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February 2002 • Vol 2, No. 2 •

A New Stage in City Politics

By Martin Schreader

Kwame Kilpatrick (right) and his predecessor Dennis Archer shoulder to shoulder

The inauguration of Kwame Kilpatrick as the new mayor of Detroit in many ways represents the maturity of a new period of politics in the city. This can be seen not only in the connections and alliances that Kilpatrick brings with him, but also in his political program—past and present.

Prior to his election as mayor, Kilpatrick served as leader of the Democratic Party delegation in the Michigan state legislature. His tenure as a state representative, as well as being the son of Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, provided the political base for his run at the office.

He easily defeated former City Council President Gill Hill last November after winning a majority in the non-partisan primary, held on September 11. Hill, whose claim to fame is a supporting role in the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies, presented himself as an opponent of the policies of the Archer administration and the “selling out” of Detroit.

Kilpatrick represents the first Detroit mayor in almost 30 years who has an openly friendly relationship with the Republican leadership of the state government. According to the Detroit News (January 4, 2002), Kilpatrick “is good friends with Speaker of the House Rick Johnson … and has a solid working relationship with [Governor John] Engler.”

Governor Engler and the Republican-controlled state legislature in Lansing have authored and enacted an unending series of attacks on poor and working people for over a decade. Engler was one of the architects of the “welfare reform” movement of the early-1990s and a darling of the Republican right.

The GOP-led legislature has passed numerous laws aimed directly at the rights and livelihoods of workers; the most outrageous of these remains the legislation virtually banning strikes and other labor actions by unionized teachers.

Of course, none of these laws would have been successfully implemented without the support of the Democrats. Republican control of the legislature has never been sizable enough to allow them to take unilateral action. Kilpatrick, as a Democratic leader, was key in building bipartisan support for these attacks.

Detroit’s new mayor is also the golden child of the “liberal” Democrats, both locally and nationally. Jesse Jackson, Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a string of prominent “liberal” Democratic politicians spent the day before Kilpatrick’s inauguration praising him at a luncheon in his honor.

The newest Golden Boy, Kwame Kilpatrick, with Jesse Jackson (center) and U. S. Rep. John Conyers, Dem. of Michigan (right).

A man to increase the bosses’ fortunes

Kilpatrick’s connections in Lansing and Washington—with both Republicans and Democrats—is hailed by the bosses’ spokespeople as “the man to reverse the city’s fortunes.” The bosses themselves, however, see Kilpatrick as the man to increase their fortunes … at the expense of the city. And, if his record is any indication, they have nothing to fear. At 31, Kilpatrick’s political life has been relatively short. However, during that time he has established a solid record as a representative of the bosses’ interests.

The 1990s saw Detroit’s traditionally closed political system opened up and then dissected by the state government. Residents saw the city’s Recorder’s Court—a judicial structure separate from the state-wide system of circuit and appeals courts—dismantled after a county-wide vote which saw only the suburbs vote for its elimination.

Not long after this, Detroit’s public school system was taken over by the state. The elected school board was ousted and replaced by a body composed of members hand picked by local capitalists. Both Kilpatrick and the outgoing mayor, Dennis Archer, were instrumental in this state takeover. Community activists continue to struggle against this takeover, often staging protests at school board meetings.

Most recently, the state has outlawed the city’s requirement that municipal employees, whether they are street cleaners or cops, live in Detroit, and forced the mayor to cut the city income tax or else lose state block grant money. (Cutting the city income tax may sound like a good thing, but the reality is that it was meant as an enticement for real estate developers to gentrify the neighborhoods around the downtown area.)

All of these moves by the state government bear the imprint of Kilpatrick. As a state representative from Detroit, and state House Democratic leader, none of these moves could have made it all the way through the legislature without him at the very least giving a wink and a nod.


Kilpatrick’s election represents the next step in what can only be described as the “de-Colemanizing” of Detroit politics. Kilpatrick, like Archer before him, was chosen in order to continue moving the local political structure away from the legacy left by former mayor Coleman A. Young.

