Once upon a time the American auto industry was the star of a seemingly limitless consumer economy in the land of opportunity. American cars were the stuff of dreams. We even had pet names for them: Caddy, Chevy. And workers on Detroit’s assembly lines brought our country and the world the Motown beat.

That industry was powered by the workers who, with back-breaking labor, down in the assembly line “pit,” or wielding heavy machinery, running to keep up with the line, built the cars and trucks in plants that employed hundreds of thousands and were the lifeblood of communities across America.

It was these workers who, through determined organizing and bitter struggles against the auto barons and their goons in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, helped give birth to industrial unions and what’s known as “the American way of life” — stable jobs one could be proud of, with pay and benefits that enabled a worker to buy a little home, raise a family, send the kids to college, take a vacation, get health care.

Now that industry is a shadow of its former self. Bankruptcy, downsizing, reinvention — who is on the receiving end of the pain? Those same workers, their families, their union and their communities.

Take Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors 101 years ago. At one time GM employed 80,000 workers there. Today, it’s down to 8,000. The per capita income is about $15,000 and one in five residents live below the poverty line.

In Michigan’s capital, Lansing, formerly home to Cadillac and Oldsmobile plants employing thousands, the numbers are similarly bleak.

American workers have no stake in preserving GM, Chrysler or Ford as corporations to enrich bondholders and executives. But we do have a vital interest in maintaining the ability to design and produce quality, efficient “green” cars — and also buses, light rail and advanced inter-city rail. And we have a vital interest in American jobs and communities.

Now, we the people, through our government, own GM. The new GM should be run as part of an integrated national transportation strategy to meet our country’s needs, construct a dynamic green manufacturing economy, and provide good jobs and vibrant communities.

As Motown’s Martha Reeves sang, we’re ready for a brand new beat.