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Flint and our futures

Jack Lessenberry

Last weekend Cindy Estrada took her twin twelve-year-old sons Jason and Jesse to Flint, to do what they could to help. What they saw shook them up. Knocking on doors, delivering water, they met a grandmother who dissolved in tears.

She felt she was responsible for poisoning her grandchildren by bathing them in water that state officials had told the residents was safe.

They met another woman, an immigrant who thought the water was safe to drink because she was boiling it first. She didn’t realize that didn’t remove the lead. And she was nursing a baby.

There are a lot of stories like that, and a lot of people trying to help. But Cindy Estrada has a unique perspective. She is one of the highest-ranking women in labor history, the vice president of the United Auto Workers currently in charge of General Motors.

She is also the first Latina to rise that high in the union, and at 47, is younger than much of the union’s top leadership. There’s been a lot of speculation she might become the UAW's next president when current leader Dennis Williams steps down in less than three years. When I sat down for coffee with her yesterday she told me that’s something she isn’t even sure she would want. Being the mother of two almost-teenagers is very important to her, though it helps that her husband, himself a former UAW official, took early retirement.

She does acknowledge, however, that she may serve as a role model for women, minorities and others who think of labor leaders as burly, aging white guys with gray hair and heavy glasses. What Estrada is passionately interested in is social activism. The UAW in its glory days under Walter Reuther wasn’t just interested in wages, but in workers’ quality of life.

She doesn’t want to directly criticize what’s happened in the movement since then, and clearly admires Dennis Williams, who has been a mentor. But for her, that’s what unionism is about. She got started as an organizer, cutting her teeth on a failed drive to bring the UAW to a parts supplier. Estrada told me negotiating with suppliers, who employ most of the workers in the industry these days, is especially challenging.

Raise wages too high, and automakers transfer work elsewhere. But as things stand now, some full-time workers still qualify for food stamps. “There’s a myth that increasing manufacturing jobs is automatically going to revive the middle class,” she said.

Too often, that isn’t so. Cindy Estrada knows it might be prudent to stay neutral in the presidential contest for now. But she passionately supports Bernie Sanders. She was chosen to introduce President Obama when he visited workers in Detroit last month, but while she admires much of what he’s done, believes the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal signed yesterday will be disastrous for American workers.

But yesterday, what she most wanted to say was not to forget Flint. She knows that in a few weeks or months, media attention will move elsewhere, but the problems and the poisoned children will remain. She thinks there’s a lesson here about what happens when “running government as a business” means people are treated like discounted inventory.

And I think the record shows she is right.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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