GM's Mary Barra prepares for DC gauntlet
Washington — General Motors Co. Chairman Mary Barra begins two days of meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday, a week after the automaker shocked Michigan and Ohio with its plans to idle four plants, lay off 6,000 salaried employees and imperil the jobs of 3,300 hourly workers.
At least one Michigan lawmaker, Dearborn Democrat Debbie Dingell, described GM as the “most disliked company in Washington,” and Barra’s meetings appear to be an attempt to both explain GM’s actions and repair frayed relations.
"GM, you don't see their top executives on the Hill," Dingell, a former GM employee, said in an interview with The Detroit News. "You only see them when they want something. They're not with the rest of the industry."
Barra is scheduled to meet Wednesday with Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman. She will then meet Thursday with Michigan lawmakers.
Lawmakers are furious at GM for moving to cease production next year at its Detroit-Hamtramck and Warren Transmission plants in Michigan, at Lordstown Assembly in Ohio, at Oshawa Assembly in Ontario and at Baltimore Operations in Maryland. 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 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.
"How people feel about GM, it's been at least lukewarm for awhile," Dingell said. "This comes after not months, but years of not communicating well, not having clear positions."
Dingell said lawmakers are hoping to get GM "to understand that their top management better invest a little more time and care about people, starting with the employees they have and the relationships they need to have for them to be a successful business."
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said he is hoping to have a "really frank conversation" with Barra on Thursday after being surprised by the company's announcement last week.
"I think blindsided is the right term," he said. "I had not heard anything, and we did not get a heads up. It would have made a difference to be able to hear from them and have a discussion with them before we heard about it from the news media."
Kildee said he wants to impress upon GM that lawmakers' desire to help the company is tied to their desire to improve conditions for constituents working for them.
"When we support the company, we want to make sure they are supporting the folks that are working for them," he said. "If someone would have told me that market share would increase, profits would be very high, trade policy is improving and every corporation got a big tax cut, I would not have expected the next step to be massive layoffs."
Brown, an Ohio Democrat who is being mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, said Wednesday that his frustration with GM's handling of its Lordstown plant predates the company's announcement last week.
"Early in Trump's time, very early in his presidency, the third shift was laid off, 1,500 people," Brown told reporters at a pension forum hosted by the National Press Foundation. "Then the second shift was laid off this summer (and) the same day they did the layoffs, GM announces they were going to build a plant in Mexico to build the Chevy Blazer."
Brown said he has met with Barra before to discuss the future of the Lordstown plant to no avail.
"She was in this office back four months ago and I asked her about retooling Lordstown and she said it's too expensive," he said. "A week or two later, they announced they were going to build a new plant in Mexico. I think that costs more."
Portman said in an interview with Fox Business News on Wednesday that he also intends to push Barra to repurpose the Lordstown plant instead of idling it.
"I understand that the Cruze is not selling well," he said. "That is a market condition. What I don’t understand is why this plant, which has been an award-winning plant — got a JD Power Award just this year in fact for being effective and competitive — why this plant can’t continue to be used for other products.
"That’s what I’m talking to them about, not let’s save the Cruze, that is up to the consumer, but let’s bring in another product that can be made there," Portman continued. "Specifically, General Motors is making over 20 new electric vehicles just in the next five years.”
Incoming freshman House members from Michigan are in Boston this week for training and can't attend the Barra meeting in person. Staffers may sit in on their behalf, aides said.
Washington-based Republican strategist John Feehery said Barra will face a hostile audience with lawmakers in both parties.
"It seems to me that you can’t keep making cars that nobody buys," he said. "I understand the concerns of lawmakers, and I know how they will try to play politics with this decision. I think Barra needs to lay out all the economic reasons for her decision and then come up with a strategy of how she will do everything in her power to get those plants making vehicles that consumers will buy."
Staff writers Melissa Nann-Burke and Christine Ferretti contributed to this report.