GM wields the big stick
Nick Reilly, head of General Motor's international operations, is touring Europe on a mission. He's been to Poland and Belgium. Yesterday in England he met New Labour's august Lord Mandelson, the UK's First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, President of the Board of Trade and Lord President of the Council, and Tony Woodley, deputy leader of trade union Unite. Today Reilly is in Spain.
Reilly is using the big stick of closure to threaten governments and unions. With massive overcapacity globally and car scrappage schemes ending, production cannot continue without huge additional bail-outs, reduction of capacity equivalent to three of the eight plants in Europe, and up to 10,000 job losses.
Reilly's mission is to extract the best deal he can as part of the restructuring of one of the now bankrupt behemoths of the capitalist system of production and finance. GM was one of the biggest and most powerful of the global corporations that grew to dominate the world economy during the credit-induced boom of the second half of the 20th century.
Together their power grew to the extent that it changed the role of government. To keep itself afloat, the sales of GM the vehicle producer, became increasingly dependent on the success of its own finance company GMAC – a hugely complicated operation providing insurance and mortgage services in around 40 countries as well as loans for vehicles purchased via its network of dealers.
As the 2008 financial crisis swept the world, sending banks into a spiral of decline, GMAC was given permission to join their ranks as a bank holding company so that it could access funds from the US government's Troubled Assets Relief Programme, which it promptly did. In May this year GMAC was rebranded as the Ally Bank, because according to Sanjay Gupta, GMAC's chief marketing officer “it gives the sense of a trusted partner, the attributes we are trying to convey".
Really? Operating in Britain as mortgage lender GMAC-RFC, the company was fined £2.8m by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) last month for mistreating customers who fell into arrears. It has also been told to repay £7.7m, plus interest, to 46,000 of its borrowers.
After setting up as a mortgage business in the UK in 1998, GMAC-RFC grew rapidly to become one of the UK's largest mortgage lenders, but it stopped making new loans last year. The FSA's investigation of the company's lending practices between October 2004 and October 2008 found that charges for dealing with people in arrears were "excessive and unfair"; repossession proceedings were started before all other alternatives had been considered; GMAC staff were not properly trained in dealing with arrears cases and repossessions.
Workers in plants throughout Europe and the rest of the world should not be reassured by the failure of the deal to sell Opel and Vauxhall to the consortium of Canadian parts dealer Magna and Russian finance interests. Neither should they place any faith in the ability of union leaders like Woodley to secure their future.
The logic of capital is ruthless. The downward spiral into recession and slump cannot be reversed by low interest rates or injections of invented cash. GM's 25% production cuts will soon look small. GM workers should be preparing their own plans. They should discuss how to take over their industry, and convert their workplaces to production of zero-carbon vehicles as part of a massive expansion of public transport.
18 November 2009