The Herald Bulletin

July 31, 2013

Editorial: Detroit's pensioners should be priority


— Detroit was once a city of dreams. The anchor of the U.S. auto industry, Motown was the fourth largest city in the country with a large and growing middle class based on auto-worker wages. There were world-class sports teams, museums and, of course, Motown records where icons such as Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye got their start.

The Motor City had it all. Now there’s nothing left except the sports teams. Two weeks ago, Detroit announced it was filing bankruptcy, the largest government entity in the U.S. to take such a move. But with $18 billion in debt, the city’s unelected manager, Kevyn Orr, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, felt bankruptcy was the only way to get out from under such a crushing debt burden.

The sides are being formed. Who will lose the most money: bondholders, who invested with the city on the safe assumption they would get some profit on their investment, or workers who are due pensions after a career in public service? Pensions make up about $3 billion of the debt.

It will be up to a bankruptcy judge to decide, but Orr says he wants to spread the pain. Retired workers are furious about pension cuts and have already filed suit to block the bankruptcy. Retirees claim that any cut to pensions violates Michigan’s constitution. According to the New York Times, the state constitution says contracts between the employees and the government “shall not be diminished or impaired.”

Snyder and Orr think federal bankruptcy will supersede Michigan’s constitution, which surely begs the question of what Michigan’s constitution is actually worth. No, the state constitution should take precedence and retirees’ pensions should be given priority.

In a similar (but smaller) bankruptcy in Central Falls, R.I., a state law gave bondholders preferential treatment, according to the Times.

To get money, Orr wants to sell art from the city museums a piece at a time, and this includes Diego Riivera’ s great 1930s paintings of American labor and the auto industry. These paintings defined Detroit at one time, but now are only looked at for the dollars they can bring in.

Detroit needs a bailout similar to the one received by New York in the 1970s when the Big Apple was on the brink of defaulting. But the federal government has shown no interest in helping. Snyder has indicated Michigan won’t help out its largest city.

At the same time, however, Snyder announced that he’s all for a new $650 million stadium for the Detroit Red Wings, which the state would pick up about $300 million, according to a report in The Nation. And not a dime for Detroit? What could be more twisted than that?

A great city is on the ropes and it seems as if the major players are unconcerned about the human costs of this bankruptcy. Snyder, Orr and the courts need to keep in mind Detroit’s legacy and the working class that created a dynamic metropolis before taking away all they have left from their years of service.