Rashida Tlaib and Poletown worker Sean Crawford speak out on factory closings

by Mike Espejo

One of the five factories General Motors will shutter next year, Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly, is the very plant that GM destroyed an entire community to build 37 years ago. A second is also in metro Detroit, in Warren.

On December 18 Metro Detroit DSA and a coalition of partners held a community discussion to air grievances and strategize for taking action. A key part of the evening, attended by more than 250 people, was a screening of the recently restored 1982 documentary Poletown Lives!, which follows the residents of the Poletown neighborhood as they fight a corporate giant and the city government that arranged their eviction.

After the screening, co-director George Corsetti, Detroit/Hamtramck worker Sean Crawford, and Representative-elect Rashida Tlaib opened up the floor.

“I believe it is time to strike and stand up to GM,” said Tlaib. “Not only did they get $50 billion to bail them out of bankruptcy, our workers gave up a huge amount of concessions in exchange that they wouldn’t close any other plants.”

“I love my union and a lot of what I have in my life is because of the labor movement,” said Crawford. “I remember being on the picket line with my mother…it showed me the power of working class people when we stick together. Why aren’t we striking? They’re slapping us in the face.”

The story of Poletown is critical to understanding the relationship between capital and labor in Detroit. Those who lived through it will never forget the demolition of homes, stores, schools, and churches, or the 29-day sit-in by elderly women at the Church of the Immaculate Conception — a last-ditch effort to save the last remaining symbol of their community.

As shown in Poletown Lives!, the major players in Detroit politics offered no solidarity with residents. From Coleman Young’s City Hall to the UAW leadership, the pleas of Poletown residents fell on deaf ears. It seems they could not resist the allure of those magic words, “job creation.”

The story now comes full circle, beginning and ending with the destruction of a community, all in the name of economic development that did not materialize. Sixty-five hundred jobs were promised — though most of those would be transferring from two old GM plants replaced by the new one. But the factory never reached those numbers, and today employs just 1,350 blue-collar workers.

Tlaib made clear a distinct connection between what happened in 1981 and the issues still plaguing Michigan — water shutoffs, tax incentives for sports arenas, and lead-poisoned water are all systemic problems rooted in a power struggle between those in power and the rest of us.

“There are winners and losers in neighborhoods,” said Tlaib. “If you look at the Marathon oil refinery in Southwest Detroit, they were bringing in tar sands into Detroit in exchange for a hundred jobs…but [an audit] showed it only brought 15 jobs.” The city gave Marathon a $175 million tax break.

“The problem is capitalism,” insisted Corsetti.

Members of the audience proposed a variety of next steps, including a strike of all Big Three workers, the citizens of Detroit claiming eminent domain to take back the plant for production of green vehicles, and a demonstration at the North American International Auto Show on January 18.