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Water Shutoffs Robbing Detroit Residents of ‘Dignified’ Life: UN Investigators October 21, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Detroit, Health, Human Rights, Poverty, Race, Racism, Water.
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Roger’s note: few things, if any, are more necessary for human survival than water.  The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world.  It is a nation replete with millionaires and billionaires, and it is a nation that spends trillions of dollars on warfare.  It is also a nation that operates within the dictates of capitalist economy where people who cannot “afford” to pay their water bill are cut off without this fundamental necessity.  There is something very wrong with this picture.

 

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Following two-day inquiry, UN experts release strongly worded warning condemning city’s human rights violations

 detroit_water_brigade_human_right

Detroit residents have organized direct actions, mass marches, and creative emergency responses to confront the water shut-off crisis. (Photo: Detroit Water Brigade)

Detroit’s “unprecedented” shutoff of water utilities to city homes condemns residents to “lives without dignity,” violates human rights on a large scale, and disproportionately impacts African-Americans, United Nations investigators declared Monday following a two-day inquiry.

“Denial of access to sufficient quantity of water threatens the rights to adequate housing, life, health, adequate food, integrity of the family,” wrote UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Leilani Farha and UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, in a joint statement. “It exacerbates inequalities, stigmatizes people and renders the most vulnerable even more helpless. Lack of access to water and hygiene is also a real threat to public health as certain diseases could widely spread.”

The officials visited the city following appeals in June from organizations concerned with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s (DWSD) escalation of water shut-offs to accounts that have fallen behind on their bills, amounting to up to 3,000 disconnections a week. The increase touched off organizing efforts by residents who charge they’re part of a larger plan, in keeping with Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s bankruptcy push, to displace African-Americans and privatize water and public services.

During their investigation, the UN experts held interviews and meetings with local residents, as well as with city officials. On Sunday, hundreds of people crowded into a town hall meeting with the officials. “Once again, the international spotlight was on Detroiters trying to carve out dignified lives while being denied basic necessities of life,” said Maureen Taylor, spokesperson for the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the Detroit People’s Water Board, at the town hall meeting.

DeMeeko Williams, coordinator for the Detroit Water Brigade, told Common Dreams that it is absurd that people in the city have to appeal to the United Nations for support. “You can’t get help from the city government, the state government is the main culprit, and the U.S. government is not doing anything, so what else is there to do? Who do we turn to?” he asked.

Despite a grassroots push for the Water Affordability Plan, the city has increased water rates 8.7 percent at a time of massive unemployment and poverty. Detroit is effectively passing “the increased costs of leakages due to an aging infrastructure” onto residents who can’t afford it, the investigators charge.

The rapporteurs document the heavy toll the shut-offs have taken.

“We were deeply disturbed to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity,” they state. “Without water, people cannot live a life with dignity—they have no water for drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets and keeping their clothes and houses clean. Despite the fact that water is essential for survival, the city has no data on how many people have been and are living without tap water, let alone information on age, disabilities, chronic illness, race or income level of the affected population.”

Despite the lack of data provided by the city, information obtained by the investigators suggests the city’s vulnerable and dispossessed are bearing the brunt of the crisis. “About 80 percent of the population of Detroit is African American. According to data from 2013, 40.7 percent of Detroit’s population lives below the poverty level, 99 percent of the poor are African American,” they write. “Twenty percent of the population is living on 800 USD or less per month, while the average monthly water bill is currently 70.67 USD.”

Furthermore, they note, “thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children. In many cases, unpaid water bills are being attached to property taxes increasing the risk of foreclosure.”

The investigators continue, “It was touching to witness mothers’ courage to strive to keep their children at home, and the support people were providing to each other to live in these unbearable circumstances. And it was heartbreaking to hear of the stigmatization associated with the shut-offs—in particular the public humiliation of having a blue mark imprinted on the sidewalk in front of homes when their water was shut off due to unpaid bills.”

Meanwhile, the shut-offs continue. “There is still a high number of people going without water,” said Williams. “The Detroit Water Brigade is on the front-lines trying to help people get back to self-sufficiency. We need more support. The situation is not just going to go away.”

