The Big Three auto companies may not like unions, consumers, environmentalists and the government having input into how their business is run, but with sales at a 25-year low, they would be in a much better position if they did.
General Motors is said to be facing bankruptcy. That would have large repercussions for the U.S. economy, particularly for the workers involved, and that’s no small number: The grand total of jobs directly and indirectly created by auto manufacturing has been estimated between 5 and 8 million.
A loan to retool the companies to make energy-efficient cars gained congressional approval in September. It made good sense. Now larger loans are being considered. But they should only be provided if more stakeholders are brought to the decision-making table. Until now, a handful of owners have been disastrously guiding this core American industry.
In fact, what the auto companies’ bailout request shows is the need for more public input and control over the direction of industries that have such a large impact on our nation and world. If that had taken place with the auto industry 30 years ago, we likely wouldn’t be in the position we are today. Government regulation has made GM and Ford successful — in Europe!
In the 1970s, after the oil embargo, with gasoline rationed and prices rising, U.S. auto companies finally started producing smaller cars. But as gas prices fell, they went back to making bigger cars and then began producing the SUV, whose size both foreign and domestic makers have continued to expand. They claim they were just building what the public demanded, but wasn’t it the quick profits they reaped from selling heavily marketed, gas-guzzling SUVs that really dictated their decisions?
This gets to the heart of the problem.
Ignoring the harmful effects on the environment, they lobbied to waive or lower fuel economy standards for SUVs and trucks. The U.S. and Canada have the lowest fleet-average fuel economy standards and the highest greenhouse gas emission rates among “first world” nations.
And the companies ignored the interests of autoworkers by shopping their jobs around the world to the lowest bidders.
The United Auto Workers union feels any additional loans should guarantee its recently negotiated retiree health care fund, and who can blame them? It’s a necessary ingredient, though we must also move toward guaranteeing health care and a decent retirement for all.
But fundamentally, even if gas prices remain low — and that’s doubtful — our economy and our planet require us to move away from reliance on oil, towards alternative energy sources and mass transit. Al Gore has drawn the link between restoring manufacturing jobs and urgent action to prevent global environmental catastrophe. In a New York Times op ed last week, outlining a plan to get all our energy from carbon-free sources in 10 years, Gore wrote, ‘We should help America’s automobile industry … convert quickly to plug-in hybrids’ that can run on renewable electricity available from a nationwide grid he foresees being built.
Gore argues that a major jobs-intensive infrastructure initiative is the best way to revive our economy quickly and sustainably. That goes against the grain of capitalism’s profits-before-people approach. Can the decisions required to rebuild our country, save auto and other manufacturing jobs and stop global warming be solely left to the CEOs? Doesn’t real democracy require the public to have a say in how our money is spent?
Any auto industry bailout must prioritize the twin goals of restoring manufacturing jobs and greening our economy.
In the national interest, any loans to the Big Three need to include requirements such as: 1) this money be used to develop and produce energy-efficient and alternative energy vehicles here in the U.S.; 2) Parts going into these vehicles be 70 percent or more U.S.-made; 3) priority be given to states with high unemployment where the workforce has long experience in the industry; 4) establishment of a ‘corporate responsibility board’ with labor, consumer, community and government representatives.
John Rummel (MichiganPWW@gmail.com) writes frequently for the People’s Weekly World and is the Michigan organizer for the Communist Party USA.