I exceedingly appreciate the spirit in which the morning paper referred to me today. Several years ago, they did not write so well of me. I presume I have grown more respectable. I suppose they see that my tribe is increasing. When the masses agree with a man, then he ceases to be an object of ridicule and abuse. After a while, some of these people who have abused us will be the ones who will be saying, “I told you so.”
— Eugene Debs speaking in Knoxville, Tennessee (1905)
It’s hard to imagine 30 years have passed since Michael Moore’s Roger and Me. Although I didn’t see the documentary until the following summer, it made a lasting impression on me.
Michael Moore Was Right, by Meagan Day (Jacobin)
Mocked and derided for his impassioned defense of poor and working people, Michael Moore is finally being vindicated. He hasn’t changed his tune. The political culture’s just catching up with him.
… I was thinking about the vindication of Michael Moore when I decided to watch his debut film Roger & Me, which turns thirty this year and which I’d never seen before. The film is an early exploration of the domino effect of deindustrialization and a premonition about the unraveling of the American dream — and it stands the test of time.
Roger & Me was personal for Moore. He grew up in Flint, Michigan, the town General Motors (GM) built, and his family worked for the corporate giant. They were also members of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), which was forged in the furnace of struggle — Moore’s uncle had been one of the sit-down strikers who famously occupied factories in 1936–7, giving rise to the union.
By the middle of the twentieth century, UAW had been able to secure a remarkable degree of stability and security for GM workers and their families. Roger & Me features archival footage showing mid-century Flint as a kind of middle-class utopia, the living embodiment of capitalism’s promise. “We enjoyed a prosperity that working people around the world had never seen before,” says Moore in a voice-over, “and the city was grateful to the company.”
But the company felt no allegiance to the people of Flint. Hungry for profit and regarding the union as a pest and a hindrance, GM began searching for ways to lower labor costs. In the early 1980s, it began laying off workers in its unionized plants and opening new operations elsewhere, across borders and beyond the union’s grasp.
The film’s title refers to Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors, who came up with the plan to close eleven factories in the United States and open eleven in Mexico, where the company could pay the workers seventy cents an hour. The company would then use the money saved by underpaying workers to expand its operations into new industries, like weapons manufacturing.
“Maybe I’ve got this wrong,” says Moore in the film, “but I thought companies lay off people when they’ve hit hard times. GM was the richest company in the world, and it was closing factories when it was making profits in the billions.”
The film chronicles Moore’s efforts to secure a meeting with Roger Smith to discuss the unfolding devastation of Flint. Along the way, he introduces us to dozens of Flint residents whose lives have been upended by the layoffs and plant closings. The closest Moore gets to Smith is an ambush at a Christmas press conference, which in the film is cut with footage of Flint families being evicted from their homes just in time for the holidays.
Moore asks Smith about the evictions. “I’m sorry for those people, but I don’t know anything about it,” Smith retorts before giving Moore the cold shoulder.
The film ends with an ominous forecast. “As we neared the end of the twentieth century, the rich were richer, the poor poorer,” Moore narrates over footage of a dismantled factory in the former boomtown. “It was truly the dawn of a new era.”
Translation: it’s obvious what’s coming. The writing’s on the wall. And it won’t be good …