General Motor’s demise is here, and its famous foes are estatic.
Michael Moore and Ralph Nader offer different takes on the GM blowup. Nader is worried about the workers and victims of defective GM products. Meanwhile, Mike Moore just wants to throw in the towel on GM and start building trains.
Victims of defective GM products may find themselves with no legal avenue to pursue justice. In the Chrysler bankruptcy, with complete disregard for the real human lives involved, the Obama task force and auto company have maneuvered effectively to extinguish the product liability claims of victims of defective cars.
In a worst case scenario for the GM bankruptcy — involving an extended court proceeding or severe impairment of consumer confidence in the GM brand — all of these problems will be magnified. Again, given the path to resolution with the bondholders, this is an avoidable gamble.
The GM/task force bankruptcy plans appear geared to saving the General Motors entity — but at a harsh and often avoidable cost to workers, communities, suppliers, consumers, dealers, and the nation’s manufacturing capacity. It will also prove to be a complex political nightmare for President Obama.
With the company entering bankruptcy, the next challenge will be to ensure that the government exercises its ownership rights to undo and mitigate, to the extent possible, these damages. Among other measures, this should involve revisiting the serious drag-down, concessionary wage terms imposed on the United Auto Workers; demanding a moratorium on GM’s outsourcing of production of cars for sale in the United States; and establishing successorship liability for the new GM, so that victims of dangerous and defective GM cars can have their day in court.
It is with sad irony that the company which invented “planned obsolescence” — the decision to build cars that would fall apart after a few years so that the customer would then have to buy a new one — has now made itself obsolete. It refused to build automobiles that the public wanted, cars that got great gas mileage, were as safe as they could be, and were exceedingly comfortable to drive. Oh — and that wouldn’t start falling apart after two years. GM stubbornly fought environmental and safety regulations. Its executives arrogantly ignored the “inferior” Japanese and German cars, cars which would become the gold standard for automobile buyers. And it was hell-bent on punishing its unionized workforce, lopping off thousands of workers for no good reason other than to “improve” the short-term bottom line of the corporation. Beginning in the 1980s, when GM was posting record profits, it moved countless jobs to Mexico and elsewhere, thus destroying the lives of tens of thousands of hard-working Americans. The glaring stupidity of this policy was that, when they eliminated the income of so many middle class families, who did they think was going to be able to afford to buy their cars? History will record this blunder in the same way it now writes about the French building the Maginot Line or how the Romans cluelessly poisoned their own water system with lethal lead in its pipes.
So here we are at the deathbed of General Motors. The company’s body not yet cold, and I find myself filled with — dare I say it — joy. It is not the joy of revenge against a corporation that ruined my hometown and brought misery, divorce, alcoholism, homelessness, physical and mental debilitation, and drug addiction to the people I grew up with. Nor do I, obviously, claim any joy in knowing that 21,000 more GM workers will be told that they, too, are without a job.
But you and I and the rest of America now own a car company! I know, I know — who on earth wants to run a car company? Who among us wants $50 billion of our tax dollars thrown down the rat hole of still trying to save GM? Let’s be clear about this: The only way to save GM is to kill GM. Saving our precious industrial infrastructure, though, is another matter and must be a top priority. If we allow the shutting down and tearing down of our auto plants, we will sorely wish we still had them when we realise that those factories could have built the alternative energy systems we now desperately need. And when we realise that the best way to transport ourselves is on light rail and bullet trains and cleaner buses, how will we do this if we’ve allowed our industrial capacity and its skilled workforce to disappear?
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