Young was mayor of Detroit from 1973 to 1993 and oversaw the city through years of “white flight” and massive plant closures, which resulted in the economic devastation of the city. Young was the pressure valve that the capitalists needed to keep the city from exploding in another rebellion like that in 1967.

Young sought to channel the discontent of thousands of workers who had been laid off by the Big 3 during the 1970s through himself; he played the role of the embittered populist, using colorful metaphors as a means of expressing anger and frustration over the economic and population changes (but, of course, doing nothing to actually solve the problems).

At the same time, he faithfully carried out the instructions of the bosses when it came to dealing with the city’s workers. Young twice demanded massive concessions, including layoffs, and wage and benefit cuts, from city workers and got them. Unionized city workers went on strike several times against these concessions.

The election of Archer in 1993 was not only the end of the Young administration, but also the end of the bosses’ abstention from new investment in the city. Archer sought to entice capitalists to rebuild Detroit’s downtown area by offering tax breaks to businesses that came into the city.

Archer was aided in this effort by the Clinton administration; in the 1990s, half of the city became an “empowerment zone,” which meant millions of dollars in loans and block grants for local bosses, and minimum-wage non-union jobs for thousands of Detroit workers, many of whom had previously worked for one of the Big 3.

The eight years of the Archer administration did see the capitalists “invest” in the downtown area. But the price of this “investment” was the forced relocation of hundreds of low- and fixed-income residents—mostly retirees—who lived in the apartment buildings and housing projects that ringed the downtown area. These workers’ homes were bulldozed and replaced by expensive condominiums and townhouses.

Declaring war

The Archer administration succeeded in making Detroit once again palatable to the bosses. But, it is Kilpatrick’s responsibility to make it safe for them. Kilpatrick’s primary responsibility will be to break the resistance of the city workers’ unions. This can be seen in the proposals for changes during his first term that are being put forward.

During the first 180 days of his term, Kilpatrick has set two goals for himself: “reform” of the Detroit Police Department and “expansion” of after-school programs. Both of these proposals contain veiled attacks on workers.

In the bosses’ press, much is made of Kilpatrick’s proposed dismantling of the 400-strong drug unit of the police. Taken by itself, such a move could be seen as a welcome relief. However, Kilpatrick proposes to put these cops on the streets and in the neighborhoods where they would continue to harass, beat, and murder residents.

Detroit police have a long history of brutality and illegal detention of suspects and witnesses. Amnesty International set up a monitoring office last year because of the extraordinary number of cases. Also, there is an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into the reports of “questionable shootings by police.”

Kilpatrick’s proposal for after-school programs is also something that, on the surface, sounds like a good idea. After all, who will disagree with expanding after-school programs? But Kilpatrick’s plan is to partially fund and staff these new programs with “volunteers” and through “nonprofit” corporations. In other words, instead of hiring new school workers, Kilpatrick is going to outsource this work to non-union “volunteers” and nonprofits.

These two proposals dovetail nicely into Kilpatrick’s self-styled “tough talk to labor.”

The city government is currently running a $60 to $75 million deficit. Much of this is due to the tax cuts and other incentives given by the previous administration to large corporations like Compuware, GM and Comerica Bank; the current recession has also taken its toll on the city’s economy.

The bosses are looking for Kilpatrick to balance the city’s budget through “cutting costs,” which means cutting jobs, wages and benefits. To this end, Kilpatrick has issued an ultimatum to the 16,862 unionized city workers: accept layoffs and cuts or your job will be privatized.

“If labor leaders don’t step up to the plate … it [privatization of city services] is an option we’ll have to look at,” said Kilpatrick in an interview with the Detroit News. “That’s up to labor.”

In addition, Kilpatrick, in one of his last acts as State House Democratic leader, pushed through his bill to consolidate the city’s bus service with that of the suburbs; this consolidation will result in the layoff of hundreds of bus drivers and mechanics.

A socialist solution

Kwame Kilpatrick’s statement of aims, especially when placed in the context of his past political record, amounts to a declaration of war against Detroit workers. If he succeeds in implementing this program:

• Thousands of city workers will join the growing ranks of auto and transport workers who have been forced to pay for the bosses’ economic crisis through the loss of their jobs.

