|Biting Satire on Corporate America's Hypocrisy and Anti-Worker Policies|
|DOWNSIZE THIS! RANDOM THREATS FROM AN
By Michael Moore
Published by Harper Collins: New York, US. 1997
Pp. 317. Pbk. US$12.
| Michael Moore is probably
best known for his 1989 documentary film, Roger and Me,
in which he tries to convince then-CEO of General Motors,
Roger Smith, to come to Moore's home town of Flint,
Michigan and see the impact of GM factory closings on
families and working people. The film struck a nerve in
America, at a time when large corporations like General
Motors were 'downsizing' their workforces while upsizing
their profits. Smith eventually stepped down as CEO, but
the problem Moore highlighted has continued unabated into
Moore's recent book, Downsize This!, takes its title from the corporate euphemism for firing workers. Originally published in 1996, and updated for the paperback edition a year later, Moore's latest assault on corporate America is a biting satire of all that is wrong with an America under ever increasing control of business interests, ranging from the national corporate media to multinational and transnational corporations.
In the grand old American populist style, the book is written for those who have been downsized. As Moore puts it, 'This book is for those who have some inkling, through their own daily experience, that all this news about the "great economic miracle" is the best propaganda that's been fed to the American people since Ronald Reagan declared ketchup a vegetable. How stupid do they think we are? Really stupid, I guess. I wrote this book basically to show that I'm not that stupid.' Indeed not; throughout this work, Moore reveals an honest intelligence, wry wit, and keen eye for everyday injustices.
Moore's preface juxtaposes two startling pictures, with the caption 'what is terrorism?' The top picture is of the remains of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after a truck bomb blast in 1995; the bottom picture is of a Flint factory in the midst of being demolished after downsizing. At first glance, one cannot tell which is done by a bomb and which is done by a bulldozer. Both are ugly and stark reminders of the seething greed and anger afoot in America in an age of crass materialism, corporate downsizing, and the desperate measures that accompany them. The juxtaposition is more than rhetorical. As Moore points out in his first chapter, 'Let's All Hop in a Ryder Truck,' workers who are laid off by corporations like General Motors rely on rent-a-truck to move their lives in search of new jobs. In fact, many laid-off GM workers were shuttling back and forth between temporary jobs in Michigan and Oklahoma in the now infamous Ryder trucks, one of which carried the bomb that blew apart the Murrah Federal Building.
'Some of these people who will lose their jobs are recent arrivals from Oklahoma City. They moved to Flint (a few months after the bombing of their federal building) when GM began laying off workers at its factory there and told the ones with higher seniority that they could relocate to Flint if they chose. So they rented their Ryder trucks and headed to Michigan with the promise of the company that they would be secure (in Flint!). Now, nine months later, they will be forced to call Ryder Truck and move again. They've been told this time that they can go to Lansing.' In many cases, of course, there simply are no more jobs even if one is willing to move. Moore asks: 'What is terrorism? There is no question that, when an individual rents a Ryder Truck, loads it with explosives, and blows up a building, it is an act of terrorism and should be severely punished. But what do you call it when a company destroys the lives of thousands of people? Is this terrorism? Economic terrorism? The company doesn't use a homemade bomb or a gun. They politely move out all of the people before they blow up the building. But as I pass by the remnants of that factory there in Flint, Michigan, looking eerily like the remnants of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, I wonder: What will happen to those people?' Moore concludes that, though people somehow endure these hardships, 'thousands of Americans are only a few figurative steps away from getting into that Ryder Truck.'
Meanwhile, as lives shatter and buildings crumble, corporate executives continue to rake in obscene profits. After noting that 20 million Americans 'cannot make the bare minimum they need to survive,' Moore recounts that 'the chief executive officers, the CEOs of our top 300 companies, are earning 212 times what their average worker is earning. As these CEOs fire thousands of employees, they, in turn, become even wealthier. AT&T chairman Robert Allen lays off 40,000 workers while making $16 million. Louis Gerstner of IBM fires 60,000 workers, then takes home $2.6 million. Scott Paper fires 11,000 people, merges with Kimberly-Clark, and CEO Albert Dunlop bags $100 million! These corporations then go on to post record profits. And how do they celebrate their success? By firing even more people! General Motors made $34 billion in profits over the past fifteen years - and eliminated over 240,000 jobs.' The executive-to-worker ratio Moore cites is the highest in the world. In other industrial giants, such as Japan, corporate executives usually earn wages 50 times higher than their workers.
