by Jamison Maeda
In 1936, auto workers at the General Motors Fisher Body Plant Number One staged the now famous Flint Sit Down Strike. This was a dangerous time to stage a strike in the auto industry. Local politicians were controlled by General Motors, and spies were hired to work undercover in the plants to gather intelligence about anyone attempting to unionize. But on the evening of 30 December, employees stopped work, locked themselves in the plant, and the sit-down strike began.
A few weeks into the strike President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged General Motors to agree to their terms and to recognize the United Auto Workers Union. The Flint Sit Down Strike lasted 44 days and only ended when General Motors agreed to establish of a fair minimum wage scale, and improve working conditions as well as workers’ safety.
Flint’s victory spread across the United States. Unions established a 40 hour work week, and significantly raised wages. “Flint’s heyday was a time of extraordinary prosperity and optimism of the future,” said former mayor of Flint, Dayne Walling. “Because the sit-downers won the right to bargain with General Motors, every major American manufacturing company had to follow suit, which created a national middle class.”
This was an enormous victory for unions and could have had a positive impact for generations of workers. However, General Motors, as large corporations are infamously known to do, began closing plants in Flint and moving operations to developing countries and non-union states. Once employing as many as 80,000 Flint residents, General Motors cut jobs and continued to cut jobs for decades until only 8,000 plant workers remained. Flint descended from the once beaming example of a middle class city to a tale of severe unemployment and poverty. On top of already crippling economic challenges, it’s been discovered that Flint’s water has been poisoned.
Who Poisoned the Water in Flint?
To understand Flint’s water crisis, we must first look back to 2012 when the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, in the middle of the night, signed a law that would give him the power to overturn elections and replace elected officials with “emergency managers” appointed by him. The law is called Public Act 436 and includes an appropriation making it immune to referendums. Political analysts watched in awe as this law passed, calling it “the single most radical policy” in modern American history as it effectively replaces democracy with authoritarian rule.
With this new authority, Governor Snyder appointed an emergency manager to the city of Flint. And in the spring of 2014, this manager switched Flint’s water source from lake water piped in from Detroit to water from the Flint River. The problem with this is that river water is significantly saltier than lake water. The pipes in Flint quickly became corroded and lead began leaching into the water.
What happened to the People of Flint?
Within weeks, residents were reporting that the water from their taps was discolored and smelled foul. Boil-water notices were issued to residents after their drinking water tested positive for coliform bacteria. Soon after, the General Motors engine plant stopped using Flint’s water and trucking in water from another source because they said Flint’s water was corroding their parts.
In 2015 Flint’s government officials advises the public that the water quality had improved and meets all state and federal standards. But a group of doctors warned Flint residents to immediately stop drinking Flint’s water because high levels of lead was found in the blood of local children. A spike in Legionnaire’s Disease occurs in the community. Ten people died from it. The drinking water in Flint has been contaminated with lead.
Our Children Have Been Poisoned
The Flint, Michigan has been drinking poisoned water for nearly a year and a half. Residents are sick from drinking it. They suffer from rashes and lesions on their skin, and hair loss. All of the children in Flint have been poisoned by the lead in their water, and lead does not flush out of the body. It will always be there. This is especially catastrophic for young children because it generally leads to permanent brain damage, learning disabilities, and significant emotional and behavioral issues.
Religious groups, professional athletes, and celebrities like Pearl Jam and Cher have joined thousands of ordinary people in donating bottled water to Flint. Residents drink, bathe, and cook with donated bottled water, but shockingly they still have to pay their water bill. In fact, as our friends from the Detroit Water Brigade have informed us, in the United States, if you do not have running water in your home the state can take your children away. A home without running water is considered “unsafe.” And despite the fact that Flint residents have to use bottled water, they pay some of the highest water charges in the U.S.
When control of your drinking water is taken away, it is very difficult to get that control back. We have seen that when the people lose ownership of their water, the quality goes down and the cost goes up. Please do not assume that because you live in a developed country that you will always have access to drinking water.
Ireland has had several massive protests to abolish water charges, the most recent being on 23 January. But the battle for water is far from over. Do not give up control of your water. Do not let decisions about water be removed from the democratic process. And do not stop telling your elected officials that from Bolivia, to Flint, from DETROIT TO DUBLIN, water is a human right!