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A defining year



Q: Mommy, will there ever be a black president?

A: Not till the day General Motors goes broke, honey.

— What my mommy might have told me, c. 1958

Mommy, alas, didn't live to see it, but in three weeks there will indeed be a black president, the most inspirational and eagerly awaited leader we've seen since that young guy from Massachusetts. That is the brightest single star in the firmament of our nation's hopes right now. Personally, this old cynic wouldn't be surprised if Barack Obama turned out to be a very good, even great, president.

But no matter what, he isn't going to fix the wretchedly dysfunctional Detroit schools. We have to do that. He isn't going to pick the best mayor to lead Detroit through a national financial crisis that could easily end with the city taken over by the state. Detroiters are going to have to do that.

And while President Obama may help Chrysler, General Motors and, yes, Ford, their survival won't primarily be up to him. Our new president has a minimum four years in office. It is not at all certain that General Motors will last beyond the next four months. And while the domestic automakers must be looking forward to a more sympathetic administration, they better know they will have to save their companies themselves — if they are to be saved at all. The auto heads would do well to remember what John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the president most often compared to Obama, said at the end of his inaugural address:

"With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth ... knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."

Saving the automotive industry, Detroit and all of Michigan is work that must truly be our own — ours, all of us, in some way big or small. This is a year when a lot of crises are on the table everywhere — and possibly no place more intensely than here.

We do not know whether the automobile companies can be saved, or how we can make our economy work without them. What we do know is that if General Motors fails, it will mean more than a million jobless in this nation, and soon, at the time of the worst national economic crisis since the Great Depression.

If they do come up with a plan for survival, it will include shrinking further. It will mean laying more people off permanently. Chrysler's situation is worse; it cannot survive, not without a partner, and even a successful merger would likely doom more than half its 49,000 employees to permanent joblessness in the fairly short run.

Without doubt, much of the media's attention will be intently focused on the automakers' struggle. The first key date is March 31, when they have to come up with a plan deemed acceptable by the government — or risk having the plug pulled right then. And even if they get past that, they won't be out of the woods. We may know in 2009 if they are doomed to failure. But if they somehow manage to become competitive again, that may not be clear for some years. Building takes far longer than destruction.

The Battle to Save the Auto Industry will be fought on many fronts, including Washington. However, Detroit is facing two other crises this year that need to be solved by Detroiters themselves.

One is the school system mess, which I will talk about at length in a future column. But first, for the one that will preoccupy the city's politicians from now until next Nov. 3: electing a mayor.

We are headed into something that may look more like a depression than a recession, and the City of the Straits was in pretty dire financial straits to start with. This wasn't an ideal time for Detroit to be pillaged and raped by a criminal man-child mayor, but that is exactly what happened.

Now, thanks to a bizarre twist of the city charter, Detroit is facing four mayoral elections this year: a primary in February and a general election in May, for the remainder of Kwame Kilpatrick's term. Then there will be a primary in September and a general election in November, for the four-year term starting in January. (A new City Council will be chosen in that cycle as well.)

Never was it more important that a city choose well.

There are a mess of candidates, ranging from a bunch of unqualified people to the perennial, and now hopeless, Sharon McPhail, on through the comic relief candidate, Coleman Young's illegitimate 26-year-old son. Anyone who votes for any of these folks is just setting their city up to be taken over by the state.

There are, however, three solid, responsible candidates: Ken Cockrel Jr., former City Council president and acting mayor; Freman Hendrix, deputy mayor under Dennis Archer; and Nicholas Hood III, a prominent pastor and former city councilman.

There is also the wild card, Dave Bing, a famous former basketball player turned successful businessman, the darling of the elites. He is an admirable human being, but there is, as yet, little indication he knows a thing about government.

We have to hope that the winner of the special election does so by such a landslide that the general election is a foregone conclusion. What this city can't afford is a rudderless year, with immediate political needs warping every hard call that has to be made.

But that is what I'm afraid we may get.

Why unions still matter: It's no secret that media companies — not just the Detroit newspapers — have been laying off workers all over town. But how do they continue to put out their product?

Here's part of the answer, from an e-mail sent by an editor at a nonunionized publication who lost his job a few days before the holidays. The company that laid him off now "wants me to work two days a week, doing the exact same things I have been doing." He would also be paid reasonably well for this ... but without benefits. There are few or no full-time jobs open in his field. So, he told me, "I can't think of a good reason not to accept this offer."

His company is far from alone. One radio station has been known to fire people and then call them back to work full-time ... but as "independent contractors," meaning without any benefits. That's what employers mostly want these days: Workers they can dismiss virtually at will, and to whom they don't have to pay any benefits. Nothing wrong with anyone doing a little freelance work on the side; in fact, I am an independent contractor as far as Metro Times goes. But I get a salary and benefits elsewhere.

Today, fewer and fewer folks have the luxury of a full-time job. True, employers are supposedly limited in what they can ask independent contractors to do ... but do you think the poor wretch who doesn't have anything else is going to make much of a fuss

Labor unions would like to fight this, but it isn't all that easy. Nor would the United Auto Workers union have won those sit-down strikes in the 1930s, if General Motors could have outsourced production to China. This is a job for Washington to tackle, and if you agree, you might want to let your friendly local member of Congress know.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at

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