Thursday, November 13, 2008

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.

1 comment:

Progressive Conservative said...

If there IS a bailout I'd like to see the government get shares in the companies, which can them be sold for a profit later if the bailout works.

I'm not convinced this isn't just throwing money into a hole though. American auto companies have mostly been coasting on misplaced nationalism for years. I know some conservatives that are in love with free-market doctrine but then betray their own ideals to buy lesser-quality American cars because it's a 'pride thing'.