Why I’m Starting a Union in Detroit

A formerly homeless Detroiter painting the new office of the Detroit Workers and Builders in northwest Detroit. May, 2015
A formerly homeless Detroiter painting the new office of the Detroit Workers and Builders in northwest Detroit. May, 2015

There is no power in the world that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood. —Walter Reuther

As a kid, I used to drive up and down I-696, the Walter P. Reuther freeway, in suburban Detroit all the time. I didn’t think much of the namesake of Detroit’s autobahn, as it’s been called. Who was Walter Reuther? The American labor leader, union organizer, fiery orator and socialist, marched with MLK Jr. in Washington in 1963 and made TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of the 20th century. I was young and took for granted the great legacy of the men and women who built Detroit and claimed for working people its abundant riches.

Today, Detroit is a very different place. Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera’s Detroit of 1932 is a world away from Mike Duggan’s Detroit of 2015. While Diego painted Detroit Industry onto the walls of the DIA, labor strikes and skirmishes erupted on the streets of a thriving industrial metropolis. The Battle of the Overpass in 1937 left union organizers beaten and bruised and tore open the brewing conflict that would win the young United Auto Workers (UAW) union a contract with Ford three years later. Walter Reuther was there.

Today, Detroit is experiencing a “comeback” that begs a simple question: whose comeback will it be? Without a few brave Walter Reuthers and a whole lot of organizing, I fear it will be Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch’s comeback alone. We have an opportunity to change that, for the 100,000+ unemployed and underemployed Detroiters who stuck it out through the city’s darkest days. For the 16,000+ homeless Detroiters, over 5,000 of which are youth. In a city with thousands of abandoned homes begging for renovation and renewal. In a city that says it’s too broke to fix the roads and the water mains and the blight.

Today, Detroit is getting a new union: the Detroit Workers and Builders. Inspired by the success of the Detroit Water Brigade, which I co-founded last year, I am committing myself to organizing Detroit’s homeless and unemployed to demand (and command) good-paying jobs. Instead of cutting off the water, let’s put Detroit to work fixing the crumbling water system. Instead of evicting families from their homes, let’s put Detroit to work demolishing and renovating blighted property. Instead of mass incarceration, let’s demand full employment at dignified wages.

Some of you might say this is impossible, a utopian pipe dream. Yet, who would have imagined one year ago that the Detroit Water Brigade would have put over 500 volunteer canvassers in the streets delivering aid and connecting families to assistance? Who would have imagined that the city would have halted their water shutoffs, implemented wide-ranging assistance programs, and is now studying affordability measures? Even the Mayor himself pledged last September:

We are going to go through this city and rebuild our water system the way it should have been built years ago… [create] thousands of jobs

Let’s hold the Mayor to this pledge. Let’s put Detroit to work.

The Detroit Workers and Builders union will launch on June 1st with a party and fundraiser at its new headquarters in the House of Help Community Center, 23700 Clarita St, Detroit. 6pm. Get tickets here!