Michael Moore to GM: Show Some Respect

This article is from the September/October 1998 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

This article is from the September/October 1998 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 219 cover

In 1990 Michael Moore produced the film Roger and Me, a devastating critique of corporate arrogance. Moore dogged the steps of Roger Smith, the chairman of General Motors, while exploring conditions in Flint, Michigan, Mooreís home town, as thousands of GM jobs left the city.

This past July the United Auto Workers engaged in a month-long strike at two GM plants in Flint, which led to shutdowns of more than two dozen GM factories around the country and layoffs of almost 200,000 workers. In late July, Dollars & Sense co-editor Marc Breslow asked Moore for his views on the strike.

Dollars & Sense: What caused this strike?

Michael Moore: The strike was not about wages or more benefits or pension plans. It was about the union saying to the company that you have a contract with us, and there is a social contract. Both contracts say that you have a responsibility to keep these jobs in Flint. The strike was precipitated by GM taking the machinery out of the plant in the middle of the night on a holiday weekend, so they could build the stuff someplace else. Unfortunately, this was after GM has already eliminated 50,000 jobs in Flint, and there are only 28,000 left. So it may be too little, too late.

D&S: What were the workers saying?

MM: The workers are completely fed up, they donít really care any more about the talk that GM is going to move jobs out of the country even faster, [due to] all this union hassle. Their feeling now is, you ainít got nothing, you ainít got nothing left to lose. It took a long time for people to understand that the corporation did not have their best interests at heart. When I was back there during the strike, local union presidents apologized to me for not taking Roger and Me more seriously.

D&S: How did the workers fare during the strike?

MM: The workers are surviving the strike very well. In both those factories, they have been working seven days a week for the last three years, so they have been chalking up a lot of overtime, and have been saving up. They can outlast GM for quite some time.

D&S: Why was GM so obstinate?

MM:Because Wall Street wanted them to be. GM wanted to prove to the banking and investment community that they would be tough with the union, theyíre going to downsize some more, and theyíre going to be more profitable. And Wall Street has rewarded them during the strike -- the price of their stock has only gone down by a couple of dollars.

Plus, they have no clue on how to have better labor relations, unlike Ford and occasionally Chrysler. To have better relations, it would take showing respect for the people who are building their cars. You donít have to give them anything extra, just follow the contract you signed -- which says that those jobs will stay in Flint, which says these are the work rules. And then they continually break the contract.

At Ford they donít do that. Ford has had no walkouts since 1992, while GM has had 23. Last year, at Johnson Controls, which makes the seats for the Ford Expedition, the UAW went on strike. So Johnson fired all their workers, and hired scabs to replace them. But Fordís chairman refused to take the seats, said you sit down with the workers and negotiate a contract and bring those people back, and we will not take your seats until you do. And he shut down the assembly line for the Expedition, which is their biggest selling model. They lost two weeks of sales. If you are a UAW member working for Ford, and you see your chairman behaving in that manner, whatís your morale like, whatís your productivity level at that point?

D&S: The media have been saying that health and safety issues, the nominal reason for the strike, are not important. Are they right?

MM: Health and safety issues are a major thing. No one wants to work seven days a week. In the metal stamping plant, the temperature gets up to 100 or 110 degrees, and itís the only plant in Flint that you canít go to work in shorts, due to the kind of work. Also, for 400 of the 3,400 jobs, you have to wear a big, heavy welding suit, where the temperature can get up to 125 degrees inside. And at the same time you are lifting these 50 pound pieces off the machine. Those workers only work four to five hours, and get paid for eight, because the human body cannot stand more than that.

D&S: How have things changed in Flint since Roger and Me?

MM:Conditions in Flint are worse. The official statistics mask the true story. Unemployment is down because 50,000 people have left. [The media] never cite the statistic that 68% of children in Flint are part of the school lunch program, which means they live below the federal poverty level.

D&S: What about the tourist-oriented economic development strategies that you lampooned in Roger and Me?

MM: They blew up Auto World this year. The Water Street Pavilion, the marketplace, is now an office, food court, and bookstore for the local college. The hotel has changed hands about five times, and itís in bankruptcy.

D&S: What do you think of the mediaís coverage of the strike?

MM: It wasnít good. They promoted this myth of the auto worker who isnít working a full day. [When the media says that GMís cost is $45 an hour for labor], they are putting in health care, FICA, workmenís comp, everything that all employers must pay. An auto worker makes about $20 an hour, and everyone gets paid the same, regardless of their job category or seniority.

The more sympathetic articles said isnít this kind of cute, itís a throwback to the old days [the 1930ís sit-down strikes that unionized the auto industry], because unions are dead. I believe just the opposite -- there has been a resurgence of the labor movement in the last couple of years. The press is missing the story, and some of our labor unions are missing it. You look at some of the unions, and they only have about 3% of their budgets set aside for organizing. People who have minimum wage jobs are organizing unions. People with college educations are not getting what they thought they would end up with, and are attempting to form unions.

end of article