As the government works with the management of GM and Chrysler to help them become competitive auto companies, many of the company’s workers are demanding a drastically different approach. Paul Jay sits down in Detroit with Frank Hammer, who has helped organized the Auto Worker Caravan, an organization of active and retired auto workers that is lobbying Washington to change their question. Instead of asking what would make the companies competitive, Hammer believes the question the Obama administration should be asking is what would best serve the transportation and economic needs of the American people?
A worker’s vision for auto industry
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN (VOICEOVER): General Motors announced on Monday that it would be firing 1,600 white-collar workers—another step in its stated plan to lay off 49,000 more workers of all collars by the end of 2009, based upon the demands of the Obama auto task force. That will bring the number of GM employees in North America to just over 100,000. And to put that into perspective, that’s more than an 80 percent reduction in staff since 1979, when GM employed 618,000 North Americans. The result? Auto towns decimated by unemployment. We spoke to Frank Hammer, a retired GM employee and a former president of the transmission local in Detroit.
HAMMER: We have, I think, probably one of the highest rates of foreclosures that is going on right now. We have over 19,000 people estimated that are homeless in the city of Detroit—1 out of every 47 residents. And if you add that, as a result of even just the mortgage crisis, with what’s happening in auto in terms of the mass layoffs, we’re really creating a problem that’s going to approach the magnitude of what folks in New Orleans faced. Well, what’s good about what’s in Obama’s plan is he sets up an office for the recovery of autoworkers and their communities. It’s not clear what exactly is meant in terms of the scope of it. When we say that there should be something of the magnitude of a Marshall Plan for the city of Detroit and for all the towns that have been autoways, we look at the situation pretty much as a drier version of Katrina, what’s going on in Detroit and some of the other automobile-based towns.
JAY: President Obama has committed himself to saving the industry from collapse, but insists it’s necessary to continue its trajectory of mass layoffs and setting responsibilities to retired workers.
BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: We cannot and must not and we will not let our auto industry simply vanish. This industry is like no other. It’s an emblem of the American spirit, a once and future symbol of America’s success. And we cannot continue to excuse poor decisions, and we cannot make the survival of our auto industry dependent on an unending flow of taxpayer dollars. These companies in this industry must ultimately stand on their own, not as wards of the state.
JAY: Hours before making that speech, Obama and his auto task force forced GM’s CEO, Rick Wagoner, to step down. His replacement, Fritz Henderson, was questioned by NBC’s David Gregory on the company’s future.
DAVID GREGORY, HOST, NBC’S MEET THE PRESS: It was said years ago that what’s good for GM is good for America and vice versa. Is that still the case today? And what is the GM of the future?
FRITZ HENDERSON, CEO, GENERAL MOTORS: GM in the future is a couple of things. One, it’s a globally competitive company. It’s a company that wins in the major markets. It’s a company that grows in emerging markets. It’s a company focused around products, fantastic products, and consumers. In terms of what we have to do to be successful, David, we need to take the tough actions to restructure our business. But it’s all about capturing the imagination of consumers with great cars and trucks, fantastic styling, winning the consumer back, because in the end the consumer is going to pay the bills so that we can pay the government back.
JAY: Many within the ranks of the autoworkers are suggesting that what’s good for America is not simply making the existing auto companies more competitive; they need to be reinvented.
JAY (ON CAMERA): So, Frank, if you had been on the advisory committee for the auto industry and you could have proposed a plan to President Obama, what would it look like?
HAMMER: I want to say, first of all, that President Obama has made a very significant move, which I think is going to be very, very important for how things fold out as we go by. He basically, representing the public, discharged the CEO of General Motors. And I think that if you take that spirit and say, “Okay, what do we need General Motors to do that’s in the interest of the public to carry that forward?” that will go a long way to actually coming up with real solutions. So I think that was a very good start that we made that statement, that the public has authority to do that, involving a company as large as General Motors with its impact on America as a whole. But when we look at what he’s done so far, he’s made demands on autoworkers which I think are counterproductive. It’s putting us more in the hole as part of that broad middle class that he’s been concerned about. But he doesn’t go far enough in terms of restructuring what needs to be restructured. We can no longer talk about an auto industry. We really need to talk about a transportation industry, so that if the companies that we have, the domestic companies, are going to shrink in size, which I think is inevitable, that we have to start looking at the capacities that were built into the industry and say, “To what other uses can we put these plants and these factories that will at the same time solve other problems that the American public is facing, including issues of global warming?” So we’re talking about there should be a revamping of the industry to encompass many means of transportation, including rail systems, including mass transportation, more buses, you know, that’ll run on fuel cells.
JAY: Which in theory could all be produced by the American auto industry.
HAMMER: Absolutely. General Motors used to be a manufacturer of locomotives and got out of that business. I think we should be in the business of building rapid transit lines as an alternative means of transportation for the public which is also Earth-friendly. And we’re also talking about seeking new forms of energy, getting away from coal, getting away from oil, and going into wind turbines, and so on. And we have the industrial capacity to be producing that for ourselves here in the US.
JAY: But President Obama uses all this language. He says this is essentially what he’s asking for in the restructuring plan from GM and Chrysler. So what’s different about what you’re proposing and what he’s proposing?
HAMMER: He is going in that direction, and I think that’s very important to point out, that he’s talking about really ramping up fuel efficiency in vehicles. And I think going to the electric car is a logical outcome of that, and I think that’s very good. I think he is making us aware that climate change is a real danger. But it’s still within the confines of a private auto company not looking at being a transportation company, so that we’re not looking just at how do we create more cars, but how do we actually satisfy the transportation needs of the American people. And that’s a much broader outlook. And I think it’s going to take a little bit more nerve on Barack Obama’s part to go a little bit further and say, “We really need to service the public needs.”
JAY: So what does that mean? You’re talking about a takeover of these companies in the sense they’re put into a public trust or a public receivership?
HAMMER: We think that the alternative to bankruptcy—we think bankruptcy is just a death strategy. We think the alternative is for the companies to be put under a public trust, so that the sentiment of the communities, the sentiment of the employees, the sentiments of the workers who run the factories, the engineers, can come together and actually devise a transportation plan for the US, and to be built and manufactured in the facilities that we have now.
JAY: What do you see in terms of movement here?
HAMMER: For example, last night I attended a meeting of environmentalists and rank-and-file steelworkers and autoworkers, and I think there’s this groundswell of a movement that’s going green that’s going to capture the imaginations of autoworkers as well, and autoworkers noare going to say, you know, “We’re going into the 21st century. We need something different, and we need stability in our communities, and we need employment that’s meaningful and that’s going to produce a new, green economy.” So I think that movement’s going to develop.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.