It's tempting to compare filmmaker Greg Spotts with Michael Moore. Like that pugnacious documentarian, Spotts aims to champion the little guy — in this case, Americans losing their jobs to foreign competition.
But while Moore tempers his savage criticism of The Man (usually a corporate profiteer) with humor, Spotts can't bring himself to give this subject a light-hearted touch.
"I'm not sure it's appropriate to find too much humor," he says from his home in Santa Monica, Calif., where he's editing his self-financed documentary, "American Jobs," set to be released on DVD on Labor Day.
It could be the first feature-length documentary to chronicle the outsourcing trend, which appears to be quickening. Forrester Research recently revised its estimates on the number of U.S. technology jobs being sent overseas. The firm now figures some 830,000 white-collar jobs will move abroad by 2005, compared to the 588,000 it projected two years ago.
With a $3,500 digital camera — a gift from his mother and wife — and borrowed lighting and sound equipment, Spotts visited 15 cities from January to April , usually crashing on a friend's couch.
He interviewed those at the center of the trend, both in manufacturing and technology: laid-off Boeing workers in Seattle, computer programmers in Florida, garment workers in Los Angeles.
These were folks whose jobs had moved to India, Turkey or China . Their social fabric, often intertwined with work, was torn. Their unemployment benefits were running out. Their health coverage was gone.
What it is
Outsourcing: Sending work to outside vendors, who may or may not be U.S. employers.
Offshoring: Substituting foreign for domestic labor, either through outsourcing or by opening an office in another country.
"I met a woman in North Carolina who spends most of her time going from church group to charity, trying to get her next dose of thyroid pills that she needs to stay alive. She talks about it just like a drug addict talks about their habit."
Throughout his research and travels, Spotts hit the same obstacles as others who have tried to measure the effects of offshoring. Hard data is hard to come by. Are U.S. job losses the result of foreign competition or labor-saving technology ?
Spotts found that the two are related. He uses Boeing's parts manufacturing as an example.
"We used to make these parts by hand using tools. Now the tools are computerized and they make the part themselves, so it becomes easier to move that work to a lower-wage country."
Although he touts "American Jobs" as a nonpartisan film, Spotts plans to sell it on labor-union Web sites and activists' organizations as well as on his own site, americanjobsfilm.com. He plans to keep the price below $20.
In Seattle, where both manufacturing and technology jobs are being exported, Spotts interviewed union reps for Boeing machinists and engineers, as well as people involved with WashTech, the technology union leading the national fight against offshoring.
He interviewed Myra Bronstein, a tech worker who lost her job at WatchMark when the Bellevue company moved some testing functions to India. Bronstein explained she trained her replacement in exchange for severance benefits.
He talked to Charles Craft, an 18-year Boeing machinist. Craft said his section is being mothballed and that some of the jobs will be moved to Turkey. Indeed, Tusas Aerospace Industry, a state-owned Turkish military aircraft builder, will receive four large milling machines from Auburn.
Spotts went to Orlando, Fla., where computer programmers for Siemens complained they were replaced at their own desks by guest workers on L-1 visas, which allow for intracompany transfers from foreign offices.
He went to Kannapolis, N.C., headquarters of Pillowtex, which employed nearly 5,000 locals. The textile mill went bankrupt in 2003, the victim of cheap foreign imports.
Many of its workers, whose average age is now 47, have yet to find jobs.
"They are missing payments on their homes, selling cars, contemplating moving in with relatives," Spotts said. "The plant was self-insured, so the day it went down there was no (health insurance)."
Spotts' varied career has zigzagged from talent manager to MTV2 producer, but this is his first documentary. The 36-year-old Yale graduate got the idea last spring when he noticed that many of his friends were out of work.
He researched unemployment and then the decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs — nearly 3 million lost since July 2000.
"I had no idea that it had lurched so suddenly. It made me think something structural rather than cyclical was happening in the economy."
The film will examine some of the hidden costs of free trade, including what Spotts calls the "breakdown of community."
"The farther management gets from labor, the easier it is for there to be this disconnect of caring and interest. You're insulated by time zones, by cultures, by country. Corporations' leaders are 1,000 miles from any of their plants. They don't have to see the guy in the cafeteria they've known for 30 years having his cake for his last day."
Spotts noticed this acutely in Seattle, where he interviewed one laid-off Boeing engineer who used to socialize with his co-workers in a flying club and an off-hours rock band.
"He thought this was going to be his community for the rest of his life," Spotts recalled. "He was more sad about that, about losing access to this community of really smart, amazing people, than even his money situation."
Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Outsourcing: The movie
Seattle Times business reporter
Greg Spotts, center, interviews former Siemens contractor Mike Emmons, right, and former Siemens systems analyst Pat Fluno at Emmons' home in Longwood, Fla