Neoliberal free trade zombies got it wrong.
Image from Grand Rapids Employees Independent Union
Unions from all over the midwest have donated time, water, dollars, and more to help the residents of Flint, Michigan get through the water crisis that still rages on there.
Firefighters, electricians, nurses, teachers, teamsters, auto workers, plumbers, and government workers have been working to provide help and a sense of humanity in a situation that, frankly, lacks a lot of both. Many have come from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, as well as across the state of Michigan to help lend a hand where necessary, including installing water filters—all with volunteer labor.
“A lot of our members live here in the community,” said Jeff Peake, organizer at Local 370. “We have a responsibility to pay back.”
It’s a community that has been on hard times for decades. The one-two punch of auto plants moving to places like Mexico resulting in a loss of union jobs, combined with the further economic damage of the Great Recession, means this city, once boasting 200,000 people, has about half that these days, and just over 40 percent of them live at or below the poverty level.
In an article from The Grio, one Flint resident talked about watching it change. “It was a wonderful place to grow up,” said Lynntoia Webster, thirty-two. “But I saw a lot of changes by the time I was in the ninth and tenth grade. I could see our economy was changing. People in my family were getting laid off from the auto industry, and that’s when it became not such a great place to live.”
Recently, Flint residents learned that General Motors switched back to the Detroit River for its water after just four months because the Flint River water was rusting the engines at one of its auto plants. The troubling story continues to unfold. It’s clear that the people of Flint took the hit, while business leaders and the state officials responsible for the crisis looked the other way.
There are still many things that need to happen for Flint to be safe again, like replacing corroding water pipes to houses in many neighborhoods, but things are finally progressing — thanks in large part to the help of organizations like Flint Rising, which is leading a grassroots effort to push for change.
Ed Schroeder, Financial Secretary of UAW Local 3000 in Flat Rock, Michigan, helped organize financial and bottled water donations from his local union. He expressed the feelings of many in the unions who have been helping out, saying:
“This is union members helping a community that, frankly, desperately needs it. When its people have to bathe in bottled water and can’t use their faucets for basic needs because the city and state governments failed them, they need a human response, not another failed politician to offer a handful of nothing.”
That “handful of nothing” is happening in other cities, too.
Unions now represent 11.3 percent of the entire workforce and only 7 percent of the private sector. Part of the reason for that is The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has caused at least 700,000 manufacturing jobs to be moved to Mexico — and some estimate over one million—with Michigan, the hardest hit state, losing 43,000 of them. Some estimate that Michigan lost over 800,000 jobs between 2000 and 2009.
Union people showing solidarity with communities that need it — especially a place like Flint — has the potential for a wider impact: pushing back against biases against unions. This is especially needed in states like Michigan and Wisconsin where so-called “right-to-work” laws and other measures that weaken labor have fed a negative perception of unions. In addition, rightwing governors have encouraged attacks on working people, while peddling “free trade,” in particular the Trans Pacific Partnership, fast tracked to become law later this year, although facing serious opposition in Congress.
Union members fed up with job-killing trade agreements and two major parties that have neglected the concerns of working people have driven the rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and caused Hillary Clinton to recalibrate her stance on the Trans Pacific Partnership and other issues. That’s a big deal for 2016. It’s driven in part by the way working people are coming together to help each other out in places like Flint.
Brandon Weber writes on economics, labor union history, and working people. He is working on two books, one on forgotten labor history and one on the fatally flawed foster and adoption system, and some ways to fix it.