Sunday, 30 September 2012


In the UK I'm a member of USDAW - the shopworkers' union.  So when I knew that I was coming to America I asked the team there to see what contacts they could get for me in the US union movement.  They put me in touch with the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) union in Detroit, Seattle and Chicago.  I made an appointment in Detroit for 10am on the Friday on the basis that I was arriving in Detroit late afternoon on the Thursday.

What I hadn't banked on was the hilarious journey from Cincinnati to Detroit - what should have taken about 4 hours took over 12 featuring delayed then cancelled flights and my bag being delivered to a different terminal than the one I arrived in. Still, I got there in the end and was made very welcome by Janet and Jeff, my Servas hosts in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is a university town about 40 or so miles west of Detroit.  Janet in particular was a fount of knowledge about the area and things to do.  I went out for a drink with their son who is about my age and currently studying to be a lawyer at the university.  One of his friends is currently the deputy campaign manager for a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court (we agreed that electing judges was a bit mad!).  The race has been enlivened by a campaign video made by the cast of The West Wing - you can see it here.

Tired and a bit dislocated I didn't really want to drive the 50 minutes to the UFCW Local 876 offices in Madison Heights (located north of the City).  But I'm really glad that I did - it was a fascinating morning.  I met with Rick Blocker, the Secretary-Treasurer and also Roger Robinson, President and their team and asked them for their views on the current political situation nationally and locally and what this means for their members.  They also took me out to lunch at a local restaurant which was beyond the call of duty.

A few thoughts / ideas from the discussions I thought worth capturing;
  • There's more to Detroit's current economic woes than just historical racial tensions and recent economic issues.  I had assumed that the City's decline had started back in the late 60s with the racially motivated riots and been compounded by gradual white-flight and then the issues with the auto manufacturers in the 2000s had been the final straw.  What I learnt from the team at the UFCW was the role of corruption ("graft") in the intervening years.  I'd not picked up on the multiple scandals involving ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick but it looks like he's culpable to a certain extent for the trouble that Detroit finds itself in now. 
  • There are huge powers available to the State Governor to appoint a 'Emergency Financial Manager' who can override any sort of negotiated agreement or contract with the Unions no matter how carefully negotiated or finely balanced to move forward to a balanced budget.  
  • Another Detroit Mayor, Coleman Young, as well as being responsible for the (slightly hilarious) People Mover seems to have been a driver for the White Flight out of the city (or at least not working to prevent it) back in the 1980s. 
  • We also talked a lot about the concept of a Food Desert in Detroit.  There are limited numbers of grocery stores in the City and that, coupled with a limited public transport network and a reliance on food stamps for food purchases means that the urban poor often end up eating junk food rather than nutritious sustenance.  
All-in a well-spent morning and one that has given me a useful context for my time in Detroit.  I'm planning on going back to meet the UFCW team again on Monday to see some of their work supporting Obama and fighting to protect the right of Collective Bargaining which is the subject of a ballot initiative in November - Proposition Two as outlined here

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