Nader, Moore Crash GM's Hometown
FLINT, Michigan -- Thirty-five years after he exposed General Motors for producing unsafe cars, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader condemned GM in the company's battered hometown for dispensing with thousands of jobs here.
Nader was accompanied by filmmaker Michael Moore, whose hit documentary "Roger & Me" challenged GM Chairman Roger Smith to visit Flint and view the devastation caused by the company's plant closures, as well as Phil Donahue, who broadcast two episodes of his talk show from Flint in the wake of the film's success.
"The important thing here is that corporations are only accountable if they're made accountable," Nader said Thursday, calling on the auditorium crowd of 1200 to join a growing anti-globalization movement in order to halt the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to nations with lower labor costs.
Dean Braid, an executive board member of UAW Local 599 and a Buick worker since 1979, opened the event by lambasting GM for its steady downsizing since he began working in the industry.
"The idea back then was that if you work hard and your company does well, then you and your family prosper. Now the idea is that if you work hard and your company does well, you get a pink slip," he said.
Braid, a lanky man with long blond hair and a slight drawl, declared that "GM is no friend to labor. GM certainly doesn't care about the communities in which we live. GM cares only about profits and not people." He then led the audience in a semi-enthusiastic chant of "Labor for Nader."
Moore, who had speculated the event would have a poor turnout due to voter cynicism in Flint, was pleased with the near-capacity crowd. The comedic provocateur bounded onstage to the raucous reception of a hometown hero, professing "this isn't the normal Ralph Nader campaign stop in a college town or a town with a strong Green Party where everyone's into environmental issues. This is a town that's had the crap kicked out of it, but where the people have a certain resilience that keeps them going."
Indeed, the crowd was noticeably more diverse than the trendy students and aging hippies who tend to pack Nader events, running the gamut of race, age and class. As many men were in attendance wearing mesh-backed baseball caps and cowboy boots as senior citizens in sweatpants and tennis shoes.
Moore hailed Flint's history as the site of the sit-down strike famous for prompting the formation of the United Auto Workers union, and asserted that the strike inadvertently created the country's middle class.
"Never before in history were the sons and daughters of working people allowed to go to college, own their own homes, own their own means of transportation, or able to get healthcare when they got sick," Moore said. "All those battles fought by the UAW allowed us a piece of the American dream and it started right here in Flint, Michigan. We gave this gift to the rest of the country."
Moore then pointed out that Flint's 40,000 GM jobs in 1995 have now dwindled to 17,000, and that two-thirds of Flint schoolchildren live below the poverty line while the wealthiest one percent of Americans own more than the bottom 95 percent. He also emphasized the little-publicized fact that when Nader's Lebanese father immigrated to America, he first settled in Detroit and worked on an assembly line of the company that would later become Chrysler.
"He's the son of an auto worker, and that means he's one of us, and we're so proud that one of us went on to do such good," he said.
In his speech, Nader, who embarrassed GM nationally with his landmark expose "Unsafe at Any Speed." blamed the NAFTA and GATT trade agreements for sucking autoworker jobs from Flint, and pushed for the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act which he said cripples the ability of workers to organize.
Historically, Nader said, corporations have only "been held accountable by law and order, by the formation of trade unions, by strong consumer and environmental groups, by being sued in court, by real competition. But the real competition between the auto companies is no longer real. They all own each other. And there's nothing you can do about it, right? It's all inevitable, globalization is inevitable.
"No," he said. "It's only inevitable if we make it inevitable. We can organize a political movement that can do something about it."
Nader then attacked the Democratic Party for convincing voters it is the only choice for those who strongly support labor and union, and claimed his presidential run will help prod the Party back toward the left.
"Never again will the Democratic Party be able to say you have nowhere to go to the unions, to the civil rights groups, to the environmental and consumer groups and all the groups that once made the Democratic Party representative of working families," said Nader. "They are either going to have to shape up and throw off the corporate yoke that has made them look just like the Republican Party, or they're going to have to lose it to the Green Party."
Although the UAW and the Teamsters have officially endorsed Democrat Al Gore for president, Nadar said he expects some Teamster locals to break away and endorse him instead, implying a significant announcement to this effect would be made in the coming days.
It was an unusually busy afternoon for national politicians in Flint. Before Nader's engagement at the Whiting Auditorium, President Clinton appeared a block away at Mott Community College, where he delivered an address on "Digital Opportunity for Americans with Disabilities" and announced a $54 million dollar disability rehabilitation program.
Hoping to exploit the scheduling coincidence, Moore walked over and attempted, in his serial wisecracking style, to invite Clinton to join Nader for an impromptu debate, but was turned away by Secret Service agents. "I got within a hundred feet of the auditorium, but I didn't have my camera crew with me," Moore joked. "There's just something about a camera that gets you the extra fifty feet."
Jill Sterling, a 33-year old Flint native, had a ticket to the Clinton event but chose to forego it to see Nader instead. "I think Clinton's actually been a good president, and I voted for him in '92," Sterling said. "But the two-party system is pretty much apples and oranges, and third parties are given absolutely no say."
Many attendees, such as retired taxi driver Will Petty, were receptive to Nader's ideas but did not support him outright. "I go to the library quite a lot, and I've read that Ralph Nader has really stuck to his guns all these years," Petty said. "He fights pollution and global warming and all that good stuff. I just came to find out more about him."
Autoworker Michael Pierce was also drawn to the Whiting Auditorium out of general curiosity. "Gore was here last week, and a couple guys from the shop went to see him. But most of the guys can see that Gore's done a lot of chaos up in the White House, so I came to see if Nader's the man for the job."
Nader's appearance in Flint was sandwiched between an earlier event at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he spoke to 1500 people, and an evening event at Michigan State University in East Lansing that packed in over 2000. His campaign staff cited polls that show his Michigan support at 9 percent. The Michigan stops were part of Nader's three-day, six-city "Non-Voter Tour" which concludes on Friday in Minneapolis.