Months after the link between a faulty ignition switch and car crash fatalities made front-page news, General Motors’ reckless disregard of public safety, and its web of denials and cover-ups are still in the public eye.
GM management knew in 2005 that an ignition switch eventually used in millions of small Chevrolet and Saturn cars could become jostled during a crash — causing the vehicle to shut off, whereby the airbag would fail to deploy. GM’s claims that “only” 13 fatalities and 32 crashes are tied to this defect, statistics the capitalist media repeats.
However, attorney Robert Hilliard represents 54 families who lost loved ones and 273 injury victims. There could be more than 300 deaths, says Friedman Research Group.
Joan Claybrook, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, unearthed documents showing that in 2001, GM knew of the possible safety issue when it evaluated two switch designs for the 2003 Saturn Ion. The company used the cheaper component. The documents “paint a tragic picture of the cost culture and cover-up at General Motors,” states Claybrook’s letter to GM. (NBC News, April 16)
Mary Barra, GM’s first woman CEO, has drawn fire for evasively responding to questions before Congress and by crash survivors and relatives of drivers killed.
Claybrook has also blasted NHTSA complicity. In 2007 and again in 2010, she claims, there was enough evidence to order a recall but the agency declined to pursue one. “I think until someone’s put in jail in these companies, they’re never going to get the message that they cannot behave this way and harm the public,” she said.
The recall’s sluggish pace has unnerved owners of the 2.6 million affected vehicles. GM’s recall-related website says that vehicle owners — while waiting for replacement switches — can safely drive their cars if there are no other keys on the key ring. Drivers are apprehensive, but are finding a short supply of loaner cars at the dealerships. They must submit forms stating that they fear for their safety while driving. Dealers decide on loaner requests.
Additionally, GM has been in federal bankruptcy court, five years after the “quick rinse” bankruptcy created “New GM” and “Old GM.” Under federal loan terms, a “leaner, meaner” GM emerged, having shed more than 1,000 dealerships and two dozen plants and warehouses, and axing tens of thousands of union workers’ jobs. The GM-United Auto Workers contract imposed concessions on those still working.
Pending and potential liabilities involving pre-bankruptcy-produced vehicles were left behind in Old GM, leaving injury victims with no means to collect compensation. GM says it will compensate all switch-related crash victims.
However, the company is asking the court to dismiss class action lawsuits involving economic losses suffered by the defective vehicles owners. Money for GM’s litigation fees to quash the lawsuits should instead go to the families that suffered from the company’s murderous cost cutting.
Autoworkers and the recall fight
As new information surfaces on GM’s scandalous conduct around the recall, autoworkers suffer the consequences of lean production. The Detroit Three companies are trying to squeeze more work out of fewer workers and — under the two-tier pay structure — for a third less pay than before the bankruptcy.
The horrific practices before the recall and current shop floor conditions could form the basis of an autoworkers/auto consumers’ alliance against these profit-hungry companies, one with historical precedent.
In its more militant days, the UAW would press the Big Three on consumer issues, demanding better quality and lower sticker cost. Yet the UAW has been silent over this case of greed trumping public safety, missing an opportunity to build solidarity between workers as producers and workers as consumers.
UAW President Bob King’s committed “partnership” with GM has overridden the basic principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
This complicity parallels King’s refusal to publicly support Asotrecol, an organization of Colombian GM workers who were illegally fired after sustaining debilitating injuries.
Asotrecol has maintained a more than 1,000-day tent occupation across from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. GM refuses the workers’ demands to negotiate a just resolution. With no income and no health coverage, their health is deteriorating. They face home foreclosures. Despite the Asotrecol Solidarity Network’s fundraising efforts, their families often go hungry. The network has found common ground with survivors who lost family members due to GM’s criminal neglect.
GM’s malpractice in these tragic stories is far from exceptional; it has been business as usual since the dawn of the auto age. In 1965, Ralph Nader’s bestseller, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” exposed a 50-year pattern of auto industry negligence and, worse — “designed-in dangers” that yielded boundless earnings for the insurance and health-care-for-profit industries.
Today, the capitalist system of production for profit is still unsafe at any speed.