April 27 march draws hundreds from across state; another protest May 7 when Ricktator Snyder comes to town
By Diane Bukowski
BENTON HARBOR – Hundreds of protesters from all over Michigan marched through the streets of downtown Benton Harbor April 27 to oppose the first “coup d’etat” carried out under Michigan’s Public Act 4, by emergency manager Joe Harris. They came from Benton Harbor, as well as Detroit, Muskegon, Port Huron, and other cities that residents fear may be in line for the EM guillotine.
Harris, who was Detroit’s Auditor General for 10 years, and briefly served as its Chief Financial Officer, issued an order April 14 suspending the powers of all Benton Harbor officials, except to call meetings to order, approve minutes, and adjourn. (Click on Benton Harbor order to read full text.)
“The fact of the matter is the city is in state receivership,” Harris told Fox 2 News April 25. “[The officials] were effectively fired by the state legislature. PA 4 of 2011 stripped all local government legislators and the mayors and city officials of the power they once had.”
(Ed. note: Harris’ quote is inaccurate, since PA 4 calls first for local governments to be put into receivership, although it broadens the state’s power to do so. Former Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, put Benton Harbor in receivership last year.)
Another rally is set for Sat. May 7, to protest Governor Rick Snyder’s appearance as the grandmaster of the area’s annual Grand Floral Parade in neighboring wealthy and majority white St. Joseph, across the river from Benton Harbor. (See flier below story). The area’s State Rep. Al Pscholka (R), who sponsored the original PA 4 legislation, will also attend.
Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor NAACP, told the crowd April 27 that the takeover has been in the works for years, saying it is motivated by corporate greed.
“I was telling folks about a hostile takeover years ago, and they all said I was a madman,” Pinkney said. “I was talking about Whirlpool years ago, and they said I was crazy. If we had no lakefront land, we would not be the target of a takeover. If we had no Whirlpool, we would not have an emergency manager. We have a dictatorship and martial law now. Whirlpool is not only the enemy of Benton Harbor, it is the enemy of the world.”
Whirlpool’s global headquarters is located in this desperately poor, majority African-American city. U.S. Congressman Fred Upton (R-6th District), who represents Benton Harbor, is an heir to the Whirlpool fortune.
Pinkney said Whirlpool pays no taxes to support the struggling city, but gets free water. The company long ago shut down all its manufacturing facilities in Benton Harbor, which previously provided work for its residents.
Pinkney and others led protests against the opening of the Harbor Shores golf course and luxury home complex, backed by Whirlpool, last year. They border directly on Jean Klock Park, a gorgeous beach with a stunning view of Lake Michigan, which has been been publicly-owned since it was deeded to the city in 1917.
Whirlpool now wants the park as well, but Benton Harbor residents are pursuing a federal lawsuit against the park’s privatization. (Go to http://www.protectjkp.com/ for details on the lawsuit, which is currently awaiting a hearing before the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.)
Heartland Revolution, US Uncut, We Are the People, and others in Michigan also helped lead the protest. The first two organizations are sponsoring a campaign for a referendum to repeal PA 4 (go to http://www.facebook.com/rejectemergencymanagers for more information).
“The EM is not here to balance the budget, he was sent here for power and control,” life-long Benton Harbor resident George Moon told VOD. “In 2008, when Whirlpool and the state couldn’t buy out the city commissioners, they brought in an emergency financial manager. I don’t think you can allow one guy to come in and dissolve the government, tear up the city charter, and tear up union contracts. That’s a violation of our civil rights.”
Moon said when Harris first appeared on the scene, appointed by Governor Jennifer Granholm, he met with Marcus Robinson, Whirlpool’s liaison with the city, the Cornerstone Alliance, and Harbor Shores developers.
“Not one citizen was invited,” Moon said. “When I asked him to come and meet and greet with us, he didn’t show up.”
Resident Marquette Coates said, “We need to act NOW. Joe Harris needs to go. There are no jobs here, he’s not for the people, and we are going to be depressed and oppressed.”
Cecily McClellan, Vice-President of the Association of Professional and Technical Employees (APTE), represents Detroit city workers. She brought a delegation from Detroit to the march, which she fired up with chants of “Get up, stand up, Benton Harbor, stand up for your rights,” and “This is what democracy looks like.”
She spoke at a rally at the conclusion of the march, crying out, “Benton Harbor is Ground Zero. Today it’s Benton Harbor, tomorrow it will be our cities.”
Harris was Detroit’s auditor general for ten years, ran for mayor, and then served briefly as its chief financial officer under interim Mayor Kenneth Cockrel, Jr. During his terms in office, Harris repeatedly called for deeper cuts to the budget than those proposed by the mayors, and spoke out against city workers and unions.
In 2009, he told WJR Radio that Detroit should be in receivership.
“What you need is a person that is in charge that is not making decisions based on the politics,” Harris told WJR. “Because you have no idea how much pressure is exerted by the unions. …You need somebody who’s willing to be a one term mayor.”
He told Fox 2 in his April 25 interview, “Detroit is on the verge of having some type of financial intervention. It may not be and probably will not be as I understand it an emergency manager. What I understand is that the governor and the mayor are trying to work out some type of agreement where there is a Memorandum of Understanding where the mayor will get support by the state to help him accomplish his goals. It’s my opinion that the Mayor cannot save the city at this point— and the reason is because you have to change the terms of the collective bargaining agreements. Unions typically do not take a back step, they do not step backwards, they do not accept concessions.”
In fact, the city’s unions have been accepting concessions beginning in 1977. Then, under former Mayor Coleman Young, they gave up cost-of-living increases and agreed to a two-tier wage structure for new employees. The pattern had just been set in the private sector by the United Auto Workers (UAW).
In 1992, after the city’s largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) voted down a 10 percent pay cut, Wall Street downgraded the city’s bond ratings and Young laid off its entire clerical staff for 10 months. Most city clerical workers now earn wages below the poverty level for a family of four. After privatization and lay-offs, AFSCME now represents about 3500 workers, down from nearly 7,000 in 1992.
In his State of the City address in March, Mayor Dave Bing called on the unions to reopen contracts to make even more concessions.