By Peter Hogarth
What happens to a dream deferred? Detroit, Michigan was once the sight of the American Dream. Dozens of auto plants promised workers a job that could provide wages and benefits that could give them and their families a chance at a better life.
While the history and dangerous realities of those jobs are a lot more complicated than that, the lure of decent jobs brought workers from far and wide to Michigan to work in an industry that was once the biggest employer in the world.
The recent story of Michigan has been quite different. Like much of what is now known as the “Rust Belt,” Detroit has experienced deindustrialization, economic decline, population decreases, and urban decay. As automation displaced workers and companies moved to non-union regions of the country to ramp up exploitation and chase profits, Michigan suffered. The abandoned blocks and crumbling infrastructure, epitomized by the Flint water crisis have been the story of Michigan and the Rust Belt. But workers and activists in the region are organizing for a different future.
Anger at the announcement that GM plans to lay off 15,000 workers and close 5 plants across North America and the surging popularity of a Green New Deal have provided a strategic focus for those interested in environmental and economic justice for workers in Michigan.
Protest at the Auto Prom
On January 18, hundreds gathered outside the Cobo Center to protest the “Auto Show Prom,” a charitable event that features tuxedo-ed big wigs from the Automobile industry. The protest, organized by the Detroit DSA, Autoworkers Caravan (a rank and file group inside the United Auto Workers Union), Sunrise Movement, Breathe Free Detroit, Good Jobs Nation and others, highlighted the new movement for green jobs and justice in Rust Belt Detroit. The group was led by Michigan member of congress, Rashida Tlaib and had autoworkers from Canada and Brazil.
The protest tied together the issues of deindustrialization, joblessness, racial inequality and urban decay that have plagued Detroit. In doing so, it also showed the potential future of an environmental movement that can use a Green New Deal to fight for jobs, justice and equality for working class people in Michigan and beyond.
Spring spoke to Sean Crawford, an autoworker and socialist born and raised in Flint, Michigan, about the impact of organizing for a Green New Deal in the Rust Belt:
“The Green New Deal provides a vision for the future, a philosophical backbone for what a labour movement should be. It’s not supposed to be just about protecting the job that you had and getting more money for yourself. The labour movement was founded on the ideas of solidarity and egalitarianism and bringing up the standard of living for all working people regardless of where you are at. The GND is so broad and so expansive that if the labour movement was smart enough, it could really expand it to a broader section of the working class. Not just industrial workers but also care workers, extraction workers and combat that sense of alienation and the fact that you know, we’re just making money for the capitalist class right now and not doing anything positive for our children’s future.”
One of the major issues of the protest at the Auto Prom, was General Motors decision to close down its Hamtramck assembly plant. This move has opened up an old controversy with important potential for those looking to fight for a greener Detroit.
In the early 1980s, Detroit Mayor Colemon Young agreed to support GM’s plan to build a new assembly plant. The 300-acre site was home to Poletown, an historic Polish neighbourhood on the border of Detroit and Hamtramck. It had about 4,000 residents, 1,000 houses, 100 businesses and several Catholic churches. The neighbourhood stood in the way of GM’s plans and they lobbied city and state governments to change the rules of eminent domain specifically so that the government could seize and demolish those properties on GM’s behalf.
As Sean Crawford notes, “usually, eminent domain is used to transfer private property into public hands for public benefit. In this case, it was used to transfer private property into private hands for private profit.”
The community fought back, staging a nearly month-long sit-in at a neighbourhood church and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. The court found in favour of GM, deciding that taking property from one private owner and giving it to another for the sake of economic development was an acceptable use of eminent domain.
“It was ostensibly used to provide good jobs for the community, but those jobs never materialized in the numbers they were promised,” says Crawford. “Just like the Poletown fight of the 1980s, again its a community struggling against a corporate juggernaut’s bulldozing of their whole community.”
Fighting for a Green New Deal
In response, groups like DSA, Autoworkers Caravan and Rashida Tlaib have proposed that if GM can use eminent domain to destroy a neighbourhood by abandoning it, then eminent domain should be used to save it, to take over those plants and use them for the public good. “We are proposing no compensation to the company. They have already had so many tax breaks, as well as the concessions that autoworkers gave to keep the company afloat during the recession, explains Crawford.“So no compensation, this is our plant, this is our community, and we are going to use this plant to be the engine of the Green New Deal.”
Facing the climate crisis and a jobs criss, the vision is clear. For groups like Detroit DSA and Autoworker Caravan, every time a plant is abandoned it does harm to a community, but it is also provides an opportunity. Plants should be taken over and used to build things that are a benefit to the community, like mass transit, wind and solar power. Taking plants over, without compensation to the former companies, providing good union jobs and running them as worker cooperatives, challenges a system built on private profit and builds toward a just, green future.
“This is not just a GM thing, this isn’t just a Rust Belt thing, it’s international,” says Crawford. “And if workers can organize this kind of vision, we can help solve our part of the climate crisis and gain a level of economic justice for communities that have been getting fucked by deindustrialization for our whole lifetimes.”