Against the Current, No. 24, January/February 1990
PUT DOWN A “3,” add four zeroes, and call it “Laid-off Flint auto-workers.” See that in the newspaper and it has a certain impact Look into some of the faces behind those numbers and see what it does to their community, and those five digits take on a whole new meaning.
It was this idea that led alternative journalist Michael Moore to embark on a three-year crusade to take General Motors chairman Roger Smith to Flint to show him the results of his policies and to record the campaign on film in “Roger & Me.”
Moore, former publisher of the Flint Voice, had never produced a film before, although the opening scenes indicate that home movies were a family tradition. Despite the inevitable mistakes that come with on-the-job-training (an interview with Jesse Jackson was lost because the audio wasn’t switched on), he succeeded in creating a masterpiece that will make you laugh, cry and think.
A native of Flint, from a family of GM workers, Moore goes beyond the productivity figures to show us the people who make up the city and the corporation. Understanding them enables us to see how such a disaster could take place, and how such bizarre solutions could be proposed to deal with it.
With pit-bull persistence, Moore repeatedly sought Smith from the Detroit Athletic Club, to GM headquarters, to the Grosse Point Yacht Club, just to ask him to come to Flint and see what he’s done. If only for the sake of public relations, one would think that Smith would try to rid himself of this pest by going to Flint and funding a retraining center or making some other gesture of sympathy.
The point is that Smith, and other inhabitants of the corporate stratosphere, cannot allow themselves to see their employees as fellow human beings. It’s not that they are especially evil men; they are not evil enough to behave as ruthlessly as they do without insulating themselves from reality. They have to treat workers, factories and communities as nothing but entries in a ledger.
Even stranger is the way the people of Flint itself have responded to the devastation. Even though their community is obviously crumbling around them, civic leaders persist in stating that things are not that bad and will get better soon. Some of the projects on which Flint has pinned its hopes include the Auto-World theme park (in which the city invested $100 million), a Hyatt Regency hotel ($13 million), an upscale boutique mall and a lint-roller factory. The last is the only one that hasn’t gone bankrupt yet.
There is no evidence that these people are either lying or especially stupid. They just can’t live with the reality that things are really as bad as they look and may get worse. Denial is very common, along with anger (mostly directed at the media in Flint), and a desperate resort to quack “cures.’ Don’t worry, be happy.
Among the celebrities brought in to boost morale were Ronald Reagan, who took twelve workers out for pizza; Bob Eubanks, who is even more repulsive in person than on TV; Kay Larii Rafko, Miss Michigan and Miss America of 1988; Pat Boone and Anita Bryant All of them said that Flint was a great city, but none expressed any interest in moving there In fact, its bard to get a U-Haul truck in Flint because so many people are moving away.
The feelings of laid-off auto workers are made more complex by the love-hate relationship that most workers have with their companies Most GM workers really hate their overloaded, regimented and oppressive jobs, but at the same time they are totally dependent on the corporation for the necessities of life, especially in a town like Flint There have been plenty of attempts to blame the workers or the union for driving GM out of Flint, and some of the workers have obviously bought it.
As for the United Auto Workers union, it is the dog that did nothing during the night. The union calls a rally to protest a plant closing, and only four people show up. Owen Bieber has no answers but seems sure that a repeat of the 1937 sit-down strike isn’t the solution. Moore did shoot some footage of a rank-and-file movement against plant closings, but he didn’t use it since the group failed to survive.
Interspersed with the humor are some really horrendous scenes. The camera moves past solid blocks of abandoned homes and boarded-up stores. The deputy sheriff works all day, every day, evicting families, piling up baby cribs and Christmas trees at the curb. Tiny, confused children try to understand what is happening. Workers line up to sell their blood at the Plasma Center. An armed and deranged Black man is shot down in the street by police. The Bunny Lady, advertising “bunnies for pets and rabbits for meat,” fondly pets one, then matter-of-factly clubs it to death and skins it for dinner. Interestingly, more viewers and reviewers mention the rabbit than the man.
As painful as it is to watch these atrocities, we have a duty to see them. We can’t, like Roger Smith, pretend that they don’t exist.
“Roger & Me” was shown to about 500 militant auto workers at the New Directions Movement convention in St Louis on October 20. Despite being more than an hour late due to airline delays, it got the same wildly enthusiastic reception as at film festivals in Colorado, Toronto and New York.
Several workers suggested that Moore’s next project should be “Owen & Me,” saying that Bieber and Smith were two of a kind. “1t’s not a pleasant picture,” said Victor Reuther, “to see this once-great union become an apologist for, almost an accomplice of, management. Their silence must weigh heavily on their conscience.” The UAW Education Department implied that they would buy many copies of the film if the Owen Bieber footage was deleted, but Moore refused. Moore stated that he sees the New Directions Movement as the best hope for revitalizing the UAW and pledged $1,000 to their struggle.
Moore created “Roger & Me” on a budget of $160,000 raised by holding bingo games, selling his house and furniture, collecting a “modest” wrongful-discharge settlement from Mother Jones, and other grants and contributions. In taking bids from distributors for the film (the rights eventually went to Warner Brothers), Moore sought some unusual conditions, including the allocation of a percentage of the profits to benefit the unemployed, new homes for the three families we see evicted in the film, and 20,000 free tickets for laid-off workers.
“Roger & Me,” ironically, has become the Cinderella story that Flint has been desperately and vainly seeking for itself. Moore is presently planning to do a film about the intifada called “West Bank Story.”
Moore is careful to point out that the problems of cities like Flint are not due to the greed or mistakes of individuals but are inherent in an undemocratic economic system. The laws of capitalism decree that profit takes priority over people, and if GM doesn’t do it, Ford or Chrysler will. Under capitalism there simply is no solution to Flint’s dilemma, but neither is it a law of nature that the working class must play by management’s rules. As every poker player knows: A .45 beats a royal flush every time.
© 2020 Against the Current
January-February 1990, ATC 24