In the 1960s, General Motors manufactured 45 to 50 percent of the cars and light trucks sold in the United States. Today GM is fighting to hold on to 26 percent of that market. If that downward spiral continues, GM soon will face bankruptcy, with Ford Motor Co. close behind. Should those two giants go under, the United States will lose a significant portion of its total industrial base.
With so much at stake, what is being done to prevent that vicious body blow to our nation's economy? Perhaps it is time to apply the lessons that should have been learned from the demise of America's steel industry 35 years ago. When Big Steel capitulated to foreign competition without so much as a whimper, steel didn't disappear from the world scene. Only American-made steel disappeared.
During World War II, the steel industries of Europe and Japan were destroyed. After 1945, their steel mills were rebuilt -- largely with American dollars -- using the latest technology. When it was no longer possible to eke out even the smallest of profits against the competition of those American-built foreign steel mills, thousands of American workers lost their jobs.
The United Steelworkers union fiddled while Pittsburgh burned. Until the end, the union haggled over bloated benefits and plush retirement packages. In the short term, the union won its fights. But in the long term, steelworkers lost their jobs and their retirement dreams.
Yet no leader in management, labor or the federal government stood up and shook his fist in the face of America's foreign competition shouting: "Someone will always make steel and sell it at a profit. It might as well be the United States of America!"
One wonders what America's steel industry would look like today if Big Steel's leaders had defiantly taken on the foreign competition and the United Steelworkers had cooperated. Perhaps America's Rust Belt would be a little less rusty.