Congressional Dems angry at GM layoffs as Detroit car show kicks off

By: - January 14, 2019 8:33 pm

Elissa Slotkin, Andy Levin and Debbie Dingell at the 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit | Nick Manes

The North American International Auto Show kicking off in Detroit on Monday still offers the shiny debut of several new cars, albeit with the cloud of a vastly changing automotive industry.

Democratic members of Michigan’s congressional delegation used the show to express frustration with large-scale corporate reorganizations at automotive manufacturers, namely General Motors. The Detroit-based company has announced the closure of two large plants in Southeast Michigan and could lead to the loss of 16,000 jobs in Michigan, according to a University of Michigan economist.

Andy Levin and Haley Stevens at the 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit | Nick Manes

“I’m really mad about [plant closures and job losses],” U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) told reporters on Monday morning at the GM exhibit within the Cobo Center, where the show takes place.

The closure of the plants has taken a personal and historic toll for many, as Advance Senior Reporter Ken Coleman laid out earlier today.

The GM job losses are making some nervous about a redux of the first decade this century, in which Michigan shed an estimated 800,000 to 1 million manufacturing jobs.

“I feel like the company should be responsible not just to their shareholders, but to their workers, their communities and to our planet,” Levin said. “And I don’t think our companies are acting that way right now.”

Also attending the show were U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.).

2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit | Nick Manes

No GOP members of the congressional delegation appeared to be on hand this year.

The layoffs and corporate restructuring at GM and its Dearborn-based rival Ford Motor Co. come amid criticism over the President Trump administration’s trade and tariff policy. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in December met with Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross at the White House and detailed how policies were hurting GM in particular.

Critics have also said that the GOP-controlled Congress’ 2017 tax cuts allowed General Motors to fatten its bottom line but still pink-slip workers.

The automotive industry also is going through a massive shift in how it plans to manufacture vehicles and sell them — and ultimately in how consumers will use them. That change was hinted at during a Monday morning press conference put on by Ford executives at the auto show.  

“Twenty years ago, many said automakers wouldn’t build in America anymore. 10 years ago, many said we might not make it all,” said Ford Chairman Bill Ford. “And while many were focused on survival, I saw a tremendous wave of change coming our way. Today that change is upon us, from how we build our cars, to what they run on, how we buy them, hail them or even drive them.”

Electric vehicles and cars driving themselves, or autonomous vehicles, remain just a small part of the overall mobility landscape. The all-electric Infiniti luxury SUV, the QX Inspiration, failed to debut at the show, as expected, due to a “technical problem.”

2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit | Nick Manes

Automakers are facing a greater challenge in the short term: declining sales. The National Automobile Dealers Association in December projected that overall sales from U.S. franchised new-car dealerships would fall to 16.8 million units in 2019, a fall of 1.1 percent compared to the previous years.

The organization pointed mostly to rising interest rates as the main culprit for the decreasing sales, calling the issue a “wildcard.”

While GM did not make an executive available for comment on Monday, company officials have previously pointed to the overall changing landscape as the reasons for the restructuring.

“The actions we are taking today continue our transformation to be highly agile, resilient and profitable, while giving us the flexibility to invest in the future,” GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said in November in announcing layoffs. “We recognize the need to stay in front of changing market conditions and customer preferences to position our company for long-term success.”

Both GM and Ford are in the process of massive restructuring plays that will likely result in thousands of job losses.Some analysts predict that Dearborn-based Ford’s layoffs could be larger than GM.

Ford, however, has largely been spared from being blasted by politicians as job losses aren’t as concentrated in North America and the company continues to produce a large amount of its vehicles in North America. GM is producing its new Blazer SUV — on display at the Detroit Auto Show — in Mexico.

In an interview with the Advance, Peters noted that Ford continues to produce its best-selling F-150 pickup truck in Southeast Michigan.

“So I simply don’t buy the argument that you can’t build vehicles in the United States in a profitable way,” Peters said, stressing the need for the United States to have a comprehensive manufacturing policy that “looks at the needs for skilled labor and and provide the training opportunities for folks to have the necessary skilled labor [and] provides the capital structure necessary for those investments to be made.”

Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow at the 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit | Nick Manes

Stevens, who served as chief of staff for former President Obama’s 2009 Task Force on the Auto Industry, largely agrees. She said Monday that the federal government needs to do a better job on areas like trade policy in order to ensure that companies like Ford continue to manufacture vehicles in the United States.

Speaking with reporters, Stevens said that she’ll push for setting “the economic conditions to inspire and encourage the companies to keep jobs here. Certainly we don’t want to feign an industry’s presence.

“It’s our responsibility as public policymakers to put the American workforce at the forefront,” Stevens continued. “For every automotive worker who’s nervous, who’s lost their job, we are here for you.”

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.