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While Michigan citizens, and indeed the entire nation, have been focused on the lead-poisoned water and children in Flint, it is important to look at the root of this tragic crisis.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Rick Snyder said to the people of Flint, “Government at all levels failed you.” However, a more accurate statement would have been, “Bad policies failed you.”

Snyder came into office touting himself as “one tough nerd,” promising to use his business experience to make government more efficient and effective. His widespread use of emergency managers in cities and schools across the state was his attempt to employ that business philosophy in dealing with financial problems plaguing those entities.

Unfortunately, by taking power away from democratically elected leadership in those communities, he took away the voices of those who are most invested and who care the most about fixing the problems in their communities. One tough nerd ended up being the toughest on the children of Flint.

But the effect of emergency managers and bad policy choices doesn’t end in that community. State-appointed emergency managers have been in charge of Detroit Public Schools for years.

The result: The financial condition of DPS is worse today than it was seven years ago. The state-mandated Education Achievement Authority — a network of for-profit charter schools to replace some struggling schools in Detroit — has failed miserably, showing poor academic results and corruption.

We are seeing the results of state government neglect for public education: mold, rodents, peeling paint, broken water fountains, buckling floors and excessive temperatures in overcrowded classrooms. Detroit teachers have spoken out and taken action to expose these tragic teaching and learning conditions.

These situations expose a larger problem in our state government. One-party control has led to legislation continually thwarting the democratic process and silencing the collective voices of Michigan citizens. The so-called “right-to-work” law was the first example. Then came the widespread use of emergency managers and more recently the elimination of straight-ticket voting.

The arrogance of the Legislature to stifle the democratic process is clear when they add token appropriations to bills like right to work and straight-ticket voting to prevent citizen repeal of those laws. The peak of that arrogance was when, shortly after voters went to the polls and repealed the emergency manager law, the Legislature passed a new version with a token appropriation and Snyder promptly signed it into law. That is not what democracy looks like.

Clearly, the first order of business is to fix the infrastructure that led to lead-poisoned water in Flint and repair the dangerous conditions in DPS buildings. These problems need to be addressed now. But our task in the long run is to fix the broken government that led to these bad policy choices.

As union members, we know the answer: collective action — in cities, in schools and in the voting booth. MEA members across the state stand with the citizens of Flint and other cities who have been disenfranchised by emergency managers. And we stand with our brothers and sisters in the Detroit Federation of Teachers in their fight to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for their students.

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.

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