Labor Fans Hit
For a Film Premiere
By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue
When we heard Michael Moore was going to do a surprise premiere of his new film, ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’ at the AFL-CIO convention Sept 14 and we were all invited, it was a no-brainer—how many names could we nail down in time and how many cars could we get for the drive to downtown Pittsburgh the next day?
We knew union delegates to the convention that could go. But Moore, the California Nurse’s Association, and Leo Girard, head of the United Steel Workers, wanted the area’s battleground fighters for HR 676 ‘Medicare for All’ to have a shot at the seats in the Golden Triangles’ Byham Theater. That qualification certainly fit the 4th CD’s Progressive Democrats of America and its ally, Beaver County Peace Links. They had been working of HR 676 for years at the grassroots, showing Moore’s ‘Sicko’ documentary on health care many times.
For a spur-of-the moment happening, the event was wildly successful. Thousands rallied at the David Lawrence Convention Center, then poured into the evening sunset-lit downtown streets with chants and banners, for a militant and spirited march to the cultural district. Michael Moore, appropriately clad in a bright red shirt and red ball cap, helped carry the front row banner, leading the chants.
I had volunteered my car, and had set off two hours earlier with my partner, winding through the back roads of Raccoon Township to pick up Mike Sabat, a steelworker from a still-operating tube mill in Ambridge, PA. After a quick farewell to his wife, youngsters and dogs, we were off, determined to make it in time and find parking.
“I saw ‘Sicko’ back when we filled up the Croatian Club in Aliquippa with 400 people, when we brought in Dennis Kucinich,” Sabat told me during the ride. He also spoke at that event, since he had a story to tell that could apply to many workers. He had a young family, a wife and three children, but one suffered from autism.
“My boy’s gotten some good help in the local schools,” Mike explained, “but we have to organize our lives around health care. That means I hustle to find the decent job with benefits, work overtime to take up any slack, and my wife deals with my son and the other children. If we had single-payer, I could work less, and spend more time with the kids. My wife could work part time, even go to school and start a career. But we’re stuck. When I’m laid off, my VISA card is my health insurance—and that puts everything, my whole family, at risk.”
It’s harsh class realities like this that explains why Michael Moore is a working-class hero, why HR 676 single payer is a just cause, despite wimps in Congress and the White House, and why the rightwing populist Tea Baggers are suckers for the insurance profiteers.
Traffic was light and parking was easy. But the convention center was cavernous, so we used our cell phones to hook up with the people in the other cars from Beaver County, and made it to the ballroom reception just in time to get a bite to eat from the munchies put out by the union hosts that had endorsed HR 676. On the platform, one union official after another is firing up the room with support for single payer, but with warnings that we still faced an uphill battle even for its pale shadow, the ‘public option,’ a proposal for a partial public health care alternative to the insurance companies.
The din of conversation made it hard to hear, and these things are for mingling away, so I looked around. “Carl, what are you doing here!” came from a tall figure striding up to us. It was Aaron Hughes, a national board member for the Iraq Vets Against the War, and a friend from my days in Chicago. He greeted my partner, too; she’s a longtime activist with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and other peace and justice causes. We quickly updated each other, and connected our networks.
Hughes is in town working on a project with the steelworkers, ‘Global Solidarity with Iraqi Oil Workers,’ with a lunch reception at USW headquarters Sept 16. It’s a natural connection with our PDA ‘Healthcare Not Warfare’ project. PDA’s Randy Shannon also introduces me Kay Tillow, the Kentucky nurses’ organizer now heading up the All Unions Committee for Single Payer Health Care. “Whenever I need to get my tactics straightened out, I read what you and Randy have to say,” I told her. She laughed and told me she’s read my stuff going back to the 1960s.
But Moore’s arrival on the platform got everyone’s attention. He’s warmly received, and clearly at ease with this crowd, telling stories about his father as an organizer at the Flint, MI Champion spark plug plant and his uncle as one of the Flint sit-down strikers that created the United Auto Workers. The film is the culmination of 20 years of his work, he explains, a work of the heart as well as the head. He satisfied my curiosity about the title, ‘Capitalism: A Love Story.’ “You see, the Wall Street guys just love their money,” he quipped. “The problem is, they love yours and mine, too.”
Moore focused on the battle for healthcare. He reminded the union audience that we have to stand firm for a national single payer healthcare plan and stay with the battle for national healthcare until it is won. “The compromises are for the politicians. We don’t compromise because we are the ones fighting the battle for national healthcare.” Moore’s support for healthcare reflected preceding remarks by Cecil Roberts, President of the UMWA and by Leo Gerard, President of the USW emphasizing their determination to win Medicare for All.
Once fired up, we’re off onto the streets for the half mile or so to the theater. “We are the union, the mighty, mighty union…Healthcare, now!” echoes off skyscraper walls. We fill the narrower streets, and we’re eight abreast taking half of the wider ones. The cops are actually helpful, and the evening crowds supportive and cheerful.
The Byham Theater’s well-worn old-fashion elegance, with its high ceiling and ornate, rococo decorations, was a treat itself, with a huge lobby and even though our seats were in the second tier of the balcony, we still had a great view. Moore dominated the stage with his red shirt, and spoke to the press as well as the rest of us once more: “I’m truly humbled to be premiered this film to this audience, here in Pittsburgh.”
The film is classic Michael Moore—funny, serious, heartbreaking, and radical in its politics. He’s a master of his genre, a genius at stringing together powerful emotional stories, full of working-class suffering, and combining them with madcap capers aimed at desanctifying authority and smashing the arrogance of the ruling class. Most of all, he inspires us to fight back and convinces us we can win.
Without giving too much away, here are some of my favorite scenes. A young hotshot Wall Street trader and an stuffed shirt Ivy League economics prof are both asked to tell us what a ‘derivative’ is, and both become completely tongue-tied. But Moore gets it right by merging the floor lighting and table signs of a Vegas casino with the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Another is where Moore separately interviews two Catholic priests and one bishop, with each telling him capitalism is utterly immoral and must be replaced. In still another, Moore tells the tale of two evictions—one very bitter, with a white worker declaring that ‘those who have nothing have got to revolt against those who have everything;” the other inspiring, where neighbors put a family’s belonging back into the home they were evicted from, and stare down the police until they leave.
If you’re looking for the video version of Marx’s ‘Capital’ you’re not going to find it here. This is mass agitational media designed to fan the flames of discontent, and it does it very well. Moore is an artist as well as a polemicist; he understands the need for emotion and indirect symbolism in the visual and aural medium, not just talking heads. He does, however, point to worker-ownership and expanded workplace democracy as the starting point of anti-capitalist solutions. At the end, the audience shouted kudos, raised their fists and gave a prolonged ovation. Even the ushers were beaming with smiles.
“I kid you not,” said Moore later, “the roof practically came off the place as the credits rolled. I’ve never witnessed, in my 20 years as a filmmaker, such a response to one of my movies. I’m sure the theater management must have been thinking a riot was going to break out. After years of having the crap kicked out of working people of this country, the crowd in Pittsburgh was ready to rumble after watching two hours of cinema that laid it all out about how Corporate America has gotten away with murder. I was profoundly moved by this overwhelming and enthusiastic response.”
On the drive back to Beaver County, we relived and laughed again over our favorite scenes. But we also knew there was something else here. This man’s work is an organizing tool, a way to do broader outreach and raise the level of political class consciousness on several levels at once. We discussed designing leaflets to distribute at its regular showings in regular theater, then where we might show it ourselves and how we could use it to introduce study groups. Michael Moore had certainly accomplished his task.