What is it about General Motors? The once largest maker of cars in the world (now sixth or seventh) has been in an all-fronts retreat for years – while Wall Street analysts and top GM brass whistle past the graveyard touting gains in the company’s stock price and profitability.
GM has exited key markets including Europe, India and South Korea, is winding down its passenger car business, and is even paring back startup operations such as Maven car sharing (eight cities shut down). Meanwhile GM’s Cruise Automation operation posts quarterly losses in excess of $250M.
With the United Auto Worker’s strike against GM entering its fifth week, Wall Street analysts express their “comfort” with an extended strike as long as “the ends justify the means,” in the words of one. We are all familiar with the technological, regional, and economic whipsaw facing GM – and other car companies – as a) production shifts to lower cost countries, b) electrification threatens internal combustion vehicle demand, and c) software developers are prioritized over factory workers.
But GM is an extreme case. At each turn, GM is rewarded for shrinking and pulling back, with the apparent goal of rewarding stockholders. What has been lost is a sense of mission. What is GM’s purpose, at the end of the day?
The UAW strike now darkening GM’s doorstep and rippling across the entire industry and supply chain is a clearly calculated measure representing merely the latest step in GM’s extended shrinkage program. It’s notable that at a time when GM is announcing ongoing plant closings a sticking point in the negotiations with the UAW are the size of plant investments – in addition to compensation and health care costs.
Since the arrival of Mary Barra as GM’s CEO “down” has become “up” for GM. The worse the news is, the better the stock performs. One can imagine senior GM executives glancing out of their office windows in the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit – gazing off in the direction of idled factories and musing: “Do your worst, UAW!”
GM may be overlooking what it is truly up against in the global auto market of 2019. The company is up against a determined foe in the form of one Tesla Motors.
Tesla may currently be putting its biggest visible market share hurt on luxury auto makers from Germany, but the bigger hurt is coming from a talent bleed. For new college grads looking for inspiring automotive opportunities, Tesla offers a green carbon-free vision of automobile ownership and self- driving technology. And for its factory workers (who have had their share of disputes and opposition to management) the company offers growth and potential prosperity.
GM is doing its best to cull its share of new engineering grads with Cruise Automation. But GM can’t offer its line workers much of a vision of the future. The UAW strike is clearly a defensive rearguard action.
So the incredible shrinking GM is being sliced both ways. The company is trying to pivot to electrified vehicles – which will require system-wide factory shifts and further closures for sure – while preserving its purportedly profitable (in spite of massive incentives) SUV/truck/crossover business and exiting passengers vehicles. It must add expensive software talent, while tamping down compensation expectations along the production line.
The company must fund the future – electrified, self-driving vehicles – from the still-profitable husk of the internal combustion past with a restive, tortured workforce well aware of its future marginalization. In essence, the UAW is holding GM’s future hostage as a last resort as the company’s remaining production seeps away to Mexico, China, and other distant shores.
At five weeks, it appears that the stakes couldn’t be higher and GM’s resolve more determined. For all its alleged corruption and political vulnerability (UAW workers are estimated to be making $13 more per hour than workers at non-union U.S. plants – i.e. quit your complaining!), the UAW is likely responding to the awkward and contradictory picture GM brass has painted – pleading poverty after posting an $8B profit to the delight of Wall Street.
It’s hardly a surprise that the unions want a piece of that action and some commitment to their long-term needs – as they watch the incredible shrinking GM’s market share evaporate and plants close. In the end, it only seems fair. And in reality the strike appears to be a calculated risk that GM has chosen to take on – not the unions. There are no surprises in GM factories. The only surprise is how little anyone – not GM management, not the investors, nor the workers – seems to care. That’s the worst news of all out of the UAW strike. Does anyone – other than stressed out suppliers – care what happens to GM? Is GM, as the commentary on its Website suggests, just building memories?