Flint Deals With General Motors Layoffs: `Roger and Me'

THERE would not have been much of a Christmas dinner for three-year-old Britni Barber if it were not for the food basket presented her family by United Autoworkers Union Local 7. Britni's father is one of several thousand workers who have been or will soon be laid off from Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue Assembly Plant in Detroit.

But that's not the only factory that will be shutting down, at least temporarily, as the US auto industry struggles to clear out a bloated inventory of unsold cars. In all, more than 140,000 hourly workers are facing some sort of layoff in the weeks to come, when the Big Three idle more than half of their United States and Canadian assembly plants.

Supplemental Unemployment Benefits will take care of those facing temporary layoff, providing them with up to 90 percent of their normal take-home pay. But for many of those who are idled indefinitely - and that number is growing - benefits are running out.

The layoffs will be felt in factory towns coast to coast, but few places will bear the brunt as squarely as Flint, Mich., considered the birthplace of General Motors Corporation.

In the 1950s and '60s, this was a thriving metropolis, affluent on the taxes and high wages of a dozen major GM assembly and component plants. But in the 1970s, the town began to wither. Two oil shocks and the rising market share of Japanese cars forced GM to trim production and to close many of its older factories, like those in Flint, turning instead to new facilities in the suburbs - or in Mexico, South Korea, or even Japan.

Though GM still has some presence in the city, Flint is today saddled with 30,000 auto workers on indefinite layoff.

The transition from boomtown to bust is documented in a new film by a Flint native, Michael Moore, a left-wing gadfly and political activist who spent three years and whatever money he could raise by selling his car and other personal possessions to produce ``Roger & Me,'' a documentary tinged with an edge of black humor.

Using grainy newsreel footage from the '50s, Moore recounts his own childhood memories of a better time, then cuts to a scene of present-day Flint: a sheriff's deputy evicting yet another laid-off auto worker, Sabrina Thompson, and her family from their home.

GM officials defend the layoffs, insisting they must maintain profitability.

Meanwhile, city fathers try to calm the concerns of their citizenry with talk of turning Flint into a tourist mecca. There is a new hotel, a festival marketplace, and an automotive theme park. But the $100 million Autoworld closed its gates within months after opening. The festival marketplace struggles to attract Yuppies who won't venture to downtown Flint, and the hotel is bankrupt, looking for an owner.

AT first, ``Roger & Me'' seemed likely to do little more than collect dust on a shelf. But the enthusiastic receptions it received at recent film festivals in New York, Toronto, and Colorado brought it to the attention of Warner Bros. and national distribution.

When the film goes into release Friday, it is likely to prove an embarrassment for both General Motors Corporation and its chairman, Roger B. Smith, whose name is in the title.

(Throughout the film, Moore keeps trying - in some roaringly funny situations, if ultimately fruitless efforts - to interview the GM chairman. He finally confronts him at a company Christmas party in which Mr. Smith is quoting Charles Dickens, whose visions of Christmas charity are interrupted by scenes of still more evictions.)

``Roger & Me'' makes no bones about its own bias. There were frequent cheers from the auto workers in the audience during the preview showing, punctuated by boos and catcalls whenever Smith appeared on screen.

Officials at GM, on the other hand, have quietly condemned the movie, though they have avoided making any public comments for fear of creating the type of controversy that would give ``Roger & Me'' even more exposure.

For his part, Smith says he hasn't seen the film: ``A parody is a parody, but I wouldn't want to see a cruel parody setting back what the people of Flint have done. The only thing I would worry about is that the people up in Flint have done a great job and I don't think [Moore] ought to put them down.''

``We've all lived here all of our lives,'' Moore said in introducing his film to the Flint audience. ``We've seen what happened to our town. We wanted to make this film ... with the hopes that not only Flint, but the rest of the country would be concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor these days.''

Moore admits corporations do have a responsibility to stockholders, and can't ignore profits. But he quickly asks: ``How much is enough? They made $5 billion last year. So why are they closing plants?''

The situation in Flint is not quite as desperate as Moore portrays. GM has not pulled up stakes entirely, and plans to expand the central office of its AC Rochester component division.

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