Canadian Group Delivering Water to Detroit to Protest Shutoffs July 25, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Capitalism, Detroit, Economic Crisis, Human Rights, Poverty, Water.
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Roger’s note: there are trillions of dollars to support thirteen years of warfare in Afghanistan and hundreds of military bases around the world and a stockpile of nuclear weapons capable of destroying the planet a hundred times over; there is money for record profits for banks and financial institutions and millions to bail them out when their crimes lead to economic disaster; there is money to pay CEOs hundreds of millions of dollars in salaries; there are gazillions for war profiteering corporations such as Lockheed and Boeing;  there are three billion dollars a year to arm Israel’s slaughter of Palestinian civilians (I could go on and on) … BUT THERE IS NO MONEY TO PROVIDE WATER TO POOR PEOPLE IN DETROIT.

Some naively and  mistakenly believe that in a democracy you get the government you deserve.  Yes, just as Palestinian children deserve to be murdered because their parents voted for Hamas.  It is a perverse world we live in.  In CAPITALIST democracy, you do not get the government you deserve; rather you get war and poverty.  But, don’t listen to me, I am an unrepentant commie.

 

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Council of Canadians joins movement against city-wide water war

As Detroit activists and human rights groups continue to protest against widespread water shutoffs, the Council of Canadians mobilized on Thursday to deliver a  convoy of water in a show of international support to beleaguered city residents.

The Windsor chapter of the council will bring hundreds of gallons of water into Detroit to help those faced with long-term service shutoffs.

“In a region that holds 20% of the world’s freshwater, the water cut-offs are a source of growing international outrage,” said Maude Barlow, national chairperson for the Council of Canadians. “Water is a human right, and it is unacceptable in a country of plenty, surrounded by the Great Lakes, the largest source of fresh water in the world, that people should go without.”

The council plans to deliver their convoy to a rally Thursday afternoon at the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Detroit. Several organizers will also send a petition to City Hall, asking for water to be restored to elderly people, disabled people and families with children.

“The human suffering is that of a major disaster, one that grows every day,” Barlow stated, adding that the council asks President Barack Obama to “intervene and to declare a state of emergency. It is appalling that this has been allowed to happen, even more so to go on this long.”

The city, which has been fighting its way out of bankruptcy in part by cutting public services such as pensions and welfare, ceased its water supply three months ago to households that were behind on payments in order to collect about $118 million in outstanding bills. Council members recently agreed to a 15-day moratorium on the shutoffs to allow residents time to catch up on what they owe, but emphasized that it was temporary. The policy began to receive international attention as residents held rallies and mass protests and the United Nations declared the shutoffs a violation of human rights.

More than 14,000 households were disconnected between April and June, while the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) announced plans to increase the shutoffs to up to 3,000 households a month. But according to Catarina de Albuquerque, UN expert on the human right to water and sanitation, disconnections for delinquent bills are only “permissible” if residents are simply choosing not to pay, which is not the case for the majority of the city’s low-income households.

“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying,” de Albuquerque said. “In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”

Detroit’s cost of living is too high for many of its low-income residents, particularly as they take the brunt of service cuts decided on by their bankruptcy manager, Kevyn Orr. “Our water rates rise continuously,” Priscilla Dziubek, a spokesperson for the Detroit People’s Water Board, told Common Dreams. “More and more people are struggling with their water bills. We have a loss of democracy. [The city] should make decisions with the citizens of Detroit in mind.”

Water bills in Detroit have gone up by 119 percent in the past 10 years. In June, the city council approved an 8.7 percent increase in rates. At the same time, unemployment rates reached a record high and the poverty rate hit 40 percent. Orr ordered the shutoffs for anyone who owes more than $150 on their bill, while the DWSD said that the procedure is standard and enforced every year.

But as the Michigan Citizen pointed out in June, there is a notable discrepancy in who gets their water services turned off and who doesn’t: Low-income residents do while elite establishments — like the Palmer Park Golf Club, which owes $200,000; Ford Field, which owes $55,000; and the Joe Louis Arena, which owes $80,000,  — don’t.

“Why are they going after citizens?” Dziubek said. “They could collect from one of these large accounts and get a lot more money.”

The Detroit People’s Water Board and several other organizations, including Food & Water Watch, called on the city’s managers to implement a water affordability plan that would ease the burden on low-income residents. In a report (PDF) submitted to the special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, the Detroit People’s Water Board stated that “it would be more just and efficient for the DWSD to spend its resources collecting unpaid bills from commercial and industrial users than depriving households of basic services.”

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a press statement Monday that the DWSD should “fundamentally reconsider its use of draconian water shutoffs as a means of strong-arming residents who cannot afford to pay their water bills.”

It was unclear Thursday morning whether the council would be able to cross the border, as the U.S. government has to give approval on allowing in any amount of water that exceeds what is necessary for “personal use.”

Dziubek wasn’t worried. “I can’t see any reason why humanitarian water would be turned away,” she said.