Subsequent chapters, some hilariously tongue-in-cheek and others painfully ironic, recount a seemingly endless series of institutional injustices, media circuses, and social pathologies. For example, Chapter Two asks, 'Would Pat Buchanan Take a Check from Satan?' Moore and his co-conspirators formed a number of front organizations, sending campaign contributions to Buchanan and Bob Dole from the likes of 'Satan Worshippers for Dole,' or 'Pedophiles for Free Trade,' or 'Hemp Growers of America.' Some were returned, but not all. Pat Buchanan cashed checks from 'Abortionists for Buchanan' and 'The John Wayne Gacey Fan Club,' the latter named after the notorious mass murderer of children. But all is not fun and games; Moore has a keen eye for hypocrisy, and masterfully uncovers the phony campaign rhetoric of the American establishment. His fact checkers and research assistants know how to dig out the dirt.
After a few more chapters on politics, including 'Don't Vote - It Only Encourages Them' and 'Democrat? Republican? Can You Tell the Difference,' Moore returns to corporate America with one of the best essays in the collection, 'Corporate Crooks Trading Cards.' In the style he made popular with Roger and Me and his television series TV Nation, Moore takes aim at corporate corruption. His 'trading cards' are profiles of corporations and their CEOs, with details of 'any lawbreaking (civil or criminal) or other activities that we should definitely consider illegal or immoral.' Moore urges readers to duplicate and pass around the trading cards. Topping the list of corporate crooks is William Stavropoulos, CEO of Dow Chemical Company. Moore points out that Dow is the world's largest source of the highly carcinogenic poison, dioxin. Dow also supplied the government with the defoliant Agent Orange, with which the US saturated Vietnam and which has caused disease and death there and among American veterans. In 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency fined Dow over a million dollars for hazardous waste violations in Michigan and for failing to report adverse health effects of its products. In the same year, a Nevada jury ruled against Dow Chemical in a $14 million breast implant lawsuit, upholding the charge that Dow Chemical concealed dangers of silicone implants from the public.
Philip Knight, the pompous CEO of Nike, Inc., makes Moore's hall of shame, his face and company's deeds emblazoning Corporate Crook card #3. As most people know, Nike actually manufactures very little - it is essentially a gigantic marketing firm. Nearly all of its footware is manufactured on contract to sweatshops in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, where over one third of its shoes are made. According to Moore, who cites well-documented research, Indonesia is 'notorious for human rights abuses and poor working conditions. Indonesian girls and young women who sew the shoes start at an entry-level rate of about two dollars a day, a wage that meets only two-thirds of workers' "basic physical needs," as defined by the Indonesian government.' Nike workers routinely suffer harassment, beatings, and imprisonment, while Nike looks the other way or refuses to enforce a code of standards.
After a few more political chapters, Moore weighs in on the O.J. Simpson media circus, reveals his secret crush on Hillary Clinton, tries to get California Representative Robert Dornan committed to an asylum for the insane, and suggest that the US government downsize and move its operations to Mexico along with the American corporations setting up shop there. He also urges readers to join his organization, Mike's Militia, which will work non-violently to 'enforce the calls to action in this book,' to 'sell raffle tickets' and raise proceeds to take militia members on fun field trips, and to 'eliminate all other militia groups.' In fact, Moore has worked on a film in which he spends time with the Michigan Militia, revealing a little seen side of the often demonized groups. (Mike's Militia can be accessed via the internet at http://www.michaelmoore.com).
On the promotional tour for Downsize This!, Moore got the idea for his subsequently released film, 'The Big One'. As he traveled from city to city, he met countless people who related their own stories of being downsized by corporate America. This was a time when US president Clinton boasted of increasing jobs and an economy on the upswing. Moore decided to document the stories, and brought a camera crew on the rest of the book tour. Along the way, he also got into trouble with Borders bookstores, when he refused to cross a picket line of striking Borders workers, speaking out in favor of Borders' employees who were trying to unionize. The corporation sent PR flacks and security thugs to Moore's subsequent stops, in an attempt to 'protect' Borders workers from meeting with Moore. The scheme backfired, with Moore donating some of the proceeds from Downsize This! to help the Borders workers unionize.