Marchers demand no sell-out by unions, pension systems in secret talks
By Diane Bukowski
May 2, 2014
DETROIT – As “retiree groups” allegedly began caving in to a Detroit bankruptcy deal, thousands of marchers, largely city retirees, blocked traffic downtown and invaded the corridors of Chase Bank and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s residence May 1. They chanted, “No Pensions, No Peace,” “Show Orr the Door,” and called on retirees to VOTE NO on any deal.
“May Day! May Day!” cried city retiree Ezza Brandon, who co-chaired a kick-off rally at Hart Plaza with Abayomi Azikiwe of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition.
“What happened to our rights under the state Constitution?” Brandon asked. “They want retirees to take pension cuts of 4.5 percent, then go back 10 years for another 28 to 29 percent from our annuities, while the banks get 75 to 100 cents on the dollar. Their wasteful spending on consultants is only eclipsed by their brutal attacks on our seniors. Vote NO on the Plan of Adjustment!”
Protester Jan Kruszewski said, “[Detroit creditor] UBS has been found guilty of $1.5 billion worth of municipal fraud, along with many other banks. They should be thrown in jail, not bailed out.” Another speaker pointed out that Vietnam recently sentenced criminal bankers to death.
The marchers, representing a broad spectrum of grass-roots and national community, legal and religious groups, started the day with an “Ecumenical Unity Breakfast” at UAW Local 600’s Dearborn headquarters, then caravanned downtown to Hart Plaza.
CalPERS, Nat’l Retirement Conference sue to support Detroit retirees
The same day, the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), the world’s largest pension system, and The National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems filed scathing critiques of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ eligibility decision in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Their amicus briefs, supporting appeals by Detroit’s retirement systems and unions, said Rhodes’ ruling essentially makes Chapter 9 bankruptcy illegal under the U.S. Constitution, and called for its immediate reversal. The suits constituted the first concrete, substantial national showing of support for Detroiters under attack.
If unions and “retiree groups” participating in ongoing secret mediation sessions on the Detroit bankruptcy agree to a deal, they would have to withdraw the Sixth Circuit appeals and forego that support. They would also have to deny that the Michigan Constitution firmly guarantees public employee pensions under Article 9, Sec. 24, a key issue in the amicus filings. (More on these briefs at conclusion of this story.)
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh is hearing a class action suit challenging the constitutionality of Public Act 436, the Emergency Manager law which was used to declare Detroit bankrupt. (See separate story to come.)
Hart Plaza rally – “Detroit is Ground Zero”
“We have the right to democratic and constitutional rule, and to have our unions protected,” Detroit City Councilwoman Emeritus JoAnn Watson told the Hart Plaza rally. “Our children are being assaulted under EM rule, even though 2.3 million Michigan residents voted NO to emergency managers.”
Elena Herrada, a Detroit School Board member in exile while EM Jack Martin runs the Detroit Public Schools, said Mayor Mike Duggan plans to snatch DPS up under his rule.
“Evict Kevyn Orr from OUR building, the Coleman A. Young Center,” Jerry Cullens of Detroit Eviction Defense (DED) demanded. He said he joined DED when they mobilized dozens against the police to stop the eviction of his family from their home, one of tens of thousands of evictions which have devastated Detroit and suburban neighborhoods.
Cecily McClellan of the Detroit Concerned Citizens and Retirees was forced to retire when the city shut down its Human Services, Health and Workforce Development Departments, all nearly 100 percent federally funded.
“Detroit is Ground Zero in this national attack orchestrated by the Koch Brothers and ALEC,” McClellan said.“It’s based on divide and conquer, just like the whole country was, because Detroit is mostly Black. The retirement systems are worth $6 billion that they want so they can skim their money off the top. It’s about a wealth transfer by the super ungodly rich.”
ALEC is the powerful, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, which holds secret meetings involving corporations and state legislators who draft ‘model bills’ to benefit corporate profits at public expense.
Boycott churches if they don’t join fight to save Detroit
Rev. Ed Rowe of Central United Methodist Church fired up the crowd, striding back and forth as he declared, “I don’t live in a bankrupt city; I live in a city that is run by a morally, spiritually and physically bankrupt system.”
He called on protesters to get their ministers and pastors to throw the full weight of their churches against the assault on Detroit, or to cease attending and funding those churches.
Representing Detroit youth, Demeeko Williams of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM), said, “They want to take away our rights and jobs and throw us in prison. We’ve got to take our city back! Take back Belle Isle!”
