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GM CEO Barra calls meeting with Trump 'productive and valuable'

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra told reporters outside the White House that her meeting Thursday with President Donald Trump was "productive and valuable."

The automaker declined to comment further, and the White House provided no information on what had transpired.

The purpose of the meeting was to talk about jobs, trade and fuel economy rules, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News. The person requested anonymity to discuss the meeting, which was announced by the White House on Wednesday night. 

Trump was silent on the face-to-face, which came six days after he tweeted out inaccurate accusations that it had moved factories to China and had become one the smallest carmakers in Detroit. 

General Motors CEO Mary Barra with President Donald Trump

"General Motors, which was once the Giant of Detroit, is now one of the smallest auto manufacturers there," Trump tweeted Friday morning. "They moved major plants to China, BEFORE I CAME INTO OFFICE. This was done despite the saving help given them by the USA. Now they should start moving back to America again?" 

The president's attack apparently was triggered after Bloomberg reported that GM had fewer employees represented by the United Auto Workers union than Ford or Fiat Chrysler. GM has about 46,000 UAW workers in the United States, about 9,000 fewer than Ford and about 1,200 fewer than Fiat Chrysler. GM has about 2,000 fewer UAW-represented employees than that it had in 2009 as it was coming out of bankruptcy.

By other measures, GM remains the largest automaker in the U.S.:

  • GM sold 2.9 million vehicles in the United States in 2018, outpacing the 2.4 million sold by Ford Motor Co. and the 1.7 million sold by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
  • GM has about 100,000 hourly and salaried employees in the United States. Ford has about 85,000 and Fiat Chrysler has about 62,000.

And he is wrong in his assertions that it has moved plants to China. Most of the cars it builds there are for the Chinese market. Only one GM vehicle built in China — the Buick Envision — is sold in the United States.

China is GM’s largest market. In 2018, the automaker and its joint ventures sold more than 3.64 million vehicles in China; in North America, it sold about 3.5 million. GM has 11 joint ventures and two wholly owned foreign enterprises and more than 58,000 employees in China. GM China products carry the Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Baojun and Wuling nameplates.

Two years into his first term, Trump has developed a complicated relationship with the U.S. auto industry.

Automakers cheered when the president re-opened a review of stringent gas-mileage rules that would have required fleets averaging more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. But Trump went further than carmakers wanted by proposing to freeze the mandate after 2020, when their lineups must average 39 mpg. Ford Motor Co. and three other automakers eventually agreed with California to voluntarily adhere to higher standards than Trump is proposing. 

The agreement prompted Trump to direct some of the worst ire at Ford. 

"Henry Ford would be very disappointed if he saw his modern-day descendants wanting to build a much more expensive car,  that is far less safe and doesn't work as well, because execs don't want to fight California regulators," Trump tweeted after Ford's deal with California was announced. 

On trade, the gulf between the auto industry and the Trump administration is even wider.

Early in his term, Trump attacked U.S. automakers for building vehicles in Mexico, where lower labor costs made small-car production profitable. And over their objections, he imposed tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, and he has floated the possibility of slapping a stiff 25% tariff on imported cars and parts.

Trump has also proposed a replacement for the North American Free Trade agreement that increases from 62.5% to 75% the percentage of a cars' parts that have to come from the U.S., Canada or Mexico to qualify for duty-free treatment. It also requires that 40-45% of an auto's content be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour. Vehicles not meeting the requirements would be subject to a 2.5% duty. 

The Trump administration has argued the hourly requirement is tantamount to a U.S. requirement because Mexico autoworkers make a fraction of the proposed salary requirement.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing