Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Flint water crisis is market driven. Jail Governor Snyder

Poisoned water victims in Flint

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444 retired

Shortly before I retired, a co-worker suffered a tragic accident that maimed him for life. He is lucky to be alive. But was this an accident?  No one individual consciously decided to harm him, but , like all of these occurrences, they don’t take place in a vacuum. As is always the case, the immediate cause of the tragedy was investigated, who did what and when, but what is never discussed is the culture of the environment, or the general objective conditions and culture that arises from it and in which events take place.

In our capacity as local rank and file union reps we had spent hours in meetings with management as the pressure was mounting to compete with the private sector for work.  We were battling the Team Concept, the philosophy that management and workers have the same interests that is the root cause of the concessionary betrayals and sell outs we have experienced by the union hierarchy over the decades. This view is still the dominant ideology in the labor movement today and practically every official from the top down endorses it.

There were numerous competitive assessment studies that announced workers resisted, “Implementation of work force flexibility”, and that “Blue collar and management do not work together as team with a common objective.”  and that “Civil Service rules make it difficult to get rid of poor performers.” Of course our objectives are not the same and as far as poor performers go we had a few of those in management, the higher up the worse it got. They rarely, if ever, fire their own.

AFSCME, International, the union to which our local was affiliated, supported the management’s efforts to get us to do more with less, to be more “efficient. We were to enter in to what was called “Competitive Bidding” which simply meant competing with workers in the private sector for who could be more efficient, produce more output with fewer people. It is a recipe for a race to the bottom. It comes in various forms, Focus Groups, Quality of Life Circles, Labor Management forums etc. They are all designed to pick the workers’ brain in order to get more out of us for less. We should not participate in them, we should fight against them.

We argued that safety would suffer, that our jobs are dangerous as we worked in the streets, around machinery and alongside other contractors and what the public sees is not what they think it is despite the propaganda about public sector workers being lazy.

By reducing personnel, or crew size or having the attitude that we must do more with less to compete with the private sector, the management creates a culture and work environment that causes workers to make decisions that are not in our or the public’s best interest.  This sort of competition is not healthy.  So our position was that the accident I describe above, was a product of policies instituted by those that control the workplace not simply the actions of an individual or group of individuals like a work crew. Individual decisions are taken under certain objective conditions and those conditions are not determined by the worker but by the bosses who own and direct the labor process.  We may be public workers, but public utilities are governed by boards composed of politicians from the two Wall Street parties and public work is being performed within the framework of a capitalist economy and society. It is not public in the sense that it is owned, managed and operated under the direction of the workers in the industry and the consumers who use the product.

The same thing is happening with regards to the catastrophic situation in Flint Michigan where an entire town has been poisoned. This is not an accident; it is market driven. The public sector and public services are under assault by the political representatives of the 1%. One of the reasons for this is the drive to privatize everything as public expenditure crowds private capital from the marketplace and threatens potential profits. Another is that US capitalism’s predatory wars, its bribing and arming of ruthless regimes that suppress their populations and enable US corporations to plunder their natural resources or exploit their cheaper labor is a costly process.  The money for this has to be found somewhere and it is found in the living standards of Americans at home. We are paying so that Halliburton, Chevron, WalMart and other corporations’ and their investors can continue raking it in. It’s that simple.

The 1%’s media is now picking through every detail about why this Flint disaster happened and are pointing to a “bloated bureaucracy” and “big government” as the culprit.  But it is the drive for profits and the political policies to facilitate the drive that is behind the Flint disaster.  It is the culture and social/workplace environment that the political representatives of Wall Street and US capitalism have created. The so-called “bureaucrats” EPA employees, environmental workers and various municipal and state departments are the problem; only the private sector can manage safely and efficiently is the argument. But engineers, safety officers, environmental department workers are all affected by the culture-----the pressure is fierce and even more difficult to stand against as the labor hierarchy is on board with it. Workers are afraid to speak up if it means confronting a powerful combination of the bosses and their own leaders; anyone can be guilty if opening their mouth means being unemployed. Any shop steward knows how difficult it is to get workers to speak out. You can’t be free if that is the case and it is.

In Flint, a series of “emergency” managers, dictators really, appointed by Michigan’s right wing neo-liberal governor Rick Snider, started the whole process off deciding to save money by using water from the notoriously polluted Flint River. The water smelled bad, of chlorine at times, and was a nasty brown color.

Residents complained and complained. Some of them got sick and started getting rashes. The authorities said it was safe to drink but it turns out the water contained extremely high levels of lead, “…..one of the most dangerous neurotoxins for young children….”, the WSJ reports   but it “…..wasn’t reported to the public for roughly 18 months.”. It’s not unlike the GM cover up of the murder of over 100 people due to a faulty ignition switch.

Those responsible are pointing fingers at each other as the ship goes down. And the 1%’s media is loving it. Darnell Earley, Snyder’s last emergency manager claims the council authorized it. But a former Flint mayor and council member has said they were never “involved in discussions” about using Flint River water.  Back in 2013 Flint’s City Council voted to leave the Detroit system by a 7-1 margin. But according to Scott Kincaid who has been on the council since 1985, using the Flint River water was “never discussed” during that 7-1 vote. These emergency managers are appointed so that elected officials can be overruled by one person loyal to whichever hedge fund billionaire or their representatives run a state or municipality.