• Essential city services will be privatized; the city workers unions, traditionally a militant section of the labor movement, will be busted and contracts will go to the “lowest bidder”—that is, the one who pays their (non-union) workers the least, and cuts corners the most.

• The privatization of the Detroit Public Schools will move forward; the work begun with the ouster of the elected School Board will broaden out through the turning over of after-school programs to private “nonprofit” corporations (which are almost always dominated by “for-profit” corporations).

• The city transit system, an essential lifeline for thousands of poor workers, will be taken over by the suburban system; transit lines will be cut or “streamlined,” making them essentially useless as a reliable mode of transportation.

• Police violence will rise; the federal investigations into police shootings and illegal detentions will be slowed down and (they hope!) forgotten; meanwhile, the cops will be “on the streets [and] in every school” in a brutal show of force.

There is no doubt that Kilpatrick will add to this program as time goes on. And he will be able to implement any future programs much easier if he is able to push these through today.

The kind of social explosion that could result from the imposition of such a situation on the working class could parallel the 1967 Rebellion, when Black Detroit rose up against racism and police terror. This kind of upsurge occurring today, in a period when the bosses’ government is waging a war on civil liberties and democratic rights in the name of “homeland security,” could develop in one of two directions: either it remains a spontaneous explosion, which would be brutally crushed by the armed forces of the state, or it organizes and emerges as a mass working-class movement against racism, poverty and oppression.

A mass working-class movement against exploitation and oppression—against the destruction of our rights and our livelihoods—must not simply be a defensive movement, even though it will likely start out this way. Such a movement must also be armed with a program that reflects the interests of the masses of working people.

A decent life for all workers

The scourge of mass unemployment continues to haunt workers. The recent layoffs of tens of thousands by the Big 3 auto companies underscores the fact that the bosses cannot solve their own crises without placing the burden on the backs of working people.

A shorter workweek with no loss in pay—30-hours work for 40-hours pay—would immediately open up thousands of jobs in the Detroit area alone, most importantly in the auto and steel plants around the city. Combined with a raise in the minimum wage to a decent, livable level, workers who have known nothing other than a life of dead-end, low-wage jobs will quickly find themselves out of poverty.

The jobs created through shortening the workweek would provide a basis for the creation of a massive public works program aimed at rebuilding and expanding the city’s crumbling infrastructure and public services. Construction and cleanup teams to rebuild neighborhoods and affordable housing, and expanded crews to repair and maintain the city’s roads would be priorities for this kind of program.

A key part of a public works program would be rebuilding and expanding the Detroit public schools. Construction and repair teams under the direction of the program would be sent into every neighborhood throughout the school district to either repair or expand school facilities—or build them anew. New schools with state-of-the-art facilities and technology, more classrooms allowing for smaller class sizes, before- and after-school programs, breakfast, lunch and dinner programs, tutoring and mentoring, and restored bus service would be the immediate benefits from such a plan.

Another key part of this public works program would be the expansion of the public transit system. Mass transit is already used by thousands of workers in this area as their primary means of transport; this system would be expanded and upgraded to meet the needs of all workers. Bus service would be increased on all routes and priority given to those lines that pass by or end at the various plants and workplaces in the city. The old diesel buses would be replaced by ones using alternative, clean-burning fuels; this would help cut the pollution levels in the city.

A public works program designed to benefit working people would necessarily include oversight and control by the unions involved. Union committees should have the ability to review all of the different parts of the program, and change the direction of them if they think it is necessary. The right of review includes the opening of the books of any corporation, financial institution or public agency participating in or comprising a part of the program. As well, union committees should have the right to recommend that any corporation or financial institution involved in the public works program that is being mismanaged by the bosses be taken over and placed under the control of the union committees.

Winning the “battle for democracy”

A mass working-class movement would not simply be a movement for better economic conditions, but the defender of the democratic rights and civil liberties of working people. Politics is concentrated economics; any movement that wants to fight for real, lasting economic gains has to wage a political battle. Any movement involving the masses of working people must address the outstanding issues of democracy that exist, especially among the oppressed sections of our class.