 

 

Is Obama’s Car Czar Plotting to Crush the Auto Unions? April 1, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Labor.
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By David Sirota, Blog for Our Future. Posted March 1, 2009, www.alternet.org

Obama put corporate raider Steve Rattner in charge of overseeing the auto industry and his “plan” seems to be to crush the autoworkers.

Remember Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street? Specifically, remember how Gekko’s entire scheme for the airline industry was based on crushing the blue-collar union that Bud Fox’s dad (Martin Sheen) was part of? Welcome to a real life version of that story, starring corporate raider Steve Rattner, who President Obama appointed to head the White House team now overseeing the auto industry (and don’t say you weren’t warned).

As the Wall Street Journal reports, Rattner’s strategy is to use the government’s leverage to try to specifically crush auto workers and force them to accept even more contract concessions than they’ve already agreed to:

DETROIT — President Barack Obama’s recovery plan for General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC appears to take aim at union retirees, a usually reliable Democratic constituency. After studying the plight of the companies, the president’s auto task force concluded GM and Chrysler’s survival is dependent on greater concessions from the United Auto Workers union.

The White House has total leverage over the situation because the UAW knows that if the industry doesn’t get the loans it needs, it will be forced into bankruptcy court, where judges will shred labor contracts (somehow, AIG bonus contracts are sacrosanct, but union worker contracts can be shredded in a heartbeat). Indeed, many analysts believe this is the administration’s ultimate goal.

IMHO, The most immoral part of this is the specific targeting of retirees.

As opposed to younger workers, retirees often can’t get another job or go back to work because of obvious physical limitations. As one retiree said, “What 85-year-old can go out and get another job?”

I’m not saying that the auto industry’s legacy costs are sustainable – not at all. But I am saying that when you put Gordon Gekko in control of government policy overseeing an industry, you are inevitably going to get a policy that assumes workers are the big problem. If you had a different kind of team, you may have a policy that says, for instance, we have to create a robust universal health care system before throwing retirees off their existing health care.

Last I checked, we have enough money to create that system just lying around ready to be handed out to Rattner’s Wall Street friends. Hell, $8 trillion will get us a damn good universal health care system, won’t it? Yes, it will – but it will also buy a lot of yachts for AIG execs, and when you have Gordon Gekko making public policy yachts come before health care.
David Sirota is a best-selling author whose newest book, “The Uprising,” was just released this month. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network — both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at www.credoaction.com/sirota.

Crippling the Auto Union Is Just a Warm-Up December 17, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor.
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www.truthdig.com

Dec 15, 2008

By Marie Cocco

I must admit that when the danger of a global financial implosion became apparent in March with the taxpayer-backed takeover of Bear Stearns by banking giant JPMorgan Chase, I did not understand how all those worthless Wall Street credit swaps really could be the fault of an overpaid union welder at an auto plant somewhere in Michigan.

Heck. Despite having once listened as Republican leader Tom DeLay gave a House speech blaming the 1999 Columbine High School shootings on mothers who use birth control and the teaching of evolution in schools, I still underestimate the peculiar genius that conservative Republicans show in exploiting dire, even tragic, situations to wield a partisan cudgel.

Senate Republicans’ effort to break the United Auto Workers union as the pound of flesh they wanted in exchange for loans to teetering automakers—companies that are on the brink because of a credit crisis they did not cause—was over the top, even drawing objections from the Bush White House. The administration is now rushing to find money for Detroit somewhere in the huge pot of financial-industry bailouts, lest the automakers go down and take what’s left of the economy with them.

Understand that the conservative assault on the UAW is just a warm-up act.

The main event for these contemporary Pinkertons will come after Barack Obama is sworn in as president and Democrats seek to pass a measure that would make it easier for workers to organize unions. It is the Employee Free Choice Act, and its intent is to push back—at least a bit—on the multimillion-dollar union-busting business that has become institutionalized since the political assault on labor was juiced up with President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 mass firing of air traffic controllers. When Reagan supplanted the striking controllers with “replacement workers” (previously known as strikebreakers or scabs), business got the message: It was perfectly acceptable, if not advantageous, to bust unions or to keep them from being organized. From there, it was a small step toward the widespread use of unethical, and sometimes illegal, tactics.

“When it comes to workers’ right to form unions, loophole-ridden laws, paralyzing delays and feeble enforcement have created a culture of impunity in many areas of U.S. labor law and practice,” according to a 2005 report by Human Rights Watch. In the 1950s, a few hundred workers each year suffered reprisals for union organizing. By the early part of this decade, according to the report, about 20,000 workers a year suffered a reprisal serious enough for the National Labor Relations Board to order back pay or take other steps.

