February 2016 – I have often used this column to compare policies we have enacted that have served the state of California, business, and workers and their families well, with policies in other states run by extreme anti-worker politicians who care only about serving business and wealthy special interests, and the terrible price that working families often pay.
For instance, if you are a construction worker in California, the water that comes out of the faucets at your home and workplace is of good quality and perfectly safe. Our state government has developed, implemented and enforces standards for water quality, and we all benefit in the form of our good, safe water supply.
As you may have heard, that is not the case in Michigan, a state now run completely by extreme-right Republicans who abhor these types of regulations or standards, whose war cry is “Deregulate!” and who will cut any corners to serve their theme of smaller government. Workers and their families, especially children, are suffering as a result.
The Republican Governor of Michigan is Rick Snyder, who in 2012 signed a “right to work” law, destroying the collective bargaining power of Michigan workers, after repeatedly insisting he had no interest in signing such a bill.
Under Michigan’s “emergency manager” law, also signed by Snyder, the Governor can appoint state officials to make unilateral decisions for cities with fiscal problems. In the case of the city of Flint, a relatively poor working-class community, the Snyder-appointed manager made a decision in 2013 to switch the city’s water supply, from a high quality supply from Lake Huron, to a cheaper source, the Flint River, claiming the move would save a few million dollars.
Immediately, Flint residents complained about the horrid quality of the new water; and its taste, odors, and coloration. Many complained of feeling ill and developing skin irritations. For months, Snyder’s administration did nothing, with an aide dismissing the complaints as coming from an “anti-everything group.”
But it was also business interests who were hurt by unregulated water. “The water was rusting the engine blocks,” said, Dan Reyes, president of UAW Local 599, that represents the GM plant’s nearly 900 workers. The extremely high levels of chloride in the water caused rust and corrosion when it came in contact with raw cast-iron.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency got involved and discovered in 2015 that the cheap Flint River water contained harmful bacteria and chemicals, and levels of lead more than high enough to cause severe irreversible brain damage in children. Research has found that exposure even to low levels of lead can cause learning disabilities, stunted growth, behavioral problems, attention and motor coordination difficulties in children.
The children of Flint’s working families were exposed to this horror because appointees of a business-first governor felt saving a few dollars was a higher priority than protecting those children’s health and safety.
When the enormity of the problem became evident, Gov. Snyder said that it wasn’t only his fault, but that it happened because all government failed, that the city was partly to blame and so was the federal EPA.
That’s false. It was Snyder’s approach to running government; a determination to get rid of regulations that protect people and to cut corners to spend less money whenever possible, that led to a public health disaster. The Flint City Council protested the water switch, but was overruled by Snyder’s appointees. It was only when the federal EPA got involved that all the facts came to light.
Or as Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, was quoted in the New York Times, speaking of Snyder, “From the very beginning, his style of governance has been to put the bottom line over what’s in the best interest of health and safety.”
And in the end, the cost of fixing the problem caused by the lack of common sense regulations will end up dwarfing any savings realized by the switch to cheaper, inferior water.
It doesn’t help the poor people of Michigan, but it should serve as a clear reminder that electing public officials who care about working people and their families, who put the sacred trust of our well-being and health and safety above the corporate bottom line, as we have done here in California, always serves our best interest.
As we assess candidates in California in the coming 2016 elections, we will definitely keep the lessons of Michigan in mind.