Workers Vanguard No. 1159

23 August 2019


Democrats Are Also Guilty As Hell!

Flint’s Poisoned Water: Five Years of Cover-Up

“This news today is like being hit in the back of the head with a two-by-four.” That’s how one black Flint activist in late June expressed the deep anger against prosecutors from the Democratic Attorney General’s office who had dropped charges against eight government officials for deliberately poisoning the municipal water supply beginning in 2014. The prosecutors were trying to sell their whitewash investigation of the Flint water crisis and were shamefully offered the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 659 union hall by the labor bureaucrats for a community forum. The meeting was yet another chapter in a massive bipartisan cover-up of a completely man-made public health disaster visited on an impoverished, majority-black city of nearly 100,000 people. A long trail of lies cannot hide the fact that this population, including an entire generation of children, suffered serious damage from extremely high lead levels—and Flint still does not have safe water.

The culprits include former Republican governor Rick Snyder and his crew, as well as Democrats, from the local level on up to the Obama White House. However, the problem is not simply one of bad actors. This racist atrocity is a searing indictment of a capitalist system based on the profit drive and built on a foundation of black oppression. Flint’s plight is an outcome of the workings of that system; the birthplace of General Motors was once truly Vehicle City, although it has long since been ravaged by deindustrialization. Back in the day, it boasted one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation—now 40 percent of its residents live in poverty, surrounded by shuttered factories and foreclosed homes. The crimes committed against the people of Flint underscore how we need a whole new ruling class: the workers.

Bourgeois politicians from both parties have had blood on their hands from the outset. In April 2014, with a Snyder-appointed “emergency manager” at the helm, the city began drawing water from the polluted Flint River rather than Lake Huron, its water source for a half-century. Democratic mayor Dayne Walling, a vocal advocate of the project, literally flipped the switch. The purported rationale for going off the Detroit water network and onto a source that had been a longtime industrial dumping ground for GM was to save cash-strapped Flint a few million dollars per year. Yet again, working people were expected to bear the brunt of “balancing” the city budget.

Every corner was cut in the process. Perhaps the most egregious: the water was not treated with corrosion control chemicals. River water, which is often acidic, will leach lead from pipes unless these chemicals are added to it. So, when the water source was changed, the untreated water supply became contaminated with lead, a dangerous neurotoxin. As the Centers for Disease Control has concluded, there is “no safe blood lead level.”

Immediately, residents complained about the foul water and the illnesses, rashes, nausea, hair loss and headaches it caused. That’s when the cover-up kicked into high gear. So-called experts were trotted out who pronounced the brown water pouring out of faucets to be perfectly fine. Four months after the switch, researchers found harmful bacteria in the water. Meanwhile, an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease killed 12 people. The campaign of deception picked up steam, with government officials swearing up and down that there was no problem and dismissing mounting evidence of widespread lead poisoning.

In September 2015, Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at the city’s public hospital, faced a backlash after releasing a study demonstrating a dramatic elevation in blood lead levels among children. A Michigan health department spokeswoman attributed the study results to “seasonal spikes” having nothing to do with the water supply. The governor’s office complained that whistle-blowers were turning the lead issue into a “political football.” No government body gave a damn about Flint. Or as Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency regional water branch chief stated: “I’m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for.” The bourgeois rulers have nothing but contempt for black people, who in the majority are forcibly segregated at the bottom of U.S. society. Poor whites and Latinos in Flint are also deprived of clean water, demonstrating how the structural oppression of the black masses profoundly impacts all working people in capitalist America.

When the polluted water impacted General Motors, the reaction of the city bosses was very different. The river water was so corrosive to precision motor parts that the GM engine plant in the city was churning out a lot of duds. The automaker, not about to tolerate lost profits for any length of time, had the city switch the water source for the plant back to Lake Huron in October 2014. The rest of Flint, though, was not switched back for another year. Here is revealed a basic truth: the capitalist government, whether administered by Democrats or Republicans, serves only the interests of the owners of industry and the banks.

Today, well after the return to Lake Huron water, the nightmare is not over. Some 2,500 lead pipes are still in the ground, even with a replacement effort launched over three years ago. Flint residents still have to shell out for tap filters and bottled water to curtail risks.

The residents of other heavily black and Democrat-run cities, notably Newark, New Jersey, are also plagued by lead-tainted water, while other pollutants have made the water unsafe from West Virginia to California. For many decades, the high-profit lead industry sold large quantities of pipes and paint as cheap alternatives for construction especially in working-class and black neighborhoods, while openly disputing lead’s toxicity, which scientists had well established. To this day, millions of lead pipes are part of water networks across the country, and authorities regularly cheat when testing water to fudge lead levels. Any number of Flint-like public health disasters could be set off by an austerity scheme or one bad management decision.

No Illusions in the Democrats!

Democrats today blame Snyder and his emergency managers for the Flint disaster. Presidential contenders and the new crop of “progressives,” including U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib from Detroit, feign shock and horror at the events in Flint in order to score cheap points against the Republicans. Current Democratic mayor Karen Weaver and governor Gretchen Whitmer are doing what politicians from the “lesser evil” bourgeois party do: attempting to dampen discontent and “restore trust” in government officials.

