This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 24, 1998.
It is axiomatic that General Motors Automobiles were the Poster Children for the decline of America during the 1970’s. It is difficult to think of the products that appeared during that decade with physical revulsion, coupled with raging anger over the maintenance of those expensive, chintzy rattletraps. It was during that decade that Japan and Germany created the mythology of their own economies by providing excellent, innovative, long lasting automobiles, and the President of GM went on the Today show to suggest that buying an American car was a patriotic act, probably the low point even among scoundrels for the refuge qualities of patriotism.
The General Motors strike today looks to be a long horror, and people are saying that – if it is not settled rather soon, the giant corporation might very well have to dissolve. These opinions are offered not solely by those who consider themselves spin-doctors for Labor or the Left, which is to say, those who would benefit in the long run from such a claim with its desired result comfortably a decade or more in the future. It is an opinion coming from moderates on such issues, and therefore it is worth some consideration. It is not just Michael Moore extolling the horrors and stupidities of GM.
General Motors has been one of the world’s biggest concerns for over sixty years. It is, in many ways, as emblematic of Stalinist gargantua as a five-year plan. It emerged during a period of rapid national economic growth early this century, and by a series of deals with the Federal Government, sustained itself by supplying the military and being seen to offer a huge number of jobs. It did, of course, make commercial cars, but its percentage of worthwhile product – never mind profitable product - crashed and burned like a competitor’s Pinto. GM has existed as a government subsidy as surely as McDonnell Douglas, tobacco farmers, or the Postal service. Without it, Chevrolet – seemingly always profitable - would surely have become a separate company, and Cadillac would have been bought by Volkswagen to clean ashtrays for Rolls Royce. Really, lets see a show of hands about great Buicks of the last thirty years. And Oldsmobile? Who, aside from the geriatrics, would have even noticed if those cars ceased production in 1967? Boring, derivative, ugly, and expensive.
Pontiac had a couple of zooty cars, and Cadillac had it’s snobby image – along with television commercials that make the attractions of communism and murder of the bourgeoisie live again – but it should be remembered that GM made and continues to make army tanks, personnel carriers, and jet engines, and this is what has provided stability to the beast since the Second World War. It is a contract that probably prevents serious consideration of the five component parts separating.
I find it terribly interesting that neither Labor nor management chats publicly about any of that, and focus instead on issues that would leave the unwary thinking that GM’s five public divisions were the bread and butter of the company. That is to be doubted. If GM sold off its commercial automobiles, it would still be a huge company just making the Abrams tank and related items not coming to a local showroom anytime soon. And that may be what is the scariest thing about this huge and possible disastrous strike. Neither Labor nor management is really interested in dealing with the bizarre reality of their relationship derived from the first half of this century. Management may very well be willing to let this strike go on, since it knows beyond a certain point, the Feds will not let it go and bail it out, underlining Union impotence and making labor more manageable. Labor seems, as always, removed from this half of the century, and demanding increased job security and Union relevance, which are issues totally incompatible with both Just In Time production and industry flexibility.
You will not find Michael Moore, the autoworker turned filmmaker who did Roger and Me some years ago, dealing with much of this either. He, of course, made his rep revealing the hypocrisies and arrogance of GM’s top brass, but he himself also serves an illustrative example of what is wrong with America Labor. Sloppy, fat, demanding, and prone to melodramatize selfish motives as labor virtue, Moore has shown a remarkable reticence about taking specific stands in labor issues beyond condemning management and bemoaning Labor’s plight. But nobody can deny that in comparison with any other automaker around the world, GM is featherbedded with pointless labor building mediocre products. Until labor management debates are framed in terms of actuality and not position papers from the times of John Q. Lewis, it is unlikely that the public or the involved parties will ever produce a successful agreement, and propels the notion that a company as big as GM probably needs to be broken up, and some divisions probably folded.