Friday, June 16, 2006

To Save American Auto Jobs, Workers Need to Take Leadership of the Future of the US Auto Industry

It is ironic that the UAW has this week decided more or less meekly to cooperate with the US car industry's plans to put hundreds of thousands of auto workers out of jobs, without demanding anything substantial in return for this downward spiral of continual sacrifice from auto workers. The UAW seems unwilling to challenge the fundamental logic governing the decline of the American auto industry. In fact, it seems content, while its workers suffer, to leave in place the very governing structure and policies that are driving the American car industry into extinction.

Workers are literally being "bought out" of their jobs, so that the failed industry leadership that has brought about this bankrupt situation can remain in place. Under this failed management, with its strategy of resistance to true innovation and its continuing addiction to an oil-based economy, there may be no US-owned auto industry surviving by 2020.

While Toyota and Honda continue to take over more market share from US auto companies, the US auto industry and governmental policymakers seem largely incapable of learning from the terrible mistakes of the last decade, and instead persist in defending energy-inefficient and environmentally-destructive technologies, at the cost of the loss of hundreds of thousands of the best industrial jobs in the United States. While the workers continue to lose from this strategy, and are asked to sacrifice even more, what are they getting in return for their sacrifice?

Meanwhile, the new film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" reveals the extent to which the auto industry, and GM in particular, has been guilty of destroying alternative technology cars that over the last decade could have have made the US car industry the world leader in fuel-efficient and clean energy technologies. Instead of moving in this direction, which was the path to growth, innovation, and leadership in environmentally conscious and energy-efficient transportation technologies in the 1990s, GM and the entire automobile industry collaborated in destroying its own investment in electric technologies, and decided to invest in Hummers and SUVs!

As the film's informative website timeline notes, by 2000 GM had finalized its purchase of the Hummer brand name, and in 2001 began to lay off its electric vehicle (EV1) sales team, "starting with its most successful sales specialists." So much for rewarding success!

Far from rewarding successful innovation, GM could not have indicated any more clearly that its strategy for the early years of the 21st century was to betray innovation in order to preserve a commitment to gas-guzzling and inefficient vehicles (the bigger the better)--all in the name of simply following "consumer demand."

Question: How can GM claim to follow consumer demand, when it kills off alternative technology vehicles even as consumers are beginning to demand them? This is the fundamental challenge all consumers and employees of the American car industry should now be asking the heads of the Big 3.

Recent sales figures have made clear that US auto companies are continuing to lose market share to Toyota and Honda because both these companies have been much better at responding to (and honoring) consumer demand by developing much more fuel-efficient hybrid cars (that already yield up to 50-60 mpg). GM could by now have been offering much better than this, but instead it chose to deliberately destroy its entire electric car fleet over the last 5 years. Did the GM workers now being put out of their jobs have any say in these decisions? Shouldn't the people who did have a say in these decisions be the ones losing their jobs?

While it may be too late for the many workers losing their jobs because of the terribly shortsighted thinking that dominates the US car industry, those workers who remain should now (in honor of their departing colleagues, as well as to protect their own jobs) begin to demand something more substantial from their employers and managers. Since the management of the industry has proven that it lacks the kind of vision that can nurture the future growth of the US auto industry, the workers should demand, in return for their many wage concessions, that they now be made a fundamental part of the decision-making process about the future direction of the industry.

If workers are going to be made to suffer for the terrible failures of management and leadership over the last decade, they should now at minimum be allowed to participate more directly in this leadership in order to change its direction. And then they should use their leadership power to demand that the industry immediately transform its strategy, and reinvest in the development of the kind of fuel efficient and technologically innovative automobiles that will lead the industry into the future.

If the US auto manufacturers do not quickly transform themselves to offer the fuel-efficient and innovative technologies consumers will be ever more aggressively demanding in the next decade, Toyota and Honda will continue to win dominance over the auto market, and the next decade may witness the virtual extinction of US automobile manufacturers. Like the dinosaurs that could not adjust quickly enough to a new environment, the US auto industry may not have the vision or managing intelligence needed to survive into the mid-twenty-first century.

If the remaining US auto employees are going to be forced to yield all kinds of concessions in order to hang on to their jobs, they should at least get something substantial in return for those concessions: more direct power and voice in the governance of the corporations for which they are being asked to sacrifice. Since the managers of the last decade have proven themselves perpetually incapable of investing in a strategy that would have saved these jobs, the future of the US car industry will depend on the workers taking more direct control of this industry, and substituting their strategic vision, tied to the future, for the vision of the failed management still tied to the oil-addicted past.

Now, especially, the remaining employees of the Big 3 ought to begin demanding that their employers adopt more visionary leadership in developing and bringing back on line the innovative alternative technologies that they deliberately "deep-sixed," at the terrible cost of the loss of industry leadership and of so many American jobs over the last decade.

When will the UAW's leadership, and the Auto industry's managers, wake up to and admit the serious failures of policy and leadership within the industry over the last decade, and begin to learn from the terrible mistakes of the past? When will the industry's workers stop trusting in this failed leadership, and begin to demand a new kind of leadership and investment in the US car industry that will grow, rather than continue to sacrifice, workers' jobs?

Right now the only people paying for the failures of industry leadership are American auto workers. It is time for the auto workers themselves to unite to demand that the US auto industry take up a new vision, and pursue a new energy-efficient and innovative course into the future, such as that suggested by the Apollo Alliance, our nation's real Apollo Project for the next decade.

Whether or not there is any US car industry left by 2020 will depend on whether the industry's workers, along with all the citizen-consumers of the nation, can unite to demand that the industry reject the failed policies and leadership of the past, and take up new leadership to grow the automobile jobs of the future. Now more than ever it is time for the auto workers of the world to unite to demand such change, since we have everything to lose (our jobs, the environment, a sustainable future) if we fail to bring about such change.


At 3:28 PM, Anonymous I have seen the light said...

GM deserves what happens to them. Too bad that they will destroy thousands of lives via job loss, failed pension and health care plans on the way down. AND the idiot executives who made the bad decisions that put them where they are today will just pocket their overinflated salaries and bonuses and slink away while the line employee will be left to fend for himself. The SUV over EV choice reminds me of the 70's when they were building huge gas guzzlers and Americans were buying Hondas. Do these people ever learn?

At 4:48 PM, Blogger Policybusters! said...

Yes, it seems the execs do not learn very easily, especially since it is not their incomes that usually suffer, but those of the line workers....

Something I read or heard this past weekend stated that GM's president has actually admitted recently that the decision to kill the electric car was a bad one. If this is true, I'd like to nail down the source of this, if anyone knows where this can be documented--

Cheers, and thanks for your post!


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