Thoughts from the Son of An Autoworker

Thoughts from the Son of An Autoworker


I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, a company town. Both my parents worked for General Motors. My dad came from his native Louisiana to work at Buick from 1953 to 1992. My mother got on a plane in Puerto Rico and headed to Michgan in 1963. After stints as a teacher and a nurse’s aide, she ended up at AC Spark Plug in 1967. With the exception of some stints in the 80s due to health issues, she worked from ’67 until 1992.

I came along in 1969, a little over a year after they married. I can remember growing up around cars. I remember driving in Dad’s 1965 Buick Wildcat. It was a sweet car.

In the late 70s, times in Michigan started to get bad. Gas prices went up and the Big Three got flat footed in responding. They ended up making cars that no one wanted. People stopped buying American cars and went to the more efficient cars from Japan: the Toyotas and Hondas.

Meanwhile, things in Flint changed. Plants closed, and people were laid off. Businesses started to leave. Unemployment rose and rose and for a time in the early 80s, Flint had the nation’s highest unemployment rate. The town went from a clean city to an economic basket case.

I left Michigan for good in 1992. Flint was still losing plants and would continue to see GM shed more and more jobs.

I still come back to Michigan to visit my parents. Flint is a shadow of its former self. The population was around 200,000 when I was born; now it is around 100, 000.

These days, I worry about the state of GM. My reasons are personal: my parents. Both of them are now GM retirees in their 70s. I wonder what would happen should GM go under. I know that their pensions are insured by the government, but will they get their full pension or some pittance?

If there is anyone that would like to say “good riddance” to the Big Three, it should be me. For decades, the companies made cars no one wanted, spent time making gas-guzzling SUVs and basically drove away a generation of car buyers. That includes myself, who is the proud owner of Toyota Prius.

I would also say (out of earshot of my parents) that the United Auto Workers forced the automakers into contracts that were not sustainable.

I agree that the Big Three got themselves into this hole. But I have to say that in the end, I think the feds should consider giving them some kind of financial help, with strings attached, of course.

I know, some would say that the free market means that you are on your own. Some would also say that we can’t “nationalize” every industry. After all, it’s only throwing good money after bad.

Most would say that if the Big Three go, life will go on. This is what Megan McArdle has to say about autoworkers:

GM can’t be saved. It needs to go into bankruptcy, which is the only possible way I can see to adjust its legacy labor problems, and possibly provide sufficient shock to the corporate culture to allow the company to make a competent car. Even that may not work. And it’s going to involve a whole bunch of pain for everyone.

But unless we’re willing to essentially nationalize three auto companies, that pain is going to come, sooner or later. And if we want to keep auto workers from feeling pain, then we should just up and give them money. There’s no reason to waste steel on a lot of crappy cars.

Forgive me, but I want to know what planet she is on. Autoworkers have been feeling pain for a long time. Look at the factories that sit empty or the ones that have been razed. Think about all the jobs lost. There are people that have been feeling pain for 30 years.

A recent NPR interview thinks that if one or more of the Big Three close, the costs would be big. And let’s not forget that if the companies close, so do the suppliers and every business that depends on autoworkers. States like Michigan would become economic disasters.

All this has been met with some annoyance. Again, I understand. But I also know what could happen in states that have a heavy American auto presence. The results would not be pretty.

I do wonder if those who don’t seem to care about this, do so because they have never lived in working class towns like Flint. It’s easy for someone in California to say to Ford to “go hang,” when your job isn’t going to be affected. But for someone who has seen the downturn up close, this isn’t something to take lightly.

So, even though it goes against my conservative fiber, I hope that President-elect Obama does do something to help. Hold them to promises, make them pay back loans, whatever. But don’t tell us that this pain is good for us. Because I sure as hell know it isn’t.

  • gerryf

    I am getting tired of the crap I keep reading.

    For the past few weeks I’ve read time and time again that the Big 3 made “gas-guzzling beats that no one wanted.”

    That’s crap. For the past 10 years that is all EVERYONE wanted. That is why the companies made them and couldn’t sell anything else. They made small cars but people didn’t want them. Then like good capitalists, they said well we aren’t going to make something no one wants.

    Them the economy shifted–quickly–and they couldn’t not shift quickly enough.

    Why is that? Well, to a certain degree, it was some short sightedness, but what really happened is that the foreign car companies once again had an advantage.

    The US companies are barred from foreign markets by laws governing imports. The US could not sell its small cars in those foreign companies to keep those lines up and running, so it was make them or stop making them. It was insane to make cars no one would by.

    The foreign car companies, which are not restricted from entering our market and at the same time could sell the small cars that were popular elsewhere, were able to very quickly shift and ramp up production to meet a sudden demand in the US.

    Once again, the idiotic policies of the republicans of the past 30 years put our industries at a disadvantage. (Dont get me started on the economic disadvantage the US manufacturers face due to our insane healthcare policies compared to those in other countries).

    I don’t think the Auto companies are doing a great job, far from it, but unlike the financial industries which the GOP has been falling over for the past 8 years to give them everything to ensure profitability, the manufacturing industry and the laborers have gotten the cold shoulder from this administration and the chickens are coming home to roost.

    So, yeah, we need to bail them out. Big surprise.

  • Dyre42

    Over at The Glittering Eye argues that poor management is more to blame than unions. Its a point of view worth considering:

  • Avinash_Tyagi

    People keep saying that if the Big three go through bankruptcy they’ll come out on the other side stronger or that the brands will survive under new ownership, and tht’s a total lie, if they go bankrupt you can forget about any American car company in the future. No one will touch a GM or a ford afterwards, even if they make it through the bankruptcy, because the market value of those brands will plummet, and no one will buy American fearing a similar result.

  • Doug Mataconis

    People keep saying that if the Big three go through bankruptcy they’ll come out on the other side stronger or that the brands will survive under new ownership, and tht’s a total lie, if they go bankrupt you can forget about any American car company in the future.

    Yea, so ?

    What is an American car company anyway ?

    The last car from one of the Big Three that I owned was a Pontiac constructed entirely in Ontario, Canada.

    Both of our current cars are Hondas built entirely in Kentucky.

    What’s the difference ?

  • Terry

    What has the US auto makers done in the past 25 years except push gas guzzling SUVs, created crazy ‘lease’ programs, and made one arrogant bad move after another. If there is one industry the US should be ashamed of, it’s the backwards, oligopolistic car makers.

    For years I’ve been sick how they’re ads tells us almost directly that we will die unless we drive an SUV, that small cars (ie, efficient) are dangerous on the road because the massive size of SUVs will destroy them in an accident (not that the big SUVs are too massive for the road, that other cars need to get out of their way).

    SUVs are so large and heavy they exceed weight limits on certain roads – roads restricted for other large vehicles. I wish I had time to find all of the references, but I know San Francisco had issue with this a few years ago. Yet the sheer arrogance of the auto industry and their marketing spin made it impossible to police them.

    Big big big – arrogance and contempt are the only words the auto industry knows. Where is innovation?

    No one should fail are horribly as the auto industry. I might celebrate as much as I do the ending of the Bush presidency. They deserve ever lost penny they get.

    And I REFUSE to let them hide behind ‘the workers.’

    I’m sick of wars being hidden behind ‘the soldiers’ when the command makes terrible moves; I’m sick of banks hiding behind home owners when they sliced their mortgages into MBS securities and sold them on secondary markets unregulated and unmitigated; I’m sick of massive inhuman corporations hiding behind the line worker whenever they seem to have a long pattern of arrogance and manipulation.

    This isn’t a bailout, this isn’t socialism, this is corporate greed rebranding itself into yet another form to take our money away from us.

    I remember being in college and volunteering for a drug hotline. Users would maniulate their families into taking them in and coddling them. Moms would think, if I just loved them more they’d get better. Well, they’d always get worse. Our advise to them? Kick them out on the street – let them sleep on the streets a few nights and see what it feels like. Throw a little cold water on the situation.

    What we SHOULD do is let the corporates fail, but have social supports fr the citizens affected by its greed. THAT is responsible government. The people first –

  • Elgee

    I’ve been laid off 3 times in 15 years due to my work in the high tech industry.

    Nobody bailed us out in 2000. To me, it seems quite similar on a larger scale. Poor investments, poor business decisions

  • BenG

    Good point, Doug;

    The big 3 ARE global co’s but the pity of it is that they’re thriving abroad. Ford (or Mazda?) builds a small deisel engine-powerd economy car that does 60 to 80 mpg without having to re-tool the whole factory. They can not sell that car here because of EPA standards!

    I’ve always said that GM is just TOO BIG. Why does one company have to have to sell 5 cars that compete with each other in the same vehicle class? I drive a Saturn Aura, which gets up to 30 mpg and rivals Toyota Camry and Honda Accord on every level. But it needs to out sell Chevy Malibu, Pontiac G6, Buick, and Cadillac midsize cars before it makes a blip on the radar. That’s crazy. Toyota builds ONE car in that class and it’s been the number 1 seller for years.

    Why can’t, under bankruptcy OR Federal subsidy, GM restructure itself as 5 smaller co’s. Let Saturn exist on its’ own and sink or swim. Cadillac has a loyal following and I don’t see why they wouldn’t thrive. Buick is loved abroad and would be a much better revenue source to GM if it didn’t have Cadillac to compete against on its’ own balance sheet. Let Cadillac compete on its’ own against Mercedes and Lexus and watch it take off!!

  • Alan Stewart Carl

    BenG: I think you have a very interesting point. The size of GM makes it slow to react and difficult to manage. A bad decision in one line can cancel out the good decisions in other lines. I’m not sure what splitting the company up would do for overall car prices and how it would affect the existing auto infrastructure, but it’s the kind of idea on which I’d like to hear more discussion.

  • Rich

    I agree with Gerry’s post – at least the first 2/3 of it. Dennis claims that, for 30 years, GM (for example) has made cars that “no one wants”??? Why, then, were they the company that sold the most cars than any other car maker IN THE WORLD, up until about 2 years ago when oil prices began to surge??? Their current problems are the result of them making EXACTLY the type of cars that MOST PEOPLE wanted, with the fuel efficient cars being a “niche market” of sorts. When oil prices began to skyrocket, the market for more efficient cars exploded.

    When gas is cheap, it is hard to sell enough small, efficient cars to be profitable. When gas prices rise, the opposite is true.

    You lost me when I got to your last 2 paragraphs. Make up your mind, Gerry…are the republicans in the back pockets of “big business” like most libs claim when trying to stoke the fire of class envy, or are they trying to destroy them like you claim??

  • kranky kritter

    One thing GM and Ford have that no one else does is the ownership of the designs of cool older models. When will they start leveraging that? Instead of another car that looks like a mazda or a toyota sedan but craps out at 110 K, how about a well-built car with the latest technology and decent fuel efficiency, modern styling inside, and the outside looks like a classic thunderbird or corvette or whatever?

    Same price, same quality, same mileage, looks cooler. One classic re-issue per year or whatever they can do. Get people to vote on designs on the internet. Would I have bough an Accord if I could have, for the same money gotten the same quality in an aesthetic package that evoked images of so much of what has made America a so much better place to live than anywhere else? Not a chance.

    This thread is depressing. Too many valid points mixed in with gross misunderstandings and mischaracterizations. Not interested in wading into that part of it.

    I don’t want the domestic auto industry to dry up or fail. But I want any reform to put the industry and the nation in a better spot.

    If someone can find a way to keep ford and Gm alive as smaller, leaner, more nimble, and more hungry companies with similar costs as Honda and Toyota, and workers eager to make cars that compete on quality at comparable cost, I’m all for it. I’m fine with the majority of execs losing there jobs if that happens to be what it takes.

    The point is that the reformed companies need to be fundamentally different in many substantial ways. Lower-wage employees with less generous benefits, a far leaner exec structure, less product redundancy, more aesthetic appeal and differentiation.

  • My daughter may not date a factory worker!

    Sadly, it is obviously a problem with management rather than the workers. The US hasn’t built a decent car since the 1960’s. But really, who told your parents and all these “working class folk” to forgo a college education so and shoot for work on a factory line. Everyone has a sob story about how hard their parents had it, but if your family never felt an education was important, weren’t they just asking to be bitchslapped by as soon as a person or machine would do their job cheaper? And now we have to pay our taxes so these highschool dropouts have secure and comfortable retirement pensions. Where does it end?