I confess to being a hardcore fan of Michael Moore. My respect goes all the way back to 1989, when he was an impoverished filmmaker in Flint, Michigan (his first documentary was the seminal “Roger and Me”), and has continued through his more recent films, through his books (two of which I’ve read), his TV show, all the way up to the present day, which finds him a multi-millionaire and elder statesman of the counter-culture.
Pretty much everything about Moore appeals to me. I like his ideology, his style, his wit, his playfulness, his courage, his persistence, his hats, and even the fact that he’s struggled with a life-long weight problem. My kind of guy.
All of which makes it painful to criticize him. Still, someone has to do it. My first gripe with Moore was Chapter 16 of his book, “Downsize This!” in which he vilified organized labor for allowing themselves to be saddled with inferior contracts. The way Moore sees it, a union should never ratify a lousy contract. Gee, Mike….why didn’t WE think of that?! The incendiary title of the chapter is “Why Are Union Leaders So F#!@ing Stupid?”
Although I’ve never belonged to the United Auto Workers (UAW), as a former union negotiator I’ve pored over its history, hung out with UAW reps, reveled in its glory years, sought to emulate much of its ground-breaking contractual language, and, alas, commiserated in its tragic, breathtaking decline. The gold-standard of American labor once boasted of more than 1,000,000 members. Today the UAW limps along with what—390,000?
However, attempting to blame the UAW’s decline on “poor leadership” or “stupidity” or “carelessness” is not only a fool’s errand, it’s oddly pathological. The facts simply don’t support it. Anyone who has paid the barest attention to the managerial/capitalistic terror that has been heaped upon the UAW has to know that the union did everything in its power to avoid being crushed.
Over the course of decades, UAW leadership has tried everything. They fought like hell, they charged, they attacked, they retreated, they tried end-runs, they compromised, they used terror of their own. They went on strike, they protested, they filed lawsuits; they used violence, they broke the law, they obeyed the law, they begged, they promised, they threatened; they played possum, and they played wolverine. For Moore to glibly suggest that the game was winnable is not just naïve, it’s insulting.
We’re not going to quibble with Moore’s other “goofs.” We’re not going to object to him insisting that O.J. Simpson was innocent, or that it was white men who “invented slavery” (Really? A bunch of Anglo-Saxon dudes were responsible for the pyramids?), or most recently that Ryan Lochte was an anti-fascist hero who should be praised for standing up to Latin America cops.
But we are going to object to him pretending to know shit about the labor movement. America’s unions are being systematically assaulted by the right-wing, by international corporate interests who are being aided by apathetic voters and gutless Democrats. It’s happening, and no one knows how to stop it. Least of all Michael Moore.