Off Beat

TV Does Funny Things to People

OFF BEAT HAS a confession to make. We don't watch nearly enough television. (We know we should watch more, but it interferes with our concentration when we're playing Parcheesi.) We bring this up in order to explain how it was that we didn't catch a Minneapolis-based episode of Michael Moore's show The Awful Truth until it was rerun on November 3.

Moore--he of Roger and Me and TV Nation fame--came to town in April to film the segment after having read news accounts of eight undocumented Mexican housekeepers who faced deportation following their successful effort to unionize at the Holiday Inn Express downtown. The show opens with Moore narrating against a backdrop of families celebrating in a banquet room Moore rented at the Holiday Inn. A mariachi band plays as Moore intones, "I'm giving a going-away party for some friends of mine. Unfortunately, it's not really a happy occasion. You see, my friends don't want to go."

Moore then launches into the tale of how his guests, six men and two women, were turned over to officials from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service by hotel management who "coincidentally" became concerned about their paperwork just as contract negotiations between the Holiday Inn and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 17 were about to begin. As the former hotel workers beat a piñata shaped like an INS agent, Moore explains that retaliating against workers who are trying to organize--regardless of whether they're in this country illegally--is against the law. In the next scene, Moore heads into the hotel with a health inspector. The two make note of several violations, including faulty sprinklers and dried blood on bedspreads and carpets. Moore uses maps and cheesy graphics to trace how he jetted around the nation from INS offices to Holiday Inn corporate headquarters, pleading the workers' case.

By show's end, the Holiday Inn is facing fines for its blood and sprinkler code violations. The hotel has agreed to pay the workers, who'll be allowed to remain in the United States, a $72,000 settlement. There is much embracing and cheering.

The episode originally aired in May. What's up with those workers now? Off Beat idly wondered. Have they erected a shrine to their Great Defender? To find out, we checked with Jorge Saavedra, an attorney with Centro Legal, the nonprofit law firm that represented the Holiday Inn Eight. "He does seem to take credit for the whole thing," Saavedra says of Moore's version of events. "I don't really want to knock him, because he did a tremendous service by helping to publicize what was going on here. But he was never actually involved in the case or the settlement. Most of that was settled back in January, months before he arrived in town to film.

"All of the credit really goes to the individual workers," Saavedra adds, "because they had to make critical decisions all the way along."

Moore, whom Off Beat reached by e-mail, seemed a wee bit miffed that we'd question whether he might have, um, hogged the spotlight. "How do I respond to such a hostile question?" the eminent activist wrote back. "Especially after all the time and money we spent on the cause of these eight workers? If you are asking me to get into a pissing match with those good lawyers, I won't. TV does funny things to people. If they don't see themselves enough, or in the light they would cast, they become a little upset."

Funny, Saavedra didn't seem upset to us. Ah, well, no matter. We did ask the attorney to fill us in about the current status of the Holiday Inn housekeepers. Turns out one of the six men has been deported (he had been deported once before and had returned to this country). The other five men are back at work in service-industry jobs that pay a little more than $7 an hour (though not at the Holiday Inn), but the two women in the group, both of them single mothers with young children, are still waiting for their working papers, which they were due to receive in July. "They've been living on church donations and union funds, but that's dried up now," Saavedra reports.

But that's not the whole story. "The workers got what is called 'deferred action' status, which means they can stay in the country for two years, not forever," says Saavedra. "It's something the INS grants when attention is focused on them to do the right thing. It buys them time. Two years from now no one will be looking, and they'll quietly deport all of these people."

Wonder if we'll see Michael Moore back in town then.