Downsize This!

The appearance of filmmaker and social commentator Michael Moore at the Miami Book Fair International this past Sunday was supposed to be his second South Florida trip this month to promote his book Downsize This! Random Threats From An Unarmed American. His first appearance, at a Borders bookstore in Fort Lauderdale on November 9, was canceled.

The motivation for the cancellation is wrapped up in a ruckus that has erupted in magazines and newspapers nationwide, tweaking the bookseller's reputation and -- probably not coincidentally -- further buffing Moore's badge as a champion of the small guy.

The day Moore was supposed to be in Fort Lauderdale, he was instead in New York where he lives, penning a tirade against the bookstore chain. The screed was published in this past week's issue of the Nation magazine. In it, Moore, creator of the critically acclaimed documentary Roger & Me and the television series TV Nation, claims he was bounced from the bookstore's events schedule because of his outspoken support for efforts to unionize Borders employees around the United States. "The Fort Lauderdale Borders had received a memo from its corporate headquarters ... banning me from speaking or signing at any Borders store in the country," he writes. Prior to the publication of Moore's piece in the Nation, the escalating incident had been tracked in articles in the New York Times, the Detroit News, and other newspapers around the U.S.

The dispute began in Philadelphia in September, early in Moore's 47-city book tour. There, unbeknownst to him, he was scheduled to appear at a Borders that the International Workers of the World was attempting to unionize. Upon his arrival, he was met by a picket protesting the firing of an employee, Miriam Fried, who had led the unionizing drive from within. "The effort failed and a few weeks later, Miriam was given the boot," Moore writes.

Rather than cross the picket line, Moore, an inveterate union supporter, invited the protesters to join him inside the store. He shared the microphone with Fried and signed books. "Although Anne Kubek, Borders' corporate V.P. in charge of labor relations, had approved my bringing the protesters inside, upper management decided that she had made a mistake -- and they were going to take it out on me," Moore writes.

The retribution, he asserts, came several days later in Manhattan, where he was scheduled to appear at a Borders in the World Trade Center. Moore claims he was met at the store by two Borders executives, flanked by security guards, who forbade him from speaking but permitted him to sign books. "They said that the 'commotion' I had caused in Philly raised 'security concerns,'" he recalls in the Nation. The author announced to the assembled crowd that he was being censored because of his support for the workers in Philadelphia.

A spokeswoman for the bookselling behemoth says Moore's paranoia has gotten the better of him. Moore was restricted to book-signing as a crowd-control measure, explains Jody Kohn of Borders Group, Inc., which is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The World Trade Center store had recently opened and was attracting enormous crowds during the middle of the day, especially when an author was scheduled to appear, she says. Because Moore had been drawing hundreds of people to his readings, police from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the World Trade Center, scrapped his speech.

"We told his publisher the night before that it would only be a signing," Kohn asserts. "He was told, unfortunately, about an hour or so before the signing. He took his own leap about why that was." Security guards are standard-issue at many U.S. stores for events involving prominent authors, she adds. As for the Borders executives, Kohn says they were from the bookseller's national events team and were in New York on other business.

Kohn expressly denies that the change of plans at the World Trade Center had anything to do with the rumpus in Philadelphia. (For that matter, she discounts Moore's claims that he received permission to bring the picket inside. "He decided that was the way he would handle the situation, and we didn't stop him," she clarifies. And she also denies that Philadelphia's Miriam Fried was fired because of her union activities.)

The rancor between Moore and Borders came to a head again two weeks later in Des Moines. After speaking to a large crowd in an auditorium, he began signing books out front. "Then someone slipped me an anonymous note," Moore recounts in the Nation. "It read: 'We are employees of the Des Moines Borders. We were told that we could not work the book table tonight, that only management was working the table, because they said they wanted to "protect us" from you.'"

The Food and Commercial Workers Union is organizing at the Des Moines outlet and has scheduled an election for December 10. Besides Des Moines and Philadelphia, where unionization was voted down, only two other stores have experienced organizing attempts, according to Kohn: one in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago, which voted for union representation, and another in Ann Arbor, where the union canceled the vote.

After the Des Moines book-signing, Moore writes, he ran into a group of bookstore employees hiding in the shadows of the auditorium's parking lot. They were fearful they were going to be fired because they had attended the reading, they told him.

Again, Kohn says Moore is full of hogwash. "This is the Des Moines situation," she sighs. "We were getting media calls [about the controversy] by this point and were expecting a lot of press and cameras. We decided to staff this event with management. We didn't want to have booksellers in the position of having to be national spokespersons if there were media. But we gave them time off to go and paid for their tickets."

Last came the aborted Fort Lauderdale appearance. Contrary to Moore's claims, Kohn insists there was never any corporate directive to "ban" the author from appearing in Fort Lauderdale or at any other Borders. She says Moore's book-signing had never been confirmed and that it was the outlet's community-relations coordinator who decided to scrap the event. "The store was approached by the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival organizers and tentatively agreed to host [Moore]," Kohn explains. But when the bookstore canceled, the film festival organizers failed to inform him.

The dispute is particularly odd because Moore and Borders have historically had a close relationship. Moore recalls in his article that Borders, when it was a single store in Ann Arbor, carried his alternative newspaper when other stores refused. The author also kicked off his book tour with a speech in Ann Arbor sponsored by the company. And Borders has featured his book in two of its promotional publications.

According to Kohn, the president of Borders Group, Inc. has invited Moore to meet with him and settle their differences. Moore, who failed to return numerous phone calls for this story, has reportedly accepted the invitation; the sides have yet to set a date.


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