In fact, the very legislation granting the Michigan governor the power to hijack local governments in the event of an “emergency” was signed by Democrat James Blanchard in the 1980s. Over the years, Democrats and Republicans alike have decreed such takeovers in order to impose cuts in social services and as a club against public workers unions. Snyder’s Democratic predecessor put the Detroit Public Schools into this form of receivership in order to rob the pensions of union teachers and staff. By the end of 2013, most of the majority-black cities in Michigan were under the control of emergency managers, a tool of racist disenfranchisement.

At the time, Michigan, and most other states, had seized on budget crises following the 2007-08 financial meltdown of U.S. capitalism to squeeze working people and the poor for every last penny. The standard-bearer for this offensive was the Obama White House, which bailed out the banks and the auto industry. Massive concessions, including the extension of the low-wage tier for new hires, were wrested from the UAW, with the complicity of the union tops, in order to restore the profitability of the auto giants. Tens of thousands of UAW members were thrown out of their jobs; black workers, as always, were particularly hard hit.

In a high-profile publicity stunt, Obama visited Flint in May 2016, toward the end of his presidency. Grotesquely, he put a glass of city water to his lips (likely drinking nothing) to “prove” that it was safe, before reminiscing about eating lead paint chips as a child. The message to Flint residents was crystal clear: shut up and stop causing trouble.

Capitalism Must Go!

Over the decades, General Motors brought in wave after wave of labor to toil on the assembly lines, only to throw workers on the scrap heap beginning in the 1980s when the plants were no longer sufficiently profitable. A deindustrialized Flint was left to rot, as the auto bosses pulled up stakes.

From the early 20th century, Flint was shaped by the guiding influence of GM, which took an “apartheid approach to city building” in the words of Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City (2018). For example, the company’s “Modern Housing Corporation” prohibited any of its properties from being “leased to or occupied by any person or persons not wholly of the white or Caucasian race.” GM promoted racial and ethnic antagonisms to pit workers against one another and forestall union organization.

At the time of the great sit-down strike of 1936-37 that forged the UAW, all GM’s Flint operations were strictly segregated, with only a few hundred black workers on the payroll. That victorious strike saw auto workers occupy the factories and hold them for over 40 days, as the Democratic governor conspired with the company to oust them with machine-gun-toting National Guardsmen. In the course of subsequent struggles, black workers were fully brought into the union. While they were the last hired and first fired by the auto bosses, their entry into the proletariat and later the Congress of Industrial Organizations marked a great advance for both the black population and the working class as a whole.

Today, the union is a far cry from what it once was. UAW membership in Flint has plummeted to some 7,000 workers, from around 80,000 in the late 1970s. Nonetheless, these auto workers still have significant social power—the 1998 strike at the GM Metal Center and East Delphi shut down the automaker’s production across North America. There is no lack of outrage among union members at what has happened in Flint—what’s lacking is leadership.

Where were the “labor statesmen” of the UAW throughout the water debacle? These bureaucrats, who identify with the capitalist profit system and are stalwarts of the Democratic Party, limited the union response to passing out bottled water, including to promote campaign appearances by Democrats. The devastation of Flint owes much to the role of the craven UAW tops in subordinating workers to the class enemy. As revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky explained in his 1940 article “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” monopoly capital “demands of the reformist bureaucracy and the labor aristocracy, who pick up the crumbs from its banquet table, that they become transformed into its political police before the eyes of the working class.”

A fight inside the unions is required to oust these political police, whose allegiance to the Democrats is not simply an impediment to labor struggle but also to the fundamental task of the working class: the shattering of the capitalist order. It is crucial to forge a new union leadership armed with a class-struggle program, one aimed at breaking labor’s chains to the Democrats. This fight is linked to building a workers party dedicated to ending capitalist wage slavery altogether. Under a class-struggle leadership, the labor movement would fight for the highest-quality health services and public education, including the remedial programs essential to mitigate the impact of child lead poisoning. It would also fight for union safety committees to enforce safety standards and practices in order to protect the well-being of workers, as well as the general public.

The Flint River project is a prime example of socially unnecessary public works—and it still would have been even if its implementation had adhered to basic safety protocols. Any water infrastructure overhaul in Flint should have begun by replacing all the lead pipes. A labor movement with a class-struggle leadership would demand a full mobilization of resources to locate, excavate and swap out such pipes, in Flint, Newark and elsewhere, including by hiring those thrown out of factory jobs and the rest of the unemployed to perform the work under union control at union-scale wages.

Since capitalism cannot meet basic human needs, like providing clean water, it deserves to perish. But for that to happen requires forging a revolutionary workers party that will rip power out of the hands of the exploiters and create a society organized to meet human needs, not private profit. This party would champion black freedom, immigrant rights and the cause of all the oppressed, striving to win to its banner a core leadership component of black and Latino workers. The only way to guarantee good living conditions, jobs for all and an end to capitalist exploitation and racist oppression is by expropriating the bourgeoisie through socialist revolution. A workers America will waste no time in cleaning up the deadly legacies of rapacious capitalism.