Academic research has demonstrated that much of the illicit anti-union activity is conducted after employees have signed cards indicating they want a union, but before a formal election is held. This is what the “free choice act” aims to eliminate: a waiting period during which three-quarters of companies hire consultants to thwart the organizing drive and engage in a variety of pressure tactics to keep employees from ultimately voting “yes.” About half of companies threaten to close the plant if the union wins the election, according to research by Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University.

No wonder then that in a memo from which the author’s name was removed—but which is believed to have been circulated among Republicans last week during the auto industry imbroglio—lawmakers were told, “This is the Democrats’ first opportunity to pay off organized labor after the election. This is a precursor to card check and other items. … Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it.”

But the blows of this economy have been harshest on average workers. Before the current recession began, paychecks still had not recovered from the 2001 recession. Wages and benefits have been eroding. One way to stanch the trend is to tip the scale—now tilted so heavily in favor of Wall Street and wealth—back the other way. Otherwise, when the economy recovers, the fruits will again trickle up to the executive suite.

“If workers are going to benefit from this recovery, they are going to have to have the ability to bargain for higher wages and higher benefits. We can’t depend on employers on their own to deliver the benefits of this recovery to workers,” says Bill Samuel, legislative director of the AFL-CIO. “We have to change the equation here.”

That is the kind of change conservatives just don’t believe in.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Cutting Wages Won’t Solve Detroit Three’s Crisis December 9, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Labor.
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auto-workers1Automakers have blamed workers for the financial collapse of the Detroit auto industry. (Photo: motortrend.com)

by: Mark Brenner and Jane Slaughter, The Detroit News

 In the 1980s, Chevrolet proclaimed itself the “Heartbeat of America,” but today the American auto industry barely registers a pulse. As Washington considers Detroit’s plea for life support, the only place where pundits, politicians and Big Three executives seem to agree is that auto workers must make do with less or watch their jobs disappear.

    Some lawmakers have complained that unions are the source of the problem, but they fail to understand some inconvenient truths. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Commerce Department, every worker in Big Three factories could work for free and only shave 5 percent off the cost of their cars. The auto companies pay as much for hubcaps and fenders as they do in wages.

    Data from the Harbour Report – the industry’s gold standard – reveal that even including their benefits, labor costs in the Big Three’s plants account for less than 10 percent of the sticker price.

    No matter how you cut the numbers, demolishing auto workers’ living standards will not transform the industry. The Big Three have been trying for years. They have slashed at least 200,000 jobs since 2004, and last year they wrung billions of dollars in concessions from the United Auto Workers. The union instituted a second-tier wage of $14.50 an hour for new hires, lower than pay in the nonunion, foreign-owned auto companies in the South.

    The impact is all too apparent in auto communities across the Midwest. Forty thousand Detroit homeowners are in foreclosure, and the unemployment rate has hit double digits in many auto towns. That suffering will multiply if one of the Big Three collapses, or if retired auto workers are punished for decisions they had no hand in.

    Automakers’ decisions have been disastrous. While competitors developed gasoline-electric hybrids, Detroit mined the gas-guzzling truck and SUV market, making $104 billion in profits between 1994 and 2003. Wall Street and Congress weren’t calling for more research and development or curbing the company’s dividend payments and high-flying executive salaries back then.

    Pundits crow for us to “Dump Detroit,” but they don’t advertise that through a bailout or the bankruptcy courts taxpayers will shoulder the burden of the automakers’ colossal missteps.

    Washington shouldn’t back into a bailout – it should jump in feet-first. What’s needed is not a half-measure, a cash infusion in exchange for selling the corporate jets. Now is the time to take a sweeping look at the country’s needs.

    Our first steps should confront global warming and oil dependence through a comprehensive overhaul of the transportation system. Federal policy hasn’t changed since the 1950s, when gas was a nickel a gallon.

    Detroit, the Arsenal of Democracy, retooled in a matter of weeks when we needed tanks, not cars, in 1941. We could produce this century’s answer to the interstate highway system and build mass transit and high-speed trains.

    That same sense of urgency is needed for vehicles that don’t run on petroleum. If American engineers can build satellites that read your license plate from outer space, they can develop an alternative to the gasoline engine.

    Automakers need direction as much as financial support from Washington, just as Japan’s government molded Toyota into a world-class performer.

