Detroit city workers denounce threatened sale of DIA art

The campaign of the Socialist Equality Party and International Youth and Students for Social Equality to oppose the threatened sale of masterpieces from the Detroit Institute of Arts has won important support among Detroit city workers who have been targeted by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr for massive cuts. These include mass job cuts and privatization, the slashing of pensions and the elimination of retiree health benefits.

On Tuesday, a WSWS reporting team visited the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant to speak to workers about the campaign to defend the DIA. The workers were encouraged to attend the demonstration called by the SEP and IYSSE for October 4, 5:30 PM, at the Woodward Avenue entrance to the museum.

Workers strongly supported the DIA, in opposition to union officials from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) who said the art should be sold to pay for pensions.

Orr has also targeted the water and sewerage plant—one of the largest in the country—for possible privatization and has approved plans to outsource eight out of every 10 jobs at the facility.

Michael Watson, a worker with 15 years at the Water and Sewage Plant, said, “I don’t agree at all with what the emergency manager is doing. The attacks on the DIA, just like what is going on here, are designed to target the working people. They believe they can take anything they want.

“I’m opposed to the pilot program they are instituting here. It’s designed to get rid of 80 percent of the jobs. What they are doing is changing the job classifications so one person will do the job of two or three people.”

Larry, the husband of a Water and Sewage worker also opposed the sale of the art. “What they are doing is wrong. They are taking away a lot of the history we learned from the DIA. They should find a way to fund it to keep it open. I think they should tax the rich. They are always taking from the working class.”

Tanya, another Water and Sewage worker said, “In Orr’s statement to the Wall Street Journal he said that he didn’t understand how people with an eighth grade education could work 30 years and expect to get a pension. I don’t care what education level you have, if you’ve worked 30 years for any entity you deserve something in return.”

At one point Tanya said she didn’t believe the art would really be sold off. Reporters pointed out that Christie’s auction house was already determining the value of the artwork and that Detroit was being used as a national test case for the gutting of pensions and the sale of public treasures.

“I don’t think it is a bluff, but they are throwing things in there to see if they will stick,” Tanya responded. “And where they don’t get enough resistance, that’s where they are going to take. That’s what they are really going to go after.

“I’m sure you heard that Orr is now saying they are going to use the Water Department to fund services. But for years they have been using the Water Department to fund various things. Then they say we are broke. That is also why they don’t want anyone to say what is in the books. They should open up the books.

“They are out to destroy the rights of working people. I tell people in the private sector this is hitting all of us. We have to get people to see their role in this process and come together to fight this.”

Terron, a Water and Sewage worker, said he had children and felt art was critical for their development. “In my opinion nothing should be taken from the museum or the benefits of city workers. We have already taken too many concessions. Pretty soon nothing will be left.”

Terron said he has spoken to other workers who said they have had it with the cuts. “Something has to be done. I agree with your protest. Working people have to come together.”

The WSWS also spoke to a firefighter from Southwest Detroit. He detailed the conditions facing residents in the wake of the massive and repeated cuts to fire protection and other city services in recent years.

“One of the big frustrations is we do not know what is taking place or what to expect. We have been told a million different stories—that our pensions will be cut, health care, getting rid of neighborhoods, consolidating the city. I think the worker is being left out of this.

“My brother who lives in Chicago came here and I was talking about our rights. He said, ‘What rights? You don’t even have human rights in this city. You don’t even have the right to vote. The vote has been taken away from you.’ I didn’t think about that earlier but he is right. We have lost our rights.”

He commented on the statement by AFSCME union official Ed McNeil, who supported the sale of DIA art to pay for pensions, saying, “You can’t eat art.”

“I heard McNeil and I heard other city workers and firefighters say the same thing. The thing is that selling the artwork doesn’t guarantee you anything. Do you actually think they are going to take that money and throw it into your pension? They are going to give it to Bank of America and the other creditors.

“Once you lose it, it is gone. You can’t have a city without culture. That’s why Detroit is so far behind Chicago and New York City or even Seattle. I love the DIA. We go there all the time. I especially love the murals because it shows the role of the workers.”