DETROIT — A year ago, as the 2018 Automotive News World Congress was getting underway in Detroit's Renaissance Center, General Motors CEO Mary Barra was at a podium at the base of the same building, the company headquarters, joyfully celebrating the reopening of a company exhibit space and the release of GM's Cruise AV with employees.
Securing GM for the long term
There was applause and praise bestowed upon all of GM's 180,000 employees for their efforts over the past year to bring every vehicle, including the self-driving car with no steering wheel or pedals, to fruition.
"We should be very proud," she told the hundreds, if not thousands, of employees who left their desks and lined up to watch the speech from the mezzanines of the Detroit landmark. "This journey we're on is so important."
Fast-forward a year. The fourth-generation Cruise AV was again on display at the headquarters last week. But GM is in a different place. Many of those employees who attended last year's celebration could be let go by GM any day now as part of a multibillion restructuring that will cut 15 percent of the salaried work force and could close as many as five North American plants.
Barra, speaking at this year's World Congress, said she understands the frustration workers may feel and the politically charged outcry since the restructuring was announced in November.
"I understand the emotion because, one, somebody's life is changing and, two, it's having an impact on the community," Barra said.
But she said the moves, which are expected to cut $6 billion in costs by 2020, are needed to prepare the automaker for an eventual downturn and better position GM for investments in future technologies such as electric and autonomous vehicles.
"Having been at General Motors for 38 years, I feel a huge obligation to make sure that General Motors isn't just successful for a few years, but I want it to be successful for many, many decades," Barra said last week in a conversation with Automotive News Group Publisher KC Crain.
While Wall Street has praised the decisions, the company has faced mounting pressure from the UAW, politicians and the Canadian union Unifor, which launched a media campaign against the company.
Barra, relating a personal story about her experiences with layoffs at plants where she worked, said what wasn't well-communicated in the November announcement were the opportunities the company had for displaced plant workers — particularly in the U.S.
The former human resources chief said GM is doing everything it can to find work for the roughly 5,900 hourly workers affected by the potential closures. In the U.S., GM has said it has 2,700 open positions available for the 2,800 active workers affected by the announcement. The 2,800 figure includes 1,200 who were retirement-eligible, meaning that even more positions may open for some workers who were laid off before the November moves.
For 2,600 hourly workers affected at GM's Oshawa, Ontario, assembly plant, Barra said the company is working with local government, community colleges and businesses and has identified 5,000 potential job opportunities.
After the event, Barra said the company has more products coming that will be built in the U.S., but she offered little hope for new products going to the plants that may close.
"When we made the very difficult decision that we did for some of the plants impacted, we have other plants that are lower in capacity utilization that we would want to increase," she said.
As the company pivots toward all-electric and autonomous vehicles, Barra said, GM sees an "incredibly important" role for dealers.
"I think there's huge opportunity in EV and AV as we move forward," she said, "but we need to make sure we move together."
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