    In every other industrialized nation, government has stepped in and given their auto companies a significant edge. Most important, they all adopted national health care and pension systems decades ago.

    General Motors alone provides health coverage to a million people – workers, retirees and families. The annual price tag is about $5 billion, which, as CEO Rick Wagoner is fond of pointing out, is more than GM spends on steel.

    That burden could be lifted, to the benefit of 47 million uninsured Americans, by adopting a Medicare-style program for everyone. It would save the nation as much as $350 billion per year now spent for insurance companies to shuffle paper and deny claims.

    The fate of the Motor City captivates us because it speaks to our future. For 30 years, politicians have bowed to Wall Street, sitting by while wages for most workers stagnated. Big Three workers have maintained their living standards better than most, in no small part because they have a union. In a country where investment bankers gave themselves $30 billion in bonuses last Christmas, have we reached a point where $58,000 a year with benefits is too much to ask?

    We once promised the pursuit of happiness to all, including the workers who make our factories run, not just those who trade credit default swaps. Now more than ever, we need to recapture that spirit with a thoroughgoing plan to rescue the environment, care for the sick and transform transportation.

    Mark Brenner and Jane Slaughter work for Labor Notes, an independent monthly labor magazine in Detroit. It receives no support from the United Auto Workers.

Unions Aren’t the Problem December 9, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Labor.
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Posted on Dec 9, 2008

www.truthdig.com

By Marie Cocco

As Congress and the White House lurch toward possible approval of a loan package for the crippled auto industry, we are undoubtedly in store for more union-bashing. Note well that we did not hear any such tirades when vastly larger sums of taxpayer money—with fewer strings attached—were lavished upon the banks and financial industry wizards who created the credit crisis. 

Put aside for a moment the misinformation and outright untruths that characterize conservative attacks on the autoworkers’ unions. No one should be allowed to cast blame on workers who want nothing more than to maintain a middle-class life.

Unions aren’t the problem. They are the solution.

Creating a viable middle class has been the goal of organized labor since labor first became organized. And it is this goal that was abandoned outright by American political and business leaders as they did all they could over the past three decades to encourage a relentless race to the bottom in wages and benefits.

Strip away the financial mumbo jumbo and the credit crisis comes down to this: For decades, as wages and benefits for working and middle-class people stagnated or fell, the only way for them to purchase the goods that make the economy hum was through credit. This was true whether the item purchased was a home, a car—or all the unnecessary gizmos that retailers have been more than happy to tell consumers were the must-haves of the day. Until we understand that we are in the midst of two crises—one the short-term credit crisis and one the longer-term crisis in the failure to pay workers what they need to sustain themselves—we are doomed to repeat this horror.

“If you are a man with only a high school education … your chances of making a wage or salary as good as what your father was making in the late 1970s are not good,” says Gary Gerstle, a Vanderbilt University historian. “We are looking at a deterioration in their life opportunities and living standards, at the same time that an enormous amount of wealth has accumulated at the top of the income ladder.”

It is true that some individuals were reckless in taking on debt. But it is equally valid that American workers simply haven’t been paid what it takes for them to spend enough to keep the American economy growing. “The economy needed levels of expenditure and consumption that most Americans literally could not afford,” Gerstle says.

What do unions have to do with this? To start with, unionized workers make about $200 more per week than do nonunion workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The great expansion of the American middle class and an unprecedented rise in living standards occurred between the end of World War II and the 1970s—when unions were far more common and powerful than they are today. Beginning in the 1980s, an ideology of deregulation and anti-unionism took hold, with free-market capitalists arguing that no intervention in the markets—including labor’s intervention—was ever beneficial.

“The promise of deregulation was that this would create so much energy and dynamism at the top that it would all trickle down,” Gerstle says. “Not only would people on Wall Street make all kinds of money, but people on Main Street would find that there would be more dynamism in their lives, more opportunity, more wages.”

Well, people on Wall Street did make all kinds of money. People on Main Street got depressed wages, the demise of guaranteed pensions and 401(k)s that crashed with the stock market. They got health insurance that is barely affordable, if they’ve got insurance at all.

We are engulfed by an economic morass that holds the prospect of being the deepest and broadest downturn of the post-World War II era. It is no coincidence that the percentage of private-sector workers in unions—about 7 percent—is roughly the same as what it was before the Great Depression. Historically, Gerstle says, social movements have needed direct and often unsettling action to capture the public’s imagination and take hold.

This is why we can only hope that events such as the unfolding peaceful occupation of a Chicago window factory by its newly laid-off workers is the start of something much, much bigger. 

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.