Romulus — City employees reacted angrily to news Friday that their pay, benefits and retirement are some of the biggest targets of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s sweeping restructuring plan, lamenting they’ll be squeezed the hardest.
“I’ve got nothing to lose, except my pension,” said Cheryl LaBash, a Detroit construction inspector who retired in 2009. LaBash, 63, still lives in the city, though she’s watched her neighborhood crumble. Now she intends to fight for what she earned over 30 years as a city employee.
“The workers, retirees and the community are really the creditors,” she said. “We are the ones who built this city. They can’t tell me that those banks should be paid before I am and the other retirees that contributed their lives.”
Protesters shouted their ire outside the Westin Detroit Metropolitan Airport hotel as Orr held a 2.5-hour, closed-door meeting with about 150 representatives from banks, bondholders, unions and pension funds, all of whom were asked Friday to make steep concessions, many equally angry inside.
“People were ready to jump out of their chairs. Other people were mumbling to themselves,” said Michael Mulholland, president of AFSCME Local 207, which represents 950 workers in the city’s water and sewerage department.
What Mulholland and others heard, they say, were vague plans to make deep cuts in retiree benefits and retiree and employee . Both are part of a compensation system Orr called unsustainable. But for workers and retirees, those cuts will drastically affect their daily lives.
“Union members are in shock,” Mulholland said. “I’m trying to get them to rise up out of that fog of fear.”
Orr’s prescription for saving Detroit was short on specifics, said Joe Walter, president of AFSCME Local 1227. More details are expected next week when Orr meets with union leaders again. In the meantime, workers can only wonder what will happen to their paychecks, pensions and .
“I didn’t feel satisfied with any of their answers,” Walter said. “I don’t think that we have gotten enough details to deal with the problem properly. I think they tried to show us numbers that are more attractive towards bankruptcy.”
The meeting drew a crowd of protesters as well as some who railed against the banks who lent the city billions of dollars. Some creditors will get just pennies on the dollar but others will get more substantial repayment of the loans, and some here believe the losers will be the workers and retirees who will pay the price of restructuring.
“This is wrong. It’s a mean-spirited attack on people who have it rough enough already,” said Andrew Newton, a 29-year-old political organizer in Detroit. “These are, again, hard-working, tax-paying citizens.”
Jerry Goldberg of the group Moratorium NOW! was among a group of about 20 activists outside Detroit Metro on Friday, speaking out against banks, they argue, “who produced the problems” in Detroit through predatory lending.
“These banks, we don’t owe them anything. They owe us for the destruction they’ve caused,” said Goldberg, who peacefully gathered with a group holding signs behind a barricade on the other end of the Delta terminal, down from the Westin.
“We’re saying the wrongdoing of the banks precipitated the crisis. There should be a moratorium on the debt service and to maintain the city services. That’s what we believe is the solution to the crisis. We will continue to mobilize and educate.”