General Motors is on its way to closing what was once its industrial utopia at Spring Hill, Tennessee. It was there in a free-market Eden that the Saturn automobile was manufactured fifteen years ago in a plant run with workers and managers sharing decision-making and cooperating as equals.
Saturn was to be the different automobile, differently made and differently sold, almost a company apart from the rest of GM, which was laden with a long and grimy history and besieged by the growing volume of imports from the Land of the Rising Sun.
As it has been with other American utopias, the hippie communes of Mendocino County, California, in the 1960s, and Brook Farm and the Oneida Community in the 1840s, Saturn and Spring Hill found their own special spirit, flourished and died. Each perished for different reasons. Spring Hill’s oncoming death is due to its proprietor’s inattention, lack of follow-through, Wall Street and the managerial dunderheadism afflicting the American automobile industry in general.
People bought Saturns not only because they liked the car but also because they liked the one-price, no-haggle, shoot-straight-with-the-customer policy and the attempt at a new relationship between labor and management. The Saturn was a hit, but GM, whipped by a mindless stock market and a desire to make more money faster in the short run, began to starve the fledgling company of capital and new models before Spring Hill had been open five years.
Although the automobile was invented by a European gentleman named Gottlieb Daimler (1834-1900), nothing is so American as the motor car and nothing would be such an affront to our national self-esteem as seeing the end of the last two American-owned auto companies. Loss of self-esteem is nothing compared to the impact on more than 13 million workers directly and indirectly dependent on the industry. Obviously, even in the event that the worst were to happen, as is freely being discussed on the business pages, the many non-union workers in foreign-owned auto assembly plants would carry on.
“We’re not looking for a bailout,” cried William Ford, the CEO whose company bears his great grandfather’s name, but, as reported in the Washington Post, he and his company, as well as General Motors, are looking for a package of bailouts from Washington. At least one, a request that the Japanese revalue their currency to make their products more expensive, is silly. “We can compete with Toyota, but we can’t compete with Japan,” quoth Ford, who can’t even compete in the National Football League, where his hapless Detroit Lions are giving new meaning to the term managerial dysfunction.
America’s domestic auto industry, or what’s left of it, is also asking for help in dealing with its pension obligations and healthcare costs for its workers and retirees. There is a certain irony in these calls for assistance from the business world, which for years fought against “socialized medicine.” If they had supported it then, many companies would not be in the fix they are in now.
Auto manufacturers are calling for government help in hydrogen and fuel cell research, which the Energy Department is already involved in at least up to its hubcaps. Perhaps more money ought to be tossed its way, but it does not follow that lower costs in this area of power supply would help Ford and GM, who want to put hybrid technology in SUVs, although it was the American industry’s fixation on SUVs and pickup trucks to the detriment of long-range planning and other product development that contributed to their present woes. “If we don’t adapt to changing markets and shifts in consumer demand, [then] like any business, we deserve to suffer the consequences,” declares Ford, whose company has shown scant talent at adaptation recently and is suffering the consequences.
If the immediate past is a guide, Ford and GM will follow up the latest announcements of plant closings and layoffs with new announcements of plant closings and layoffs. Even Wall Street, which usually jumps for joy at the news of wholesale layoffs, has been unimpressed by the most recent ones. It is possible that the two corporations will continue to divest themselves of people and plant until there is no one left but Ford and Rick Wagoner, his counterpart at General Motors. They won’t be making any cars or making any money, but they won’t be losing the billions they are now. How much of a consolation that will be to their thousands of former workers remains to be seen.