Michael and me
An encounter with the Bowling for Columbine director inspires one Sacramentan to film his own labor dispute
An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. It’s a universally accepted truth built into the social contract between employee and employer. That this contract is sometimes breached, whether by worker or employer, is nothing new and, in fact, forms the basis for many valid labor disputes played out in courtrooms and mediation hearings throughout the nation.
But in the underground economy, where day laborers frequently work with little formal protection, employees often have little recourse if the employer won’t pay up. Richard Myal, Christopher and Kyle Crawford, and Erik Andersen found themselves faced with such a situation in November 2003, after completing work on a tear-down crew for Gyros Fear Factory—an elaborate haunted house that had leased space above the L Street shops in Downtown Plaza.
Though Myal and the others finished their work in the first week of November, all contend that their pay was not forthcoming for weeks or months; some paychecks were short; and others, as of press time, were nonexistent.
“It’s just not right,” said Myal, who goes by the name General. “We could be slinging drugs, but we’re not, you know? You go out and get a job, do solid work, and you expect to be paid—on time, not weeks or months later.”
According to Myal, it was only after numerous phone calls, a personal visit to company headquarters in Sunnyvale and six weeks’ delay that his money arrived.
Myal further contends that if it took an English-speaking employee six weeks to get his pay, the non-English-speaking workers, mostly Mexican, probably haven’t been paid either.
“Who are they going to talk to?” Myal asked. “They totally have no voice.”
To Myal’s thinking, it was his decision to pull a Michael Moore on World Wide Attractions (WWA), by visiting its corporate headquarters in Sunnyvale, that spurred the company to action. Moore, the Oscar-winning director known for his confrontational style and mild-mannered but persistent pestering of the rich and powerful, has become one of Myal’s role models, especially after Myal secured a private meeting with Moore in October 2003.
With new friend and former labor organizer Katie Gorman operating a jiggly hand-held video camera, Myal strode into corporate offices and asked, “Have you ever heard of Michael Moore?”
In Myal’s footage, we see him showing the receptionist a picture taken of himself and Michael Moore and then laying out his reason for coming: He performed work for WWA in Sacramento, should have received pay already, has not received pay and wants to be paid now.
There ensues about 20 minutes of Myal retelling his story to various office reps and clerks scurrying around trying to find his name on any employee list or record. They don’t.
At one point during this waiting game, Myal motions to the video camera and says to the receptionist, “The worst possibility, for you, is to see this on a 40-foot screen with an Oscar winner standing behind me. … You’re not paying the people who work for you, and that’s bad publicity for any company.”
With some exasperation, Myal explains to yet another clerk, that, no, he does not have a copy of his time card.
When Myal launches into a diatribe about executives and their perks and how they’re gained through the sweat of the little guy, the receptionist shrugs and retorts, “Hey, it’s not like we’re all living on executive salaries.”
After several unsuccessful attempts to get Myal to go away, with suggestions he call the president directly, one receptionist reluctantly takes down Myal’s contact information, assuring him it will make its way to Dan Nelson, WWA’s president.
“We’ve already got his cell-phone number,” Myal mutters, walking away. “We drove from Sacramento because we haven’t gotten a return call.”
Andersen, 24, said he also had trouble getting wages out of Nelson.
“We’re outside of Labor Ready on Florin, right?” Andersen said. “And these guys approach us inside the parking lot and ask whether we want work for $8 per hour. Well, yeah … Labor Ready is paying minimum wage.”
According to Andersen, who also has no formal record of his hours or a contract he signed with WWA, Nelson’s company owes him $227.50, for 30 hours of work performed between November 14 and November 17, 2003.
To Andersen, the excuses offered by WWA management for nonpayment don’t wash—especially in light of the unredeemable money order he received in December. Local check-cashing stores refused to honor the $169 money order, saying that because Andersen’s name had been written in over the scratched-out name of the original addressee, the document was void. (The money order originally was made out to Myal.)
“It wasn’t [all] they owed me, but I figured it was better than nothing,” Andersen said. “Then, we find out they won’t cash it. That was over Christmas. I’m still waiting.”
Since then, Andersen said he has filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the California Franchise Tax Board, detailing the absence of tax-related identification forms, among other allegations. Nelson since has promised Andersen a replacement money order.
Christopher and Kyle Crawford, 21 and 25, also reported being paid weeks after the expected pay date. Kyle also said his pay was about $70 short.
Christopher said he is convinced that the “only reason we got paid was because a friend had a number for Dan Nelson, and we speak English and know what to do. That’s wrong.”
Not everyone sees Nelson and his company as bad actors, however.
Kris Robnolte, specialty leasing manager for Downtown Plaza, confirmed that WWA had paid in full and upfront for its rental of the space—about 50,000 square feet in the vacated California Department of Education offices—as well as maintained its insurance. Robnolte would not disclose the amount of rent paid by any tenant of the mall.
Robnolte said her mall’s association with WWA’s Fear Factory was a pleasant one, one she would consider continuing.
“If I had the room—and I’m not sure at this point that I will—I would definitely have them back,” Robnolte said. “They were very good for foot traffic for us, especially at night.”
And if it were shown that WWA had a history of skipping out on its workers?
“The employment end of things, with any of our tenants, isn’t what we’re involved in,” Robnolte said. “As long as tenants keep their rent paid up and their insurance and observe regulations … that’s where our involvement lies.”
For WWA’s Nelson, the entire wage incident involving the Sacramento Fear Factory’s tear-down crew is “certainly unfortunate but definitely isolated.”
Rather than typical operating procedure, Nelson asserted, problems with workers’ checks were the product of sloppy or negligent book- keeping practices by a subcontractor hired to coordinate WWA’s special events in Sacramento.
“We couldn’t keep operating successfully if we didn’t pay our bills,” Nelson said, explaining that WWA employs some 750 people in its major markets of Las Vegas, San Jose and Sacramento.
Both Nelson and employees of the Sacramento crew confirmed the female supervisor in question left for Asia the final day of the project.
“I remember her walking into the break area and saying, ‘When I come back, I’ll have pizza, time cards and copies of your contracts,’” said Andersen. “She never came back.”
Nelson didn’t know about the pizza but conceded that it was up to the supervisor to get the proper information to accounting in Sunnyvale and ultimately WWA’s responsibility to obtain that information.
“Unfortunately, she just didn’t leave us anything,” Nelson said. “We really had to take some people’s word for it and verify through different channels, because she—or someone—didn’t do their job.”
Nelson, who said WWA doesn’t have a problem meeting its annual payroll of $500,000, contends everyone who has contacted him directly has been paid—including Andersen.
“But,” Nelson admitted, “we heard there were people who didn’t speak English who worked and didn’t get paid, and we don’t know who they are. I’d like to know who they are so I could pay them.” (WWA can be reached at (888) 850-3400.)
Nelson added that Andersen’s replacement money order was mailed out January 7. Problems with the initial money order, Nelson said, were the result of simple ignorance. He did not know money orders could not be altered like checks.
Nelson also claimed no knowledge of any crew leaders pilfering hirable workers from a Labor Ready parking lot and said, “That’s certainly something we would never condone.”
Labor Ready officials, both at the Florin Road branch and the company’s headquarters in Tacoma, Wash., did not return phone calls regarding Andersen’s allegations.
Although WWA has paid its debt to Myal for the work he performed, the young filmmaker doesn’t take solace in WWA honoring its promise to pay him for work performed.
What happened, Myal said, is further confirmation of a world he desperately wants to escape. How, Myal wonders, do you convince young kids that working leads to a better life than selling dope, when selling dope produces quick and relatively easy money but honest work may go unrecognized, unrewarded or unappreciated.
“My brother was just shot October 15,” Myal said, by way of explanation and tying the two worlds together. “He was two weeks away from getting his bachelor’s degree. … So, why does he feel he has to go sling dope two weeks before he graduates? And what really propels the guy who shoots him to shoot him four times in the head? What kind of person does that? That’s part of what I’m trying to find out.”
During a videotaped segment with Academy Award-winning film director Moore, Myal says, “I shouldn’t be here, OK?” (At this point, Moore—himself having been ambushed at a speaking engagement—is seen politely smiling, hands shoved in pockets, as Myal speaks.)
“I mean, this is what I wanted, man. This is what I came for—get it?” Myal says to Moore.
“What? This?” Moore asks, indicating the meeting between himself and Myal.
“Yeah, man,” Myal says. “See, all those kids out there, they don’t think this can happen—that I can be standing here next to an Oscar-winning filmmaker. A young, black man, standing here with you, Michael Moore.”
Moore seems more embarrassed than anything else, but, as he settles in to listen to Myal’s story thus far, including the deaths of his brothers and the socioeconomic realities of the streets, he seems to warm toward Myal’s mission.
Moore spends about 15 minutes with Myal in all and gives warm encouragement, saying, “Keep telling your stories, telling them from the heart. That’s what it’s about,” Moore says.
Moore, whose most recent film, Bowling for Columbine, made such an impression on Myal, also urged Myal to claim his role as an artist.
“When I was filling out a grant application for my first film,” Moore said, “I asked a mentor of mine what I should put under the heading ‘occupation.’ He said, ‘filmmaker.’ But I hadn’t finished my first film yet.
“And he told me, ‘You’re doing it.’ So, I put down ‘filmmaker.’”
Myal is noticeably proud when Moore points to the camera and then back at Myal and says, “So, there you have it, your soon-to-be Oscar winner.”
Later, Myal said, “You know what that meant to me? He was at the height of his career. He didn’t have to do that.”
Moore was unavailable for comment when contacted for this article.
The experience with Moore, however, emboldened Myal to further document his life. And when WWA failed to pay him in a timely manner, Myal got out his camera.
“[Nelson’s] hope was, obviously, ‘I’ll pay you, and you’ll go away,’” Myal asserted.
Instead of going quietly, Myal is including this slice of life in his first documentary, now in its nascent stage.