By Abayomi Azikiwe
Detroit — Public discontent over evictions, foreclosures, water shutoffs and substandard wages can only be ameliorated through organized action.
During the early morning hours of Sunday, October 7, members of UNITE HERE Local 24 went out on strike against the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel located in downtown Detroit.
The union is striking against the corporation at Westin hotels in eight cities across the United States, demanding higher wages and better working conditions. UNITE HERE says on its website: “Thousands of hotel workers in eight U.S. cities say they’ll remain off the job until a new contract is reached with Marriott International. About 7,700 employees of the world’s largest hotel chain are now walking picket lines in Boston, Detroit, Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, California, as well as two cities in Hawaii.”
In Detroit, the UNITE HERE workers are asking for $2 more per hour. One worker said in a statement to the press that his wages have only increased by 70 cents per hour over the last 10 years when the hotel was reopened during the Great Recession.
A dominant corporate media narrative in Detroit is that the city is experiencing a major upsurge in business development in the downtown and Midtown districts. Many new restaurants have opened along with expanded hotel space largely servicing conventions and tourists.
However, this purported “boom” in business profitability in downtown and Midtown does not take into consideration the wages and conditions of employment for workers in the hospitality industry. Neither does this line of thinking recognize the rising cost of living within these areas as it relates to housing availability, the skyrocketing of rents and problems associated with the lack of public transportation.
UNITE HERE Local 24 called for a support rally October 9 to boost their demands surrounding the strike. Some 500 members and officials of other unions, as well as community supporters, came downtown to walk the picket line and speak out against the practices of the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel.
Various unions were represented including the United Auto Workers, Metro AFL-CIO, Michigan Education Association, Service Employees and others. Speakers at the rally in front of the hotel assailed the corporation for not giving the workers a raise.
Lower unemployment? Higher wages? Nope.
With the lowering of the official jobless rate in the U.S. to 3.7 percent, many workers believe there should be a significant increase in real wages. Unfortunately, this has not been the case at all.
An article from the pro-corporate CNBC network stated in July that: “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, at least in the United States. The top 1 percent of families took home an average of 26.3 times as much income as the bottom 99 percent in 2015, according to a new paper released by the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. This has increased since 2013, showing that income inequality has risen in nearly every state.”
Demands for higher wages among service employees have been taking place now for the last five years. The Fight for $15 campaign in Michigan recently staged a series of demonstrations on October 2 in conjunction with other workers across the country.
Members of Fight for $15 in Detroit blocked traffic along Woodward Avenue leading to more than 20 arrests. Earlier that day in Flint, a vehicle struck a crowd marching through the city calling for $15 per hour in minimum wages and union representation. Flint police claimed the incident, which resulted in eight people being sent to a hospital for injuries, was a random accident.
Water shutoffs worsen lives of working poor
Compounding the slave wages paid to many workers in the hospitality and other industries in Detroit is the inhumane policy of widespread water shutoffs. Although this has been a problem for many years, the situation reached critical proportions during the imposition of emergency management and bankruptcy on the city in 2014.
Demonstrations, legal challenges and other opposition activities prompted some initial reforms in the summer of 2014 when the City of Detroit declared a brief moratorium on water shutoffs, allowing many households to make arrangements for the payment of arrears and the resumption of their services.
These inadequate measures, however, did not address the underlying reasons for the crisis, which are the bonds issued by financial institutions which drained hundreds of millions of dollars from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).
Water services are still being shut off at an alarming pace. Rate charges are far too high for a city which is still ranked as the most impoverished among major municipalities in the U.S. Additional drainage fees, commonly referred to as a “rain tax,” are tantamount to extortion since refusal to pay these costs can result in the termination of services.
A regionalized Great Lakes Water Authority was also illegally established in 2014 absent of any public debate or referendum on the restructuring. Decisions made by bank-led emergency management officials to disconnect the city of Flint from the DWSD resulted in the poisoning of the water in that city, where thousands have been inflicted with elevated lead- and copper-related diseases, along with a Legionnaires outbreak that killed several people.
Just recently in Detroit, the newly formed Public Schools Community District announced that it was shutting off water fountains in buildings due to high lead levels discovered through testing. At present, students are drinking from packaged bottles and portable commercial tanks. There are no feasible plans to replace fountains, lead service lines or other possible sources of the contamination because the new school district, crafted by the conservative state, cannot legally sell bonds to fund improvements to the system.