Since EM Orr gave the State of Michigan an open-ended, unpaid “lease” on the island in February, state troopers have shown an increasingly aggressive presence there. The arrests of over 200 largely Black males so far have been reported. Meanwhile, a huge blue State Police prisoner bus stands in the parking lot of the island’s casino.
A representative also spoke on behalf of undocumented workers in Detroit, who daily face mass deportations facilitated by police, sheriffs and the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division.
Marchers block streets, occupy Chase Bank, Orr’s home at Book Cadillac
A well-orchestrated campaign of civil disobedience then took off. (See photo at top of story.)
Protesters moved out onto Jefferson Avenue, spreading their banners and signs across its entire southern width. Although one Detroit police officer tried to get a driver to run down a marcher, law enforcement eventually backed off and re-routed incoming traffic from the John Lodge freeway.
“Ain’t no confusion, pensions are in the constitution,” marchers chanted. “Hey Judge Rhodes, our rights won’t be sold. Bail out Detroit, not the banks!”
The blockade continued for half an hour as police sirens wailed. Then marchers turned down Woodward, blocking that street as they headed for Chase Bank’s Detroit headquarters. Without pause, they invaded the broad marble lobby of the bank, carrying their banners and picket signs and loudly chanting.
Eventually, the entire lobby was filled with demonstrators as bank security guards locked doors into the teller area and stood back, unsure what to do.
The street blockaders then took off down Fort to the Westin Book-Cadillac hotel at Washington Blvd. Here EM Kevyn Orr lives in a luxury suite paid for by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, while selling off and privatizing Detroit assets including the Detroit Water and Sewerage, Public Works, and Public Lighting Departments, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Belle Isle.
Here and in the city’s own offices, Orr consults with the partners of Jones Day, his allegedly “former” law firm which along with Miller Canfield, Ernst & Young, Conway McMenzie and /Stiffel have presented themselves as the legal representatives of the City of Detroit in bankruptcy proceedings.
Marchers crowded outside, then proceeded straight through the doors of the hotel, packing the entire circular lobby with signs raised, chanting “Not one penny, not one dime, stealing pensions is a crime!” and “No more Orr—show him the door!”
Despite some shoving by hotel security, no one was arrested, and the crowd emerged triumphant at the end.
“Dan Gilbert—shame on you! Housing is a right!”
The blockade proceeded down Washington Blvd. to Capitol Park, which billionaire racist Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Greektown Casino, and swaths of downtown Detroit property, is seeking to turn into a residential and playground area for well-to-do whites.
Developers associated with Gilbert are evicting over 180 senior, disabled and largely Black Section 8 residents of the Griswold Apartments, many of whom have lived there for up to 30 years in beautiful large apartments with stunning views of downtown Detroit.
Gilbert infamously excoriated Miami Heat basketball star LeBron James for leaving the Cavaliers, comments which many civil rights leaders took as plantation-owner treatment of Cavaliers basketball players.
Ironically, Gilbert has since condemned L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his recent similarly racist rant. In a statement, Gilbert’s office said, “The diverse staff members of the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise are unified in encouraging commissioner Silver and the NBA to respond with swift and appropriate action consistent with a strong zero tolerance approach to this type of reprehensible behavior.”
VOD earlier raised complaints about picture window sized ads for “The Albert,” the new name for the complex, which depicted all white residents and patrons, a violation of the U.S. Fair Housing Act. Ironically, the developers have redone the ads to show multi-racial residents, at the same time they are forcing multi-racial long-time tenants out.
Griswold Apartments, LLC, the alleged developer, received a 10-year tax break from the Detroit City Council last November after Ted Phillips of the United Community Housing Coalition assured the Council that his group would find other non-downtown placements for the tenants.
As they passed the Griswold Apartments, marchers chanted, “Shut down Capitol Park, shut down GM! May Day every day! Occupy the USA!”
Marchers then took Shelby to Fort Street to block traffic outside the Federal Courthouse on W. Lafayette where bankruptcy proceedings are being held, for an extended period of time.
The marchers spread across the street while police, taken off guard by the winding nature of the march, rushed cruisers and mounted cops over to the scene, seeking to block the demonstrators’ exit at the west end of Fort.However, the march adroitly snaked through an opening and re-took the streets, proceeding back to Woodward Ave.
Back down Woodward to rally at Hazen Pingree statue
The marchers resumed their journey to Woodward Avenue, where their full numbers could be seen. Black, white, young, old, babies, seniors, retirees and their supporters, they demanded to know, “Land of the Free? Where’s our democracy?” and “Make the Banks Pay!”
They appropriately concluded their downtown occupation at the feet of the statue of former Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree, which bears a plaque calling him the “people’s mayor.” It says, “He was the first to warn the people of the great danger threatened by private corporations.”
After the 1891 “Trolley Car Riot,” Pingree helped establish the public sector in Detroit, including the Detroit Street Railways (DSR), meant to be just that, the Public Lighting Department, originally meant to power all city residences, and Detroit Receiving Hospital, which remained public until it was taken over in 1980 by the Detroit Medical Center. With current Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at the helm of the DMC, it became part of a for-profit hedge-funded corporation.
The Rev. Charles Williams, Michigan coordinator of the National Action Network, addressed the group, among others.
“Fifty years ago, your people and activists from across the country left their homes to fight for voting rights in the South,” Williams recalled. “But here we are 50 years later still fighting to protect the voting rights of people in Michigan and in Detroit. We are going to continue to protest and march in the spirit of civil disobedience, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., SNCC and the SCLC. You ain’t seen nothing yet!”
Undefatigable activist Monica Lewis Patrick said, “This is all about you and your children, to make sure that they have pensions too. Don’t give in to the tyranny of austerity. The financial crisis was manufactured by the banks. Most of you have been on the front lines for a long time, resisting, unifying, fighting back. Don’t you back up! This is the beginning, not the end. We still have not put all our feet on the ground. Go out in the neighborhoods, talk to your families, your friends and your neighbors. Many of them don’t know, and they don’t know that they don’t know.”
Some groups who organized march with contact info and meeting times:
Moratorium NOW! and Stop the Theft of Our Pensions: Phone: 313-680-5508 http://moratorium-mi.org/ Meets every Monday night at 7 p.m. at 5920 Second Avenue, Detroit, MI
Detroit Concerned Citizens and Retirees: Phone 313-444-0061; Meets Mondays at 11 a.m. at N’namdi’s, 12511 Woodward Ave. Highland Park, MI
National Action Network, Detroit Chapter: http://nationalactionnetwork.net/chapter/nan-detroit-chapter-51013/ Meets every Saturday at 10 a.m. at Historic King Solomon Baptist Church, 6100 14th St, Detroit, MI 48208. (313) 355-2150
Detroit Eviction Defense: Ask for Eviction Defense at (313) 429-5009 http://detroitevictiondefense.org/ Meets every Thursday, 6 p.m. Old St John’s Church, 2120 Russell near Eastern Market Detroit
Uniting Detroiters: www.unitingdetroiters.org
Michigan Welfare Rights Organization: www.mwro.org
NAT’L RETIREMENT SYSTEMS BLAST JUDGE RHODES’ RULINGS, FILE SUIT IN SIXTH CIRCUIT TO SUPPORT DETROITERS
Retirement systems say Rhodes ruling would make Chapter 9 itself unconstitutional
Rush to bankruptcy exit must be opposed by Detroit unions, retiree groups as national support grows
By Diane Bukowski
May 2, 2013
DETROIT – Representing the first national support of substance for Detroit retirees and residents, the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), and The National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems filed amicus briefs May 1 in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court to support Detroit retirees and residents in their battle against bankruptcy and pension theft.
Michigan’s state constitutional protection of public employee pensions is central to the arguments of both groups in demanding reversal of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ ruling that Detroit is eligible for Chapter 9 bankruptcy and can cut pensions.
“The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (“CalPERS”) is the largest State-run pension system in the United States, and one of the largest sovereign pension funds in the world. . . .” says CalPERS in its 64-page brief. “It currently administers the pensions for nearly 1.7 million current and former public employees, who are drawn from over 3000 California public employers. It has been involved in at least five chapter 9 bankruptcies in California, and is currently involved in the second and third largest municipal bankruptcies in United States history–the cities of Stockton and San Bernardino.”
CalPERS, through its attorneys from K & L Gates, LLP, said that Rhodes’ decision, which authorized state officials to raid Detroit pensions, “ . . . .was the first of its kind, determining that a municipality can impair the rights of a public pension system in bankruptcy despite express State law prohibitions to the contrary.”
It notes that Rhodes’ ruling is relevant to all public pension systems nationally because it “can be misconstrued for the broad proposition that all pensions are subject to impairment under Chapter 9.” At least 24 states have provisions protecting public pensions.
The CalPERS suit says Section 903 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code “expressly preserves a State’s laws governing its creatures [i.e. municipalities] notwithstanding the filing of a chapter 9 petition. . . .the court misconstrued the Tenth Amendment and the limitations it places on a State’s ability to “consent” to violations of State laws and constitutional provisions.”
It says Rhodes’ interpretation of Section 903 would make the very existence of Chapter 9 federally unconstitutional.
“In essence, the bankruptcy court decided a constitutional question, not because it was unavoidable, but because it believed that putting the issue behind it would facilitate negotiations and the administration of the case. This was not appropriate,” said CalPERS.
The brief also questioned whether the Detroit’s “good faith” requirements were met in filing bankruptcy. “ . . . . the eligibility requirements, including good faith, must have real meaning and force,” CalPERS asserts.
It says further, “Congress envisioned that municipal debtors would come to bankruptcy with clean hands by expressly including a good faith filing requirement. Here, despite the fact that the bankruptcy court acknowledged there is “some substantial truth” in the claim that the City did not file in good faith . . . .it nonetheless concluded that the objectors had not overcome the extra-statutory “strong presumption” of a good faith filing. Exactly what the result would have been had the court not improperly injected its own notions of Congress’s purposes into the analysis is unknown, but this Court [i.e. the Sixth Circuit] should review this finding with a ‘jaded eye.'”
Opponents of the bankruptcy have argued that the Jones Day law firm and others planned the raid on the city’s pension systems as early as 2011, using Chapter 9 to circumvent state law. Detroit EM Kevyn Orr himself boasted, “Federal law trumps state law.” His “former” law firm, Jones Day, authored a “white paper” in 2011 laying out its plan for using Chapter 9 to attack public pensions, and has since gone on to use that plan to effect a takeover of Puerto Rico’s systems.
Judge Rhodes himself chaired a one-sided forum on Chapter 9 and Emergency Managers on Oct. 10, 2012, which included proponents of emergency manager rule as well as a chief witness for EM Kevyn Orr in the bankruptcy case. He did not disclose his participation. When challenged, he refused to recuse himself because of it.
The brief notes that municipalities are not merely “creatures of the state,” as Orr and his advisors contend ad nauseum, but that individuals residing in municipalities are protected by the Tenth Amendment as well.
“Because federalism’s protections are not designed solely to protect the States alone, those rights cannot be consented away by the State,” CalPERS says. “How can a State give something away that it does not solely possess? The answer is: It cannot. It is far too simplistic to say that Michigan, or any other State, by authorizing one of its creatures to file for chapter 9, consented away the enforcement of State statutory and constitutional law protecting individuals to benefit a single, financially distressed municipality.”
The National Conference on Public Employment Retirement Systems (NCPERS), with the Texas Association of Public Retiree Employment Systems, filed the second brief of 19 pages through Tarcza & Associates, based in New Orleans, LA.
In addition to points made in the CalPERS brief, it condemns the use of an unelected emergency manager, and cites the vital importance of public retiree pensions to the health of state and national economies, as well as to that of the stock market.
“In this particular case, the bankruptcy court has given unprecedented power to an un-elected government official, the Emergency Manager for the City of Detroit,” says the NCPERS brief. “When Michigan voters inserted Article IX, Sec. 24 into their constitution, they could not in their wildest dreams have imaged than an un-elected government official could use the federal bankruptcy process to override the will of the people.”
The brief goes on, “According to the United States Census Bureau, there are more than twenty million working and retired state and local government employees in the United States. Retired public employees live in virtually every city and town in the nation. Nationally, state and local pensions support 2.9 million jobs and $443 billion in economic activity. In Michigan alone, 301,626 residents received $5.9 billion in pension benefits from state and local plans in 2009.”
NCPERS says that public pension plans hold “more than $3 trillion in assets.”
“These payments . . . .provide a robust economic stimulus to local economies throughout the nation . . . .In Michigan, it is estimated that the economic impact of state and local pensions accounted for 72,000 jobs and contr200ibuted $9.2 billion to the state economy in 2009. . . .Likewise, the assets of these plans are an important source of liquidity and stability for the nation’s financial markets. . . .Public pension plans account for over 1/6 of the ownership of the U.S. stock market. Creating instability within these funds would have a ripple effect on the entire U.S. economy.”