Amid Detroit Bankruptcy, Jews Rally Behind Cause of Retired City Workers

Social Justice Trumps Suburban Self-Interest in Motown

Fighting Back: Detroit municipal retirees protests planned pension cuts. The Jewish community has actively joined the fight for a fairer bankruptcy plan.
getty images
Fighting Back: Detroit municipal retirees protests planned pension cuts. The Jewish community has actively joined the fight for a fairer bankruptcy plan.

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 08, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Since the initial shock of Detroit’s filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy this past summer, local residents and businesses have been largely left alone to deal with the implications of this drastic step. But Detroit’s organized Jewish community, concentrated mainly in the affluent suburbs, and largely untouched by the city’s financial demise, appears to be bucking this trend.

Jewish leaders and activists are taking on the fight of the city’s retired municipal employees. These retirees stand to lose much of their already minimal pensions if a federal bankruptcy court moves to pay other creditors at their expense, as the city has asked. Many of the Jewish activists see their stand as a way to support the future of Detroit and of urban America.

“The idea of cutting the modest pensions of rank-and-file firefighters, policemen, and water and sewage workers who had worked for 20 or 30 years seems unconscionable in terms of Jewish values,” said Andy Levin, a businessman and communal activist who heads Project Micah, Detroit’s interfaith initiative.

The fate of 21,000 former city employees’ pensions, and those of another 9,000 current workers, will be determined by a bankruptcy court that convenes at the Theodore Levin United States Courthouse, named after Levin’s own great-uncle.

Andy Levin
JCPA
Andy Levin

Right now, the court is considering Detroit’s July 18 request for bankruptcy protection. The city says it is unable to continue servicing nearly $20 billion in debt, including $3.5 billion in pension liabilities and more than $6 billion in health care benefits for retirees — part of the commitment the city made to its workers in labor contracts with city unions.

Representatives of the unions have argued that Michigan’s state constitution specifically forbids making changes to retiree pensions or health benefits. They say this should put their members first in line for compensation under the eventual bankruptcy plan, ahead of the city’s creditors. The city’s governor-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, does not deny that this is the meaning of the constitutional provision they cite. But he says that U.S. federal bankruptcy laws trump the state constitution.

If the court approves the city’s bankruptcy plan, Detroit will implement draconian cuts that will take away an estimated 70% of the retirees’ monthly pension checks. Local unions have warned that pensioners living on fixed incomes that average $30,000 per year will be devastated.

The court’s decisions regarding the rights of former city employees will have little to no relevance for the daily life of most Detroit Jews, but Jewish activists have taken on the issue as a social justice cause. Jewish leaders frame their aim as not only saving the workers’ pensions; they cite the greater issue of urban renewal in Detroit and, by extension, other struggling American cities.

“Our engagement has been on the broader level,” said Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Detroit. Cohen stressed “the need for a national and local urban issues agenda, and the impact that an interfaith coalition could have on it.” The group will host a discussion on the issue in the coming weeks in Detroit.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.