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Labor Unions’ Last Stand

By Shlomo Maital

   Some 50,000 General Motors workers, members of the UAW United Auto Workers, are striking; the strike is over 3 weeks old, and each side has now hardened its position.

   Strikes were quite rare for two decades or more in the US. But last year, half a million workers went on strike. So – what is going on?

     GM workers face a bleak future. Car producers are shifting to electric vehicles (including in China) and producing those takes far fewer workers. Moreover, car production today is highly roboticized.  GM, which was bailed out by the US government during the 2008 financial crisis, is now highly profitable; but it has no intention of getting locked into an expensive labor contract, when it plans to shed thousands of workers and close plants.

     In the 1950’s a third of all workers belonged to unions, in the US. Today it is just about one in ten. As manufacturing migrated to Asia, and services dominated, unions shrank. Service jobs are mostly non-union. Moreover, employers switched to hiring temporary or contract workers, who have no social or pension rights, to cut costs. Google, for instance, employs more such ‘temps’ than regular employees. (Recently, a group of Google contract workers in Pittsburgh organized themselves into a union – a trend that may spread).

     GM workers get minimal strike pay – but they are determined. So is GM. In a global economy, GM can produce anywhere – in Mexico, or even in China. So labor has become a commodity whose price is cheap and getting cheaper at times. This has devastated the middle class, where once UAW jobs paid $24 an hour and more. Those jobs are disappearing.

     The impoverishment and commoditization of labor in the US– one of the negative consequences of globalization – have been largely ignored, even by Obama and the Democrats.    One result, I believe, was Trump’s election. Trump’s promise to bring manufacturing back to the US is utterly empty. But his voters, blue collar workers, choose to vote for someone who voices their pain, even if they know his promises are utterly hollow.

   At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s last stand, the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes defeated the US Army’s 7th Cavalry. The underdogs won.

     I’m afraid that in the UAW’s last stand against GM, the labor underdogs will lose. And the only Democrat presidential candidate who seems to notice is the dark horse candidate Andrew Yang, who wants to pay workers a guaranteed income. Sooner or later, we may all come to realize that there is no other choice.






Reinventing the Automobile: GM & Ford vs. Startup Guy

By Shlomo  Maital   



  “In the ring, weighing in at about four ounces, is Silicon Valey startup guy Paul Elio.  Facing him, weighing in at 24,382 tons, is …General Motors, Ford, and VW.  12 rounds for the innovation championship in motor cars.”

    No contest.  A startup to make cars?    Non-starter, right?  Well, Paul Elio has done it.   There is a long LONG waiting list to buy the Elio automobile, a 3-wheeler, that gets…84 miles per gallon!  (Beats even the hybrids!).  The car is American made!   And its cost?  $6800.   (About the cost of 2.5  high-end Armani backpacks).   Here is what the Elio website says:

   “A few short years ago, automotive enthusiast Paul Elio sized up the prevailing status quo of personal transportation. He saw the soaring costs of the vehicles we drive. He saw fuel prices spike to record highs almost daily. He saw Americans struggling with an economy that was taking too much and giving back too little. Paul Elio decided that the world was ready for something radically new. The result? A three-wheeled masterpiece of automotive brilliance that bears his name.”    Elio’s vision?  “To provide a fun-to-drive, super-economical personal transportation alternative, that’s affordable, safe, and environmentally friendly. We are committed to the American dream, creating American jobs, and bringing American automotive ingenuity to every vehicle we build. This is, and will remain our mission at Elio.”

          The boxing match has begun.  It ends as soon as it begins.  Elio knocks out the automobile giants.  Why?   Big companies cannot innovate.  By definition.  They would never let a car like the Elio get past the drawing board.  Low margins.  Etc. 

        Elio Motors might yet fail. But like Tesla,  it could spur the car companies to actually try something innovative.   Innovation comes from rebels.  And rebellion is the last thing big companies seek or even allow. 

        Kudos to Paul Elio!   And Big Oil?    Think about trying another business.  

