Workers Vanguard No. 1052
19 September 2014
Detroit Tells Poor: Drop Dead
Like vultures swooping down, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and city administration have shut off water service to tens of thousands of “delinquent” customers, i.e., the poor. Here is yet another graphic display of the capitalist rulers’ contempt for the majority black and impoverished residents of this crumbling urban wasteland. No access to water means no hydration, no sanitation, no bathing. Denying a basic necessity of life to the population of a city where 40 percent live below the poverty line further sinks the masses into misery. Meanwhile, corporate swindlers like GM, owing huge arrears on their service bills, have an uninterrupted flow of water.
The Detroit water shutoffs are part of the city’s financial restructuring plan, which has the DWSD and private investors seeing the glass at least half full. The goal is to cut down debt while securing a sweet spot for the bondholders, further jack up rates—which have more than doubled over the last decade—and contract out the work to cheaper, non-union labor. Working people and the poor have been footing the bill for the gutting of Detroit by the banks and auto giants for too long. Now they are held hostage to the ruin and robbery brought by the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, which is backed by Wall Street and the Obama administration.
The Motor City was transformed from the epicenter of the auto industry and a stronghold of unionized black labor into a scrapyard. As tycoon transplants and high-rolling venture capitalists demolish blighted properties and get subsidies to construct new downtown enterprise, the black population is deemed expendable and unworthy of investment. Poor neighborhoods are vacant dystopias, with houses buried under foreclosures, with streetlights and public transit in collapse. City workers’ pensions have been looted and social services slashed. The once-combative labor movement there is now just a legacy, as union leaders proved their subservience to the bosses through decades of concessions and givebacks. Today, workers and retirees depend on the charity work of volunteers distributing water bottles or collecting rainwater. Dripping with race and class hatred, the well-stuffed rulers tell poor Detroit: Let them drink champagne.
As if the supply of water weren’t abundant. Detroit was built on a river and lies between two of the five Great Lakes, which together feed 84 percent of the continent’s surface fresh water. Those who own the means of production turn natural resources into gold for themselves while parceling out peanuts for the rest. Meanwhile, the actual infrastructure is left to rot, with water mains over 70 years old in full need of repair. One of the largest municipally owned water systems is now under threat of privatization.
Opposing the private takeover of the DWSD are its workers organized in AFSCME Local 207. In July, union members overwhelmingly rejected management’s contract proposal that would have effectively eliminated the existing workforce by hiring “at will” employees and wiping out job protections and benefits. AFSCME workers have denounced the criminal water shutoffs, and many have seen their service terminated as well. To carry out the shutoffs, the department last year enlisted the private demolition company Homrich, pledging over $5 million for the job.
Water has long been a prickly issue between Detroit and DWSD’s customers in the mostly white suburbs, who depend on the supply but bristle at the thought of their payments going to service black city dwellers. With a recent deal proposing the creation of a Regional Water Authority, three outlying counties could exert some control over the water fountain that they resent sharing. The plan was promoted by Democratic Party Detroit mayor Mike Duggan, whose aim is to keep the bankruptcy proceedings apace. That’s also why Duggan, needing to save face, issued a temporary pause in the mass shutoffs last month after public outrage, protest and international condemnation.
At demonstrations in Detroit, protesters have chanted: “The banks got paid off, we got shut off!” Residential water should be provided free of charge. The privation of those at the bottom of society is not a question of unfair circumstances. It is the very nature of a system ruled by an exploiting class with an unquenchable thirst for profit. In order for the many resources of this society to be used for the benefit of all, the working class must seize the means of production from the tiny elite at the top. Sweeping away capitalist rule and replacing it with a workers government will lay the basis to eliminate scarcity and usher in a society of material abundance.