Basic questions of formal democracy—the right to vote, speak out and organize—must not only be defended but also expanded, and previous losses reversed. Democratic control over public services begins with the formation of union committees to oversee daily functioning. These committees, in turn, need to work with community organizations and elected neighborhood councils to coordinate and plan out how these services operate. As well, it means the restoration of elected bodies, like the Detroit Public School Board and the Local School-Community Organizations, previously dismantled by the bosses.

The rights of workers to speak freely, meet and organize—including the right to dissent—must not only be defended, but expanded and strengthened. In the name of “America’s new war,” the bosses are forcibly disarming and disorganizing the working class. This assault on democracy is necessary because revenge and grief (two emotions that fuel workers support for the “war on terrorism”) are fleeting. As the bosses and their armies march from battle to battle, the need for maintaining the facade of “unity” under the heel of “security” increases. A mass working-class movement must win the “battle for democracy” and become the central defender of civil liberties.

Defending democracy, however, remains only a liberal exercise unless it becomes identified with the fight for genuine social equality and liberation from oppression. The most oppressed and exploited sectors of our class, in spite of how much they may support the war, will feel the crack of the whip as much as if they were in sharp opposition. The government either supports openly or maintains a friendly neutrality toward attacks based on race, nationality, gender and sexuality. Whether these attacks come from the halls of the Supreme Court or the Board of Directors matters little. What matters is that the working class unites in a common struggle against these attacks.

The formation of committees, organized by the unions, to monitor and investigate incidents of racism, sexism, national chauvinism and homophobia would be an important first step toward a mass working-class movement winning the confidence and support of the masses of oppressed workers. These working class civil rights committees would serve multiple roles: as open forums for debating questions of oppression within the working class, as commissions of inquiry into the forms of oppression used by the bosses (e.g., environmental racism), and as organizing centers for building a working class response to the daily oppression faced by millions of our brothers and sisters.

As well, the fight against oppression and for genuine equality neither begins nor ends at the factory gate. Workers civil rights committees need to exist both within and outside of the workplace. In the workplace, civil rights committees should serve the same function as they would in the community. The civil rights committee in the workplace should be independent formations with the right to stop production in the same way that health and safety committees can.

The question of police violence encompasses both issues of basic democracy and the struggle against oppression. The daily repression carried out by the cops in the community is meant to reinforce the exploitation and oppression workers face on the job. As working people choose to rebel against worsening economic and political conditions, the bosses rely less on “official” leaders to restrain struggles and more on naked police violence and terror.

Abolishing the police, while maintaining the bosses government, will not solve the problem. In such a situation, they would simply choose to employ private forces to fulfill the same role. As well, “civilian review” and “community control” of the police do not resolve the outstanding issues of oppression. Hard experience has shown that such review does next to nothing to actually stop police violence; the police murder of Amadou Diallo serves as the epitaph of “civilian review.” Police violence and terrorism can only be eliminated through the elimination of capitalism and the state that serves it.

Until that time comes, in those communities where police violence is a consistent problem, the formation of workers self-defense becomes necessary. As much as a picket line needs to be defended from cops, scabs and other hired thugs, working class communities must be defended in the same manner. Independent community patrols, organized and coordinated by the unions, would defend against incidents of racial profiling, harassment, extortion, beatings and killings.

Making it all possible

There is no doubt that such a program seems ambitious. And yet, it only begins to address the needs of working people in Detroit. However, two questions may immediately come to mind. The first is, how does Detroit, with a $65 million deficit, manage to implement these ambitious, yet necessary, programs?

The bosses made this mess. It was their drive for ever larger profits that not only forced us to work longer hours for less pay but also glutted a shrinking market with products we either don’t need or cannot afford. It was their chaotic mismanagement, fueled by the drive for profits, which has led to thousands of layoffs, plant closings and “bubbles” bursting.

One way or another, workers will have to clean up this mess. After all, how many of us can actually picture the CEOs of GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, etc., patching potholes or picking up garbage? The question within the question, though, is whether or not we workers will pay for the “pleasure” of cleaning up their mess.

The bosses would like us to pay for it—whether we want to or not. That is why when corporations talk about “cutting costs” they usually mean cutting jobs (or wages, or benefits, or all of the above).

Revolutionary socialists, on the other hand, believe that the workers should not pay one cent for the bosses’ mismanagement and crisis. The very capitalist principle of, “You break it, you buy it,” should apply. They created the economic crisis, they trashed the future of thousands across Detroit (millions across the country, billions around the world) while securing their own, and they bled the city dry by demanding more and more free money from the government coffers. Now, they must pay for the cleanup.

The system of tax breaks, loopholes and “corporate welfare” must immediately end, and be replaced by a heavy tax on the bosses and their corporations (legitimate and otherwise). All loopholes must be closed; all tax shelters must be demolished. And, in case the bosses get any bright ideas about pulling stakes and running, a 100 percent “withdrawal tax” on them and their companies.

“That all sounds good,” you might say. “But how do you get to that point?” And that is the second question: What do we need to do today to prepare the ground for such a movement? A mass working-class movement, with a clear direction, does not develop overnight. It takes work and preparation. For militant workers, for revolutionary socialists, it is this work that lies ahead.

This work begins in the unions. In spite of the limitations of the labor movement: the bureaucracy, the collaboration between the top leaders and the bosses, the relatively small percentage of workers they actually represent, it remains the most organized section of the working class. This base organization can serve as a launching pad for broader, more militant forms of organization.

As long as revolutionary socialists remain a minority in the union movement and working class in general, it remains necessary to place demands on the “official” leaderships of the unions in order to build mass struggles. This is not to say that we are limited to such appeals alone; rather, demanding action from the union leaders raises the question for the rank and file: “Who defends our interests?”

For example; revolutionary socialists should be demanding that the leaders of the various city workers unions, the teachers union, the hospital unions, the Teamsters, and the UAW begin to organize a response to the demands of the Kilpatrick administration. Solidarity agreements, pledges to support strike action by any one of the unions, and joint councils to coordinate action would begin to draw together organized labor in the area into a single fist.

At the same time, revolutionary socialists would be calling for meetings of the rank and file of the various unions under attack. The goals of these meetings would be to bring together the active membership of the union to discuss strategies and different forms of action to take. These rank and file meetings could also develop demands, proposals for action, etc., to place before the union leaders.

Developing strong links between the city workers unions and the tens of thousands of UAW workers in the Detroit area is central to building a working class movement against layoffs, privatization and cuts. The UAW leaders like to tout the union as being as much a “social justice movement” as it is a union. Revolutionary socialists and militant workers should tell them to put their money where their mouth is. Even a symbolic show of strength similar to those often put on by the Canadian Auto Workers across the river in Ontario would go a long way toward building solidarity across industrial lines.

Pointing the way

Getting the bureaucrats at the head of the various unions to meet together and pass a few resolutions, or make a symbolic show of solidarity and power, is one thing. To maintain such a momentum, not to mention accelerating it, requires something the bureaucrats cannot provide—an uncompromising leadership, based on the rank and file and armed with the right program. In short, what is needed is a class-struggle leadership.

A class-struggle movement in the unions necessarily starts out in the minority. The success of a class-struggle opposition in organized labor does not depend simply on its ability to convince unionists of the correctness of its positions. Such a passive approach goes nowhere. Its success lies in the ability of the oppositionists to prove themselves as the best fighters and defenders of the working class—both organized and unorganized. The growth and success of a class-struggle opposition depends on the ability of the unions to broaden and deepen themselves, drawing millions of previously unorganized workers into organizations and actions.

The converse is also true; the ability of the unions to draw new sections of the working class to their banner depends on the level of militancy of those organizations. The experiences of both the Teamsters and the UAW in the 1930s confirm this, both in the positive and in the negative.

But even a union with the most militant leadership can only lead the working class so far. The tasks and composition of a union rule them out as vehicles for fundamental change. What is needed is a political organization armed with a program that points the way forward out of the vicious circle of war, poverty, and oppression, and composed of workers who not only understand how and why society moves in certain ways but can also apply that understanding to daily struggles. What is needed is a revolutionary workers’ party.





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