Barra stands firm on GM austerity plans in DC meetings

Keith Laing
The Detroit News
General Motors CEO Mary Barra speaks to reporters after a meeting with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, to discuss GM's announcement it would stop making the Chevy Cruze at its Lordstown, Ohio, plant, on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Washington — General Motors Co. Chairman Mary Barra stood firm on plans to idle five plants, lay off 6,000 salaried employees and imperil the jobs of 3,300 hourly workers as she met Wednesday with Ohio's U.S. senators and several of Michigan's newly elected U.S. members. 

Speaking with reporters after a closed-door meeting with Barra at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman said the GM chief committed to trying to expedite negotiations with the United Auto Workers union on the future of the company's recented "unallocated" plants, including the Lordstown Assembly plant in northeast Ohio. But they said Barra did not reverse course on the decisions as they would have preferred. 

"Both of us want to be sure that both the company and the UAW expedite that as much as possible and get to a decision to provide some potential certainty," said Portman, a Republican. "She agreed that's a potential opportunity. Also, she has said to us that she is going to keep an open mind, but she does not want to raise expectations." 

Brown, a Democrat who is being mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, said of the Lordstown plant: "Are they going to bring an electric vehicle? Are they going to retool their plant and maybe look at one of their SUVs moving into this plant? They can do that. They've been the beneficiary of a tax bill that has produced some dollars for them to reinvest. Some of it is stock buybacks, but a lot of it can go to reinvesting in this plant."  

In this Nov. 27, 2018 photo, a sign is displayed at General Motors Lordstown West plant in Lordstown, Ohio. It was working-class voters who bucked the area's history as a Democratic stronghold and backed Donald Trump in 2016, helping him win the White House with promises to put American workers first and bring back disappearing manufacturing and steel jobs. Whether they stick with him after this week's GM news and other signs that the economy could be cooling will determine Trump's political future. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Lawmakers are furious at GM for moving to cease production next year at Lordstown, at its Detroit-Hamtramck and Warren Transmission plants in Michigan, 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.

Barra on Wednesday at the same press conference defended the decisions as a response to market conditions that have resulted of a shifting U.S. consumer preferences that have made sedans tough to sell. 

"We are in an industry that is transforming faster than I've ever seen in my 38 year career," she said. "What we are trying to is make sure that General Motors is strong and that we're in a leadership position with technologies like electrification and autonomous vehicles and connectivity, because that's what customers want. That's where industry is going." 

Barra deflected criticism of GM's decision that invokes the company's receipt of nearly $50 billion in federal assistance in the 2008 and 2009 auto bailouts, which the company notes has repaid. 

"Since 2009, we have invested $22 billion in the United States, and in the last couple of years we've invested several more billions of dollars and we'll continue to do that," Barra said.

"We will be forever grateful for the assistance that the U.S. government provided General Motors, and we're trying to make sure we're good corporate citizens and continue to provide jobs and and provide vehicles and transportation that consumers want in this country," she continued. "That's what I think is the most responsible thing that we can do to thank the American taxpayers for what they did for us."

Barra also met Wednesday with incoming U.S. representatives from Michigan. Rashida Tlaib, Haley Stevens, Elissa Slotkin and Andy Levin, all Democrat, will be in Boston for training and can't attend the Barra's meeting on Thursday with Michigan lawmakers in person. Michigan's congressional delegation will meet with her at 2 p.m.

Tlaib said in a statement after the meeting: "From the 1,300 homes, churches, and shops in Poletown that were seized and bulldozed to build the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, to the $51 billion public bailout that lost hardworking taxpayers more than $11 billion, we have paid a terribly steep price to placate and keep GM afloat.

"Now, as we fight to rebuild our regional economy and create living-wage jobs, GM is repaying our sacrifice and investment by slashing thousands of jobs and closing the plant an entire neighborhood was torn down to build," Tlaib continued. "I’ll always stand in solidarity with workers and for what’s right and this is simply wrong. GM's announcement reaffirms my commitment to demanding binding community benefits agreements whenever a wealthy corporation is lining up for public subsidies.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing