Dingell: GM building Blazer in Mexico 'not a good symbol'

Keith Laing
The Detroit News
U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters check out the Motor Trend 2019 Truck of the Year, the Ram 1500 Limited, while touring the show floor at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday

Detroit — The partial government shutdown and General Motors Co.'s plans to idle five plants, lay off 6,000 salaried employees and imperil the jobs of 3,300 hourly workers cast a pall over the typically jubilant congressional walkthrough of the Detroit auto show. 

Against a backdrop of looming job losses and shuttered federal agencies, several members of the Michigan delegation — U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township and U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills; Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly and Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township — toured the final North American International Auto Show that will take place in January. Republican members of the congressional delegation were absent for the traditionally bipartisan walk-through on Monday.

Dingell, who said after GM's announcement that it is "the most disliked company in Washington," said Monday that the Detroit company's plan build its second-coming of the Chevrolet Blazer in Mexico is not playing well amidst the announcement of its austerity plan.

"So obviously the Blazer being built in Mexico is not a good symbol," Dingell told reporters during her tour of the Chevrolet stand. "It is something that obviously bothers me and the president. I'm going to be a little more careful of what GM's product plans are and have my discussions directly with them." 

Michigan lost two Metro Detroit Republican members of its congressional delegation when former Rep. Dave Trott retired and Rep. Mike Bishop was defeated for re-election by Slotkin. Representatives for other GOP House members from Michigan attributed their absences to scheduling conflicts. 

Slotkin, a former CIA analyst, noted the government shutdown also colored lawmakers' perceptions of the auto show this year. 

"I was a federal employee for 14 years, I was a CIA officer and a Pentagon official," she said. "I ran the shutdown in 2013 for the Department of Defense in 2013, and the pain that people are going through is real and the follow-on effects are happening now."  

Dingell said GM's austerity plans are symptomatic of broader problems with U.S. trade policy that she said have been exacerbated by President Donald Trump's reliance on tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum that automakers have chafed under. 

Richard F. Lopez, director of federal and administration affairs for GM, gives U.S. Reps. Haley Stevens, center, and Elissa Slotkin a description of the new 2019 Cadillac CT6 during atour.

"I've been pretty vocal along with a number of my colleagues about the way that General Motors did this," she said. "I'm really concerned about us having a trade policy in this country that keeps jobs here and not being shipped overseas. We've got to really address policies that are going to keep jobs here and the way that we treat our employees. Workers are what help make a company successful, and I think workers need to be valued as much as the investors." 

Sens. Stabenow and Peters agreed, saying GM and other automakers need to make more of their products domestically. 

"I know that both of us and whole delegation is laser-focused on the people affected here in Michigan," Stabenow said during a tour of the Chrysler stand. "Number one is making sure if we can't convince them to keep those plants open, to make sure everybody's got a good paying job who is facing a layoff and to make sure also GM is making future decisions based on Michigan."

"Certainly the capacity that we see here in the United States is there to build more vehicles," Peters added. "There has been excess capacity that has been built in Mexico, we're doing everything we can to make sure that those vehicles come here to the United States and that any kind of vehicle that is sold in the United States should actually be made in the United States." 

GM has been under fire for moving to cease production next year at its Detroit-Hamtramck and Warren Transmission plants in Michigan; at Lordstown Assembly in northeast Ohio; at Baltimore Operations in Maryland; and at Oshawa Assembly in Ontario.

U.S. Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens walk the show floor during Michigan's congressional delegation's tour of the auto show on Monday.

Work will stop next year at predetermined dates, but plants will not officially close. The future of those facilities will be determined during 2019 negotiations with the United Auto Workers union.

The development colored the first auto show walkthrough for the newest members of Michigan's congressional delegation. 

"I'm really mad about it," Levin said. "I feel like companies should be responsible not just to their shareholders, but to their workers, their communities and to our planet. I don't think our companies are acting that way right now.

"Coming to this auto show, I think about the first car I ever had, it was '72 Cutlass Supreme with the Rocket 350 V-8 engine," he continued. "Just coming here, I love it. But we've got to honor our workers. We've got to give jobs to people if we want them to be able to buy cars and buy other things and keep this economy going." 

Stevens added: "I'm certainly disappointed by the 15,000 jobs that have been lost and I'm working to encourage an economic policy that will help our automakers continue to grow. 

"It's our responsibility as public policymakers to put the American workforce at the forefront," she said. "For every automotive worker who's nervous, who's lost their job, we hear you, we're fighting for you and we want to make sure you have a seat at the table." 

The company is planning to lay off nearly 6,000 salaried workers next year after a buyout program last month only had 2,250 takers, according to a memo sent to employees by CEO Mary Barra and obtained by The Detroit News. The salaried buyouts and the layoffs together will affect 8,000 North American employees and a number of global executives, none of whom are part of the senior leadership team.

Veteran lawmakers tried to cast a positive spin on the industry's latest moves as they walked through the auto show Monday. 

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Mike Manley speaks with U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, right, along with FCA Chairman John Elkann, far left, during the politicians' visit to the FCA exhibit space while touring the show floor at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday.

"There's a lot of happening at the show," Stabenow said. "Wonderful product already being made in Michigan. When you look at the Ram 1500 that just won Truck of the Year, that's in Sterling Heights. We've got a great story to tell about that in Michigan. It's our job to keep telling that story and keep fighting for Michigan workers and business."  

Dingell predicted the auto show would be the start of a bumpy year for automakers, noting that in addition to trade, federal rules for gas mileage and union contracts are set to be decided this year. 

"This next year for the auto industry is going to be very complicated," she said. "There are going to be so many issues that are coming at them and the winds are going to be pulling them in every direction. It's going to be a very tricky year for this industry." 


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing