictions and utility shut-offs. On March 27, at Central United Methodist Church downtown, the Moratorium NOW! Coalition will hold a Town Hall meeting to call for a massive federal public works program to put people back to work in Detroit and around the country.

This year represents the 75th anniversary of the Works Progress
Administration (WPA) which put 8 million unemployed people to work on public projects including building schools, bridges, highways and damns. In Detroit the WPA workers built Western High School and made major improvement to other public facilities.

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