Sizzling summer in Detroit: Profit motive creates heat misery

Detroit  — The recent heat waves have had a devastating effect in Michigan, which already suffers from high rates of unemployment, poverty and foreclosures. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that the number of days with record high temperatures has doubled in Detroit since the 1950s. (Detroit News, July 26)

On July 4, after blazing temperatures drove electricity usage up close to capacity, a freak storm knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of metro Detroit residents. Two days later, most workers, including this writer, were still without service, suffering in the heat and throwing out food that many could ill afford to lose. It took a week before DTE Energy had everyone’s power back on.

Lower than average rainfall, combined with record high temperatures, has had a serious impact on agriculture in Michigan. Almost all this year’s tart cherry crop — Michigan supplies the majority of pie cherries in the U.S. — was lost. Every fruit or vegetable crop, with the lone exception of blueberries, had been substantially reduced. With their source of income nearly wiped out, how many farmers will now face foreclosure?

What about the farm workers, already low paid and super exploited, who will not have work? If they do find work, it will be the same backbreaking labor, but in temperatures that have topped 100 degrees.

While power outages and agricultural losses have made headlines, another aspect of the heat crisis has been ignored by the capitalist-owned media. That is how workers in the auto plants are suffering on the job. None of the Detroit Three’s assembly and parts plants in the area is air conditioned. When it is hot outside, it is hotter and stuffier inside, due to poor air circulation and the added heat generated by the machinery. Fans are frequently inadequate.

Workers in some plants are offered free bottled water and sports drinks to alleviate heat stress, but that is as far as management is willing to go. There are no extra or longer breaks. Instead, workers have to insist on getting the relief time allowed by contract. Under the 2009 contract modifications, incorporated into the current 2011-2015 agreements, relief time was cut by about 40 hours per year. Workers risk discipline and even discharge if they take too many days off. Many are on “alternative work schedules” and working 10-hour days.

Workers have passed out in some plants, but the fear factor has kept them on the job. Several years ago, workers who led a heat walkout were fired from Chrysler’s Warren Truck Assembly Plant. They were eventually reinstated, but the company achieved its goal of scaring workers. There have been no more walkouts at WTAP.

Workers in UAW Local 892 did picket their plant in Saline, Mich., in the second week of July, in 102-degree heat, to protest the lack of ice and a rule against having drinks on the line. On June 1 Ford had sold the plant to parts supplier Faurecia. Union president Mark Caruso, who organized the protest, was then transferred to a Ford plant three weeks ahead of his scheduled departure. “This sends a chilling effect to us regular workers,” an unnamed worker told the Saline Patch. Picketers have reportedly been disciplined.

Climate change = pain for workers

On July 5, while Detroiters were working in hot factories and coming home to houses without power to run their fans and air conditioners, the Detroit News published an Associated Press article on the weather crisis which stated “it’s far too early to say” that “global warming is the reason 3,215 daily high temperature records were set in the month of June.” Nevertheless, this year’s wildfires, droughts, heat waves, flooding and “a powerful freak wind storm called a derecho” are “the kind of extremes experts have predicted will come with climate change.”

In March, the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted “unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.” In an unusually hot June, there were heat advisories affecting 113 million people. University of Arizona professor Jonathan Overpeck stated, “This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level.”

Of course, none of these assessments ties the general crisis of climate change or its current manifestation in Michigan — or anywhere — to the profit system.

But the worst offenders in perpetuating dependency on fossil fuels are the same utility companies that took their time restoring power and the auto companies that allow workers to suffer in the heat.

It’s estimated that 75 percent of all carbon emissions that create the “greenhouse effect” behind steadily rising global temperatures come from power plants. Yet utility companies have steadfastly resisted conversion to renewable energy sources. DTE, rather than spend money hiring more workers to restore power faster when crises occur, is funding a campaign to defeat a ballot initiative that would require 25 percent of all power in Michigan to come from renewable sources by 2025.

The auto companies continue to oppose mandatory fuel economy standards. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, while adding more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles to their model lineup, depend on gas-guzzling trucks and sport utility vehicles to maximize their profit margin. These same companies have contributed to the crisis of unemployment by closing 75 Michigan plants since 1979 — more than half of them since 2004. Many Detroit activist groups are calling for these plants to be converted to manufacture “green” products. The profit motive has not generated even one conversion; instead, more than half of those plants have been demolished, often to lower taxes.

The United Auto Workers union, to its credit, has supported raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards to 54 miles per gallon. Of course, the leadership would have more credibility with the rank and file if it would fight harder for workers on the shop floor. Unions in other countries, including the Canadian Auto Workers and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, have held major conferences on jobs and climate change.

The theme of NUMSA’s conference was “Renewables: too important to be left in private hands.” The struggle against the capitalist mode of production draws together the fight for full employment, a safe and comfortable home and work environment, and the planet’s very survival.

Martha Grevatt has been a UAW Chrysler worker for 25 years.

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