Mary Barra at GM: First Sure Steps

“Don’t Confuse Progress with Winning”

By Shlomo  Maital      


    I’m following new GM CEO Mary T. Barra closely, after she took over the company on Jan. 15 from Daniel Akerson.  Akerson was appointed by the U.S. Government, which bailed out GM, and saved it from bankruptcy, then sold its GM shares at a profit.  Akerson spent his four years as CEO “cajoling the company to shed its hidebound culture”, according to  Bill Vlasic, New York Times (Jan. 25-26, p. 11).  But Mary Barra has a different message. Speaking to top GM executives at a two-day meeting, her message struck just the right tone. 

   “There is no destination here, this is a continuous improvement journey.  Don’t confuse progress with winning.”

    Barra is a trained engineer and brings shop floor experience to the CEO job.  And she ‘get’s it!’.  The car business is all about building beautiful, sexy, powerful, appealing, attractive, safe, cost-effective fuel-efficient cars and trucks.  It’s not a sport. 

  “Even when you’re leading in a segment, that’s only for the moment,” she cautions.  “You have to continually keep raising the bar for yourself.”

   That’s a powerful message for GM.  It is doing well in the U.S. and China.  U.S. sales rose 7.3 per cent last year, but the car industry itself overall grew by 7.6 per cent.   GM has an 18 per cent market share in the U.S. and has struggled to maintain it.  It lost the global lead to Toyota, which sold 10 m. vehicles last year, more than any other company. 

    Barra is far far less standoffish than her predecessors.  She travels the world, holds small ‘town meetings’ with GM employees, and she is a good listener.  She is also tough.  “If you have a problem you better solve it. Because if you don’t, you won’t be here or the company won’t be here,”  she says.  She has set two ambitious goals for GM – 10 per cent net pre-tax profit margin in North America and breakeven in GM’s losing European operations,  both by 2015. 

     My parents once bought a beautiful coral Oldsmobile with a white vinyl hardtop. It was a beautiful car that not only a mother could love.  GM lost its way when it was led by a series of beancounters who cared nothing about cars.  Can it reinvent itself, and its culture, under Barra?   Could be.  It’s fun to watch her in action.   The future may indeed belong to women managers… see how Marissa Mayer has turned around Yahoo’s fortunes!  And Janet Yellen, who will decide the fate of the dollar, and the U.S. economy.  

GM Chooses a Woman to Lead It:

What’s Good for GM is Good for America

By Shlomo  Maital


Mary Barra

  Just hours ago,  General Motors chose its new CEO, to replace retiring Dan Akerson.  Akerson’s wife is battling cancer and Akerson chose nobly to resign, to join her in her battle. 

     The new CEO is Mary Barra and she joins a handful of women who are now leading top global firms:  Xerox, Yahoo, HP and IBM.   Barra’s style is friendly and low-key.  She previously served as VP.    Barra is an engineer, and at long last, finally places a ‘car person’ and engineer at the head of GM, instead of bean-counting financial experts who loved balance sheets more than Pontiacs (a brand that, alas, was killed by such bean-counters).  She understands a simple principle that GM assembly line workers (her father was one) have known for years:  GM will succeed by building great cars, not by managing costs.

    Margaret Thatcher once said famously, “if you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”  GM has done just that.

   After Obama and the US Treasury bailed out GM, a highly controversial decision, GM has emerged from bankruptcy.   According to an analyst,  “The bankruptcy transformed the balance sheet, but the transformation of the company is still a work in progress …..only time will tell whether Barra, who has spent her entire career at GM, is the change agent as touted by Akerson.”

   Barra’s specialty is product development and she reorganized GM’s chaotic global car development process.  She now has to stop the bleeding in GM’s Europe division, restore competitiveness for GM in China (Buick has lots leadership to VW there)  and above all, create beautiful reliable sexy cars for people who love cars. 

     Alfred Sloan created GM by stitching together small independent car companies: Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and keeping them lean, flexible and competitive (even with one another). GM lost that culture.  Can Mary Barra restore it?  Let’s hope. A lot of jobs depend on it. 

    Barra is only 51, and some feel she lacks experience to run a huge sprawling troubled company like GM.   I strongly disagree.   The old-age pensioners who’ve been running GM have not been outstanding.  Let’s give youth, and women, and engineers, a chance; Barra has those three qualities. 

    This could work for the US Presidency.  Remember Hillary?  Could she have done a lot better than the bumbling Barack?    Sometimes,  indeed, what’s good for GM really is good for America.        

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital