Opinion: GM must put American workers first

Debbie Dingell

This Christmas, 5,000 children in the Midwest didn’t write letters to Santa — they wrote to GM CEO Mary Barra asking for their parent’s job to be spared. I care deeply about working families who heard the Monday after Thanksgiving that five GM plants would be idled.

For more than 30 years, I worked in the auto industry — for GM in fact. The auto industry is a cyclical business. It has been revitalized in recent years because of a commitment to its relationships with labor and suppliers, the communities they operate in as well as developing quality products and being at the forefront of innovation. In fact, it’s had its longest period of sustained growth and sales in decades.

Union workers deliver 4000 letter from General Motors employees to management, the GM lobby, at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan on December 21, 2018.

Layoffs and plant closures are tough decisions for a company to make, and the effects are felt across the community. Some companies work to minimize the impact on both employees, and by extension the communities. At the time GM announced it was laying off up to 14,000 employees, Ford quietly eliminated a shift at Flat Rock. But that didn’t make headlines because the automaker put workers first.

Plans for Chrysler to bring new life and put new jobs in Detroit surfaced at the same time. Before announcing their plans, both companies talked with every employee. Ford found places for them to work in close proximity, and didn’t draw the ire of the president, Republicans and Democrats, and the rest of the country.

GM’s poor treatment of its workers reflects the times we live in, when workers are consistently being passed over for bad trade deals and tax breaks going to the wealthiest and large corporations. Workers — especially autoworkers — are fiercely loyal, and many of those impacted by the recent announcement have been with GM through its darkest hours.

Customer demands change, requiring companies to meet the shifting demand. Hard decisions do need to be made. On the other hand, some companies are committed to building their product here in the US where they are selling in the country where their product is being built. GM continues to open and increase production in Mexico and China for sales to consumers in the U.S. Last summer, GM announced the Blazer will be assembled in Mexico and imported back to American. The fact is, American companies should be investing in their workers who have the skills and ingenuity to compete with anyone in the world.

The car industry was born in Detroit. It’s transforming itself into the mobility industry. We want that to happen in the U.S. — quite frankly, I want it to happen in Michigan — not China, India or Mexico. It’s critical the U.S. remain a leader in transportation and mobility.

Right now there are a lot of big fights that are creating crosswinds for the industry. Uncertainty on tariffs, trade, fuel economy and autonomous vehicles gives the industry little wiggle room. Our policymakers can and should be doing more to keep auto jobs here in the United States and pushing back against misguided decision like GM’s. Until then, the storm clouds looming over the industry threaten to bring more bad news for American workers.

We need our leaders to step up and meet the challenge by passing autonomous vehicle legislation that puts safety first, keeping one national program for fuel economy standards that increase year over year, designing carbon-free vehicles such as electric vehicles and encouraging the infrastructure critical for their success, having trade deals that level the playing field instead of shipping more jobs overseas, and tax bills that don’t incentivize companies to relocate to other countries. Policymakers need to be committed to advancing these efforts in Congress.

GM continues to be a very profitable company to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, as do many other corporations. Is their only responsibility to the shareholders, or does it include supporting and including the workers that are making them a success?

Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, represents Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives.