Unemployment in Detroit reaches 17%, autoworkers send Obama letter on high-speed rail and jobs

DETROIT -- The shocking news this week is Detroit’s official unemployment rate is now 17%. Unless action is taken to re-open closed auto plants and prevent others from closing, the number will surely go higher.

In view of this, the recent letter to President Obama from 50 “Concerned Autoworkers, Retirees and Supporters” takes on special importance. The letter says that while some jobs have been saved, 400,000 auto jobs have been lost and more jobs loss will follow as a result of the bankruptcy restructuring at Chrysler and General Motors.

The letter also warns of a climate “tipping point” and points out how the economic crisis is interwoven with the environmental crisis because auto use contributes 20% of all annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 40% of all U.S. oil consumption.

To solve this combination of crises the letter calls for prioritizing the production of mass transit including buses, light rail, high-speed trains and the tracks they run on and building wind and water turbines as well as solar panels.

It credits the Obama administration for having taken a positive first step by creating two blue ribbon task forces; The White House Task Force on Middle Class Families, called Promoting American Manufacturing in the 21st Century, chaired by Vice-President Biden, and the White House Council on Automotive Communities and Workers, under the leadership of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Larry Summers, chief economic advisor.

It welcomes these initiatives and asks the president “to ensure that the size of the ideas being considered match the size of the problems we face.”

One idea to match the size of the problem is its call for government ownership saying since “the people are now major stockholders in GM and Chrysler, it would be in the national interest to assume direct ownership of the GM and Chrysler plants that are closed or closing (as interest on our investment) to expedite the retooling and conversion of these plants for the manufacture of the products.”

A good chance to put that retooling into action came last week. Midwest governors responding to President Obama’s high speed rail plan agreed to partner to work cooperatively to fund the Midwest Corridor, a regional high-speed rail plan that will connect cities throughout the region with frequent, reliable high-speed.

Through coordination, the region hopes to capture part of the $8 billion that President Obama has made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for high-speed passenger rail, the largest investment that the federal government has made in over a decade.

Al Benchich, one of the letter’s signers and former president of UAW Local 909 (GM) asked where will they get the trains, the tracks? “We have the people who can do the work, we’ve got the equipment; we just need work in the plants,” Benchich said.

Benchich indicated that Flint, where employment at GM has gone from 80,000 to less than 8,000 has plants that are fairly new and would be a good place for retooling to produce rail and other necessary products.

He also said plants that formerly made engines and transmissions could easily be converted to manufacture wind turbines.

What happens next is a good question. To re-open closed plants and develop an energy and transportation policy that meets the needs of people and the planet we live on requires more than action from the president. It also requires a huge coalition of elected officials at state and municipal levels, of unions and their membership, and of residents in the communities being affected by the crisis, be brought together to demand a new course. One hopes the 17% unemployment rate is enough to spur all parties to come together quickly.

jrummel @ pww.org