Placing the blame on human negligence, error, stupidity or all three, the WSJ writes, “No one at the city, state or federal level seemed to realize that a corrosion-control plan to treat Flint River water should have been put in place, as was required of the state under federal law.”

So it’s all a matter of personal and individual failure, “no one at the city……..seemed to realize…”. A scientist could not discover the cause of anything looking at the workings of the world in this fashion. The main point we as workers have to grasp is that in this case they don’t want us to discover the cause of these disasters because it means discussing the system of production in which we live and function. We do not live in a tribal community where the social product produced by all is owned by all. Nor are we chattel slaves where a human being is owned in total like a horse with no rights at all.  We are not serfs living in a feudal system where power and wealth was land ownership and production primarily for our immediate consumption (and the lord’s who did no work) and political power handed down through bloodline.

No, our system is capitalism, a market based system where production (work) is for a market, a global one now, and as workers we are free to leave our employment any time we want (with serious consequences if we can’t find another) and we receive wages for our time spent on the job.
Sacramento River 1991. Another preventable disaster

I remember probably the worst ecological disaster in the state of California, when a railcar tanker derailed and plunged in to the Sacramento River. 19,000 gallons of metam sodium, a pesticide entered the flow. “In the next week it killed every fish, crayfish, insect and all other aquatic life in a 45-mile stretch of the river from Cantara Loop to Lake Shasta.”, the media reported.

This was not an accident either, it turned out that the sequence of the cars had been loaded incorrectly and workers had warned of it. The train had 97 cars, mostly empty, but there were seven heavy loaded cars at the rear. This is what caused the tanker car to be whiplashed in to the river, It was a configuration destined for disaster.”, a local Redding CA paper wrote.

This was not an accident, it was a decision made by people in political power in the interests of those that own and control the workplace which is the source of their profits. There was an investigation although little was made mention of the workers’ concerns about the way the railcars were loaded until Sen. Barbara Boxer announced that sources told investigators, “…that a June safety inspection of Southern Pacific equipment was halted after a company official complained that a previous inspection had hurt the carrier financially.”

Profits come before else in a capitalist economy. The explosion and extent of the damage when the fertilizer plant in West Texas blew up was market driven. Who would put a mountain of explosive material next to a school?  The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that killed eleven workers and untold ecological damage to the gulf was market driven. The regulators for deep water drilling allowed the energy companies to write their own rules. The poisoning of Charleston West Virginia’s water supply in 2014 is another capitalist disaster and so was the tragedy of Katrina where levees known to be in need of repair were not attended to. There are so many more and they will continue. Fukushima in Japan is perhaps one of the worst; we will all be affected by it. What worker would agree to construct four nuclear power stations next to the ocean in a part of the world known as the Ring of Fire due to its seismic activity?

I read today that Governor Snyder, his staff members, and the city's four Emergency Managers: Darnell Earley, Michael Brown, Gerald Ambrose and Edward Kurtz and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are the objects of a class action lawsuit.

There will be more as e mails and papers are brought in to the public eye. Media outlets reported yesterday that, “….. an email obtained by the Bill Johnson group and first reported by Motor City Muckraker suggests that the move might not have been necessary to reduce Flint’s water costs. Then-Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Sue McCormick proposed to continue providing water to Flint at a savings of $800 million over 30 years, or 20 percent less than the switch. In other words, Flint could have kept the Detroit water and still saved more money than it did. A spokeswoman for McCormick confirmed the email and reporting to ThinkProgress on Monday.”

Flint: Sit-Down 1936-37
As I commented in an earlier piece on this subject, Flint is the home of the great sit-down strikes that changed the face of America, bloodied an auto giant’s nose and helped build the UAW. The longest occupation, the 44-day Flint occupation led to pitched battles between cops and workers as workers’ wives and family members fed supplies through the plant windows. The silence and outright inactivity on the part of the trade union hierarchy, not only the UAW leadership, but public sector leaders that represent workers in Flint and Detroit is criminal.  As the AFL-CIO leadership sits on their moribund asses, celebrities like Cher, Pearl Jam, Madonna and others have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars for aid and water.  Workers in the workplaces should organize to build work stoppages in Flint and Detroit and set a date for a 24-hour region wide strike demanding Snyder and his managers be fired and barred from any public service for life.

It is the crisis of the capitalist mode of production that leads to decisions made by those living and working in it that, in turn, lead to catastrophe’s like what is happening in Flint. Of course there is such a thing as personal responsibility, but, to paraphrase Marx, we make our own decisions but we rarely choose the circumstances under which these decisions are made. But if we accept we live in a an economic system and that other systems came before it, then it is but a few steps to understanding that something can come after it. Then the real solutions can be put on the table. 

1 comment:

Eric L said...

I was in contact with striking wastewater operators at DWR (Detroit) a few years back who were under court receivership. I remeber that there was also issue with DWR privatizing their water system. Could higher private water pricing after privatization have caused the 'emergency manager' to chage water source to the Flint River?