Workers Vanguard No. 1082
29 January 2016
Capitalists Poison Flint
The majority-black, historically working-class city of Flint, Michigan, and an entire generation of its children have been poisoned by the capitalist rulers through the contaminated public water supply. As one woman told the Wall Street Journal (21 January), “We’re nothing but the walking dead in Flint.” Labor must protest this racist atrocity!
In April 2014, under an “emergency manager” appointed by Republican governor Rick Snyder, it was decreed that to save money, Flint would stop buying its water from Detroit and use water from the industrially polluted Flint River. Immediately, residents began to complain about the discolored, stinking water and how it was causing illness including rashes, nausea, hair loss and headaches. In October 2014, a General Motors plant in Flint stopped using water from the municipal supply because it was corroding engine parts. But the government at all levels exhibited less concern for the people of Flint than GM showed for its engine parts. A year-long campaign of lies denying that the water was dangerous to health was followed by a massive cover-up, involving unusual interagency collaboration and bipartisan cooperation. Once the cover-up collapsed, “investigations” were announced and the falling out among thieves began.
Three weeks ago, with the story making national headlines, Governor Snyder declared a state of emergency and later mobilized the National Guard supposedly to distribute bottled water. But make no mistake, the real role of the National Guard is not to distribute water—United Auto Workers (UAW) volunteers and others had already been doing that. The Guard’s purpose is to help maintain racist law and order and to clamp down on any unrest by the population. Uniformed guardsmen and state police have been asking for ID before giving out bottled water, which is intimidating, particularly for undocumented immigrants. Remember what the National Guard did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: they hampered aid and prevented desperate residents from fleeing the flooded city. It is in the interests of workers and the oppressed to oppose the presence of the National Guard in Flint and demand its withdrawal.
Today, capitalist politicians from Snyder to Hillary Clinton pretend to be shocked, shocked, about Flint’s contaminated water. But the simple fact is that neither the union-busting governor nor city officials nor the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) nor the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave a damn about the health of the citizens of Flint. For the capitalists, working people only have value when there are profits to be made out of exploiting their labor, and as for black people, we know how little their lives matter to the ruling class. In Flint, unemployment is high and more than 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. These people had become expendable.
Poisoning the Water, Step by Step
As soon as four months after the switch-over, the Flint water supply was found to contain bacterial contamination. Later, high levels of dangerous chemicals (trihalomethanes) were found as well. In February 2015, an independent study revealed that the Flint River water was causing lead to leach from old pipes into the water supply. Indeed, the cost-cutting DEQ had decided to save even more money by not requiring the city to treat the water with corrosion control additives.
A group of Virginia Tech researchers who sampled the water in 271 Flint homes last summer found that some contained lead levels high enough to meet the EPA’s definition of toxic waste. Another study by a local pediatrician showed the percentage of Flint children with elevated levels of lead in their bodies had doubled since 2013. Lead poisoning is known to cause irreversible brain damage. State officials sprang into action...to cover up the problem. Last July, DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel expressed the views of his government bosses when he said, “Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” Worried city residents were dismissed as “anti-everything” troublemakers; one of the whistle-blowing doctors was blasted for sowing “hysteria.”
Earlier this month, officials reported a spike in Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County, where Flint is located, following the switching of the water source. One of the scientists involved in the water testing had predicted that the lack of corrosion control would lead to higher levels of Legionella bacteria.
The EPA is authorized to act directly to deal with issues like the Flint water crisis, but preferred to exhort the DEQ while doing nothing itself. The London Guardian (16 January) quoted an August 20 email from EPA program manager Jennifer Crooks hoping all the attention to Flint just “dies down.”
At a public appearance in Detroit on January 20, President Obama shed crocodile tears for the children of Flint, but refused to declare the horrific situation there a “disaster,” thus blocking additional funds that such a designation would have opened up for the tormented city. At the same time, Obama congratulated himself for his administration’s bailout of the auto industry, which is supposed to have boosted the American economy—not that most of us would have noticed any such upturn. In fact, the auto bailout was public assistance to the auto bosses and their creditors; it was accompanied by the shredding of UAW contracts, prohibition of strikes, wholesale destruction of wages and working conditions and the proliferation of multi-tier wages. The pro-Democratic Party trade-union leadership worked hand in hand with the auto companies in presenting the profitability of the American car industry as worth any sacrifice on the part of the working people.
Flint was the birthplace of General Motors in 1908 and a center of automobile manufacturing through the 1980s. In 1936-37, it was one of the places where auto workers waged sit-down strikes. The governor responded by deploying the National Guard, armed with machine guns, outside occupied plants. The strikers eventually forced the auto bosses to recognize the UAW, part of a wave of militant labor organizing. At its peak, the city supported a population of 200,000, some 80,000 of them employed as auto workers with decent union wages and benefits. That changed when GM began pulling out of the city in the late 1980s. The American capitalists decided to invest in other sectors of the economy at the expense of manufacturing, while shifting manufacturing to the non-union South. Today the population of Flint has fallen below 100,000. Nearby Detroit was bled dry by the bourgeoisie, who then manipulated and enforced the city’s bankruptcy—largely a scam to steal workers’ pensions.
Michigan has its own special way of administering the transition of formerly industrial cities into bleak landscapes of urban decay. The governor has the right to appoint an emergency manager to take control of any city government or school district in fiscal disarray in order to force through cutbacks of essential services. For years, Democratic and Republican governors alike have used emergency managers to effectively seize power and legal authority from mayors and city councils. After a 2012 referendum curbed the power of emergency managers and returned authority to elected officials, the legislature simply passed a new law reinstating their powers.
While Flint today is a far cry from its heyday as a center of integrated labor power, a multiracial working class still exists in the region and possesses great potential power through its ability to stop production and thereby cut off capitalist profits. But to wield the unions’ power in defense of their own members and in defense of the vital needs of the whole working people and the unemployed requires a class-struggle leadership in place of the misleaders who push partnership with the capitalist bosses and their parties. A fighting labor movement would lead the struggle for a massive program of federally funded public works, employing union members at union wages, to rebuild this country’s crumbling infrastructure—including replacing ancient lead water pipes in Flint and elsewhere. At bottom, what is required is a workers revolution that takes this country out of the hands of the parasitic capitalist rulers and opens the road to an international socialist planned economy of abundance.
The Flint water crisis—a 100 percent man-made disaster—illustrates in an intensified way the increasing decrepitude that afflicts basic infrastructure more broadly. It also illustrates a more immediate truth: in America today, it does not even require the genocidal fantasies of a Hitler or the special cowardice of a racist cop with a 12-year-old in his sights to poison a black and poor population.