Make Detroit the engine 
of a Green New Deal

Statement of Metro Detroit DSA on GM’s announced closure 
of the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly (Poletown) plant

The Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly (Poletown) plant is one of 5 plants in North America slated for closure.

General Motors recently announced that in 2019, it plans to lay off over 14,000 workers and close down at least 5 manufacturing facilities in the United States and Canada. This includes the local Poletown plant, which produces the Volt, an electric car.

The announcement is yet another slap in the face to auto workers, Detroiters, and the taxpayers of the United States, who have given so much to GM. Thirty-seven years ago, the city of Detroit used eminent domain to gift GM the historic Poletown neighborhood, destroying an entire community so that GM could build the plant it now wants to shutter. A mere ten years ago, federal taxpayers saved GM from imminent collapse with a $51 billion bailout. The list of giveaways and public subsidies goes on.

And how are we repaid? More layoffs and more disrespect. GM did not even bother to inform the UAW of its plan, even though it is in direct violation of the union contract, which forbids plant closings. And while the company is ending production of the Volt and other smaller-sized sedans, it will be reinvesting in gas-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs, revealing its commitment to a “zero emissions” future to be a complete sham. In short, GM has abdicated even the most basic of commitments to our society and the planet.

To add insult to injury, the layoffs and plant closures come at a time when GM is reporting record profits and its CEO, Mary Barra, enjoys an annual compensation package of $22 million. After Barra announced the layoffs, GM’s stock prices spiked by over 5%.

The responses of our political leaders to this latest outrage have been mixed. Some have begged GM not to leave — to spare their communities further pain. Others have lamented that this is not how capitalism is supposed to work. According to Congressman Joe Kennedy III, “Our nation deserves a better capitalism — a moral capitalism.”

With all due respect to the Congressman from Massachusetts: There is no such thing as “moral” capitalism. Stealing value from workers to enrich shareholders is not an accident — it’s exactly how capitalism is designed to operate.

If there is any silver lining to this tragedy, it’s that it clarifies the relationship between us ordinary people and corporations like GM. What is good for GM and its executives is not what is good for us. And it makes clear that we don’t need to worry about saving capitalism from itself any longer. We need to save ourselves from capitalism.

While the road ahead is long, it starts with rejecting the idea that our problems will be magically solved through “free” markets and “free” trade. It also means dispensing with the idea that corporations and billionaires know what is best. As GM has shown for the last several decades, corporations don’t know what is best for us — and they don’t care. The motivation of every billionaire — from Dan Gilbert to Jeff Bezos — is simple: to turn a profit, and to do so off of every conceivable human endeavor. Their “development” projects are profit-making scams, plain and simple; they will not save us or our communities.

In the early 1980s, Poletown residents fought valiantly against the loss of their homes, churches, and way of life. They lost the battle to GM, but the struggle continues today with us, as we face growing inequality and poverty rates, declining life expectancies, and a looming climate catastrophe. There remain powerful forces, here in Detroit and around the world, hellbent on turning every last shred of the public good — our schools, water, utilities, roads, downtowns — over to unaccountable private corporations. They say privatization and corporate subsidies support “economic growth” and “create jobs.” But the people of Detroit — who watched the senseless destruction of Poletown — know this is a lie.

Sticker made by activists resisting the destruction of the Poletown neighborhood. Courtesy Reuther Archives.

As democratic socialists, we believe that the Poletown plant rightfully belongs not to GM but to the workers who labored within it for generations and the taxpayers who bailed it out. Indeed, the workers who staged the successful sit-down strike at GM’s factories in 1936 also believed that the plants belonged to them and their families. They harnessed that conviction to achieve successes for labor — at the height of the Great Depression — that would be almost unthinkable today. In resisting GM’s latest assault on workers, the UAW should aspire to this same level of militancy, staging walkouts, slowdowns, and plant occupations to galvanize the rank and file, and draw public attention to their struggle.

As democratic socialists, we also call on our local government — Mayor Duggan and the City Council — to immediately seize the Poletown plant and put it to public use. Surely, if the city could use eminent domain to take property from the citizens of Poletown and give it to a corporation in the 1980s, it can use eminent domain today to take that property back and return it to the people.

The last thing Detroiters need is another rotting hulk in the middle of our city. We must convert the Poletown plant into a publicly-owned green energy hub, and put our citizens to work making the products and infrastructure we need to survive as a species. Wind turbines; solar panels; electric cars, buses, and batteries; high-speed rail cars are all possibilities. During World War II, car factories were retooled in a matter of months to support the war effort. This is the scale of ambition we need today if we are going to avert climate catastrophe and rehabilitate the economies of the Rust Belt. Let’s start that green revolution here in Detroit. That would be a real comeback for the city.

We also demand that our federal representatives use GM’s misdeeds to start a long-overdue conversation about how to plan our national economy in a sustainable, just, and democratic way. Congress must adopt a “Green New Deal” that puts Americans back to work creating a green economy for all. The Green New Deal should include, among other things, a comprehensive federal jobs guarantee — with a livable wage of $15 an hour and federally provided health insurance — for all who want to work. Such a policy would set a dignified floor on wages and benefits, and drive up compensation in the private sector, something that has not occurred in this country for decades.

Let’s stop investing in corporations that do not care for us, and start investing in ourselves, our futures, and our planet. Workers of Detroit — and around the world — demand and deserve no less.

As we look for allies in the battle against GM, Autoworkers Caravan is one: a caucus in the UAW that for years has been pushing the union to be more active in defending the interests of workers. Caravan founder Wendy Thompson writes:

Autoworkers Caravan started 10 years ago during the GM bankruptcy crisis. While the UAW leadership was functioning like a junior partner of the company, a group of 20 rank-and-file workers organized a caravan to Washington, D.C. for the congressional bankruptcy hearings. We marched with a banner, visited senators’ offices and held a press conference. We defended our pensions and demanded that Social Security expand to pensions for all. We defended our health benefits, demanding Medicare for all. We demanded conversion of plants to build electric buses and cars, high-speed trains and wind turbines. Since then, we have kept an active presence in the UAW — opposing concessions and promoting democracy — with monthly conference calls, a Facebook page and a list-serv, as well as many demonstrations at the Auto Show.

Past demonstration by Autoworkers Caravan activists. Photo: Frank Hammer