An interfaith coalition of clergy held a demonstration and press conference downtown on October 4. The participants marched from the Detroit riverfront at the Underground Railroad Monument to the Spirit of Detroit right outside City Hall.
The spokespersons for the alliance demanded a water affordability program for the city. Rev. Dr. JoAnn Watson, a former member of the Detroit City Council and author of an affordability plan while she was in government, noted that the city was surrounded by fresh water and consequently there is no need for shut-offs.
Gentrification and foreclosures run amok
Another major aspect of the Detroit economic crises is the systematic relocation of people out of many areas of the city. An example of this phenomenon is the attempt to evict residents from the downtown Park Avenue House Apartments.
Residents received a 30-day notice to quit in early October from the management company running the building. It stated the apartment had been sold to new owners and everyone had to move. A brief investigation by a local big-business newspaper revealed that there was no evidence of a change in ownership. This building is one of the few remaining in the downtown area where rents are affordable for low-income Detroit residents.
At the same time, there are the continuing problems related to property tax foreclosures.
The Moratorium NOW! Coalition has waged a campaign over the last three years to halt these foreclosures since they are based on illegal assessments fostered by the predatory lending of the banks from the late 1990s to the beginning of the Great Recession of 2008 and beyond.
Although a class action lawsuit filed by the Michigan ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was settled out of court in July, the outcome of the settlement was so narrow that it merely focused on those who were eligible for poverty tax exemptions in the city. It took a Moratorium NOW! Coalition effort, which mobilized community activists who canvassed those facing eviction, to force the city administration of corporate Mayor Mike Duggan to extend the deadlines for participation in the purported “buy-back program.” (See a Fighting Words exclusive on this grassroots campaign.)
Approximately 1,000 owner-occupied homes were put up for sale in the auction which takes place every September and October. It is even more egregious that hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal Hardest Hit Funds, which should have gone toward keeping people in their homes, were siphoned off to the Detroit Land Bank Authority for the purpose of tearing down homes at inflated costs, resulting in what appeared to be “no-bid” contracts approved by the DLBA and the Duggan administration.
Despite the fact that Duggan and the DLBA are being investigated by the federal government for these practices, the funds have still not been utilized for what should have been the intended objectives of stabilizing neighborhoods in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
Almost all of the so-called “developmental investments” in Detroit are centered in the downtown and Midtown districts, leaving the neighborhoods and small business areas, where the majority of the African-American population reside, to rot and suffer from continuing over-taxation and abandonment.
Moratorium NOW! teach-in October 28
The “City Lab” project is scheduled to come to Detroit for a conference at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel beginning Sunday, October 28. This is the same hotel where the UNITE HERE Local 24 workers have been on strike for nearly two weeks.
City Lab is yet another effort to remake urban areas in the U.S. and worldwide in the image of Wall Street. The conference is sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Atlantic publication. Invited speakers include corporate CEOs such Mary Barra of General Motors, whose headquarters is located in downtown Detroit.
The program advanced by City Lab provides no real promise for the majority Black and working-class residents of Detroit. It is more of the same top-down approach to urban development whose outcomes will result in further gentrification and dislocation of the nationally oppressed, working-class people and impoverished.
Moratorium NOW! Coalition will host an alternative “Teach-In on City Lab: Real Detroiters Speak Out” on October 28 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 1950 Trumbull Avenue (zip code 48216) just west of the downtown area.
The event will feature four panel discussions aimed at addressing the underlying causes of the housing, water services, educational and wealth disparity crises impacting Detroit.
This Moratorium NOW! event will emphasize the need for the mass mobilization and organization of the people to fight against the racist and anti-worker policies of those currently running the city. After the teach-in, participants will demonstrate outside the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel against the City Lab Conference and in solidarity with striking UNITE HERE hotel workers.
Recognizing that the ongoing strike by service workers at the hotel where City Lab is scheduled to occur could result in a public relations disaster for the Bloomberg and Co. event, it is reported that the expensive gathering will be moved to a non-striking Marriott hotel located in the General Motors Renaissance Center.
Whether the strike is settled by October 28 or not is almost a secondary issue. The contradictions developing in the city of Detroit and around the U.S. will continue to result in the widening gulf between the haves and have nots.
Only a fundamental transformation of the political and economic system in the U.S. can alter the current social situation. This desperately needed change must be initiated by those most impacted by contemporary problems which face ever-growing numbers of people inside the United States.
Abayomi Azikiwe is editor of the Pan-African News Wire and a founding member of the Communist Workers League.