Wednesday, November 26, 2008

GM Goes Grassroots. A Son is Torn

This piece is written by Jake Brewer and originally posted at Huffington Post. Jake is the son of a General Motors employee and in this piece, he lays out the most poignant and personal look at the proposed auto industry bailout I've seen anywhere. It's well worth the read and I'm happy to be able to cross-post it for you here...

On November 12, Tom Brewer received an "URGENT call to action..." along with all other General Motors employees in the United States from GM North American President Troy Clarke. The return email address was "grassroots@gm.com." The urgent task at hand: Call your members of Congress to request that the American auto industry receive a government "loan" of at least $25 billion.

Employees were then directed to a website through which to take action:

www.gmfactsandfiction.com

As a grassroots clean energy advocate and strategic communications professional, it's a type of request I know intimately. I've written and received countless emails just like it. Two this week. Tom, however, has not.

Tom has been an employee of General Motors since he graduated from Evansville University in 1974. At the time, for a Midwestern kid from "stonecutter" Bedford, Indiana, it was kind of like going to work for Google today.

As you can imagine, Tom's seen a lot happen in the energy and auto industries in the last 34 years, but before this year he never considered that his retirement, his health care, and indeed his professional future would be in such dramatic jeopardy. In fact, without ever changing careers, he once worked for the largest and arguably the most influential corporation in the world; now he's getting these emails. He never dreamed that he'd need to be calling his congressmen to save the company to which he's always been loyal, and upon which he and his family's livelihood has depended. I can speak with such certainty about Tom's past because I've known him for 27 of the 34 years he's been with General Motors, and we're very close.

Tom is my dad.

And, Dad, I can't begin to describe how torn I am this week... My friends always called you "Big Tom" because of your powerful build, and if you were "big" to them, you were superhuman to me. Just so you know, no matter what happens in the next few days, you still are...

Today, though, I'm the Internet Director (a brand new type of occupation) for the Energy Action Coalition (a brand new type of organization) and today you're the Planning Administrator of GM Manufacturing Spring Hill in Spring Hill, TN.

Today my organization is calling on me to mobilize hundreds of thousands of young people to fight in Congress and the halls of politics nationwide for the clean energy future that we MUST achieve for the future of our economy and our climate. This week your organization is calling on you to get on the phones with your congressmen to save the 100 year old auto company to whom you've devoted your entire professional life.

In the 27 years we've been a family, our story has never been more important to the country. On the one hand, if we don't bailout your company and the backbone of our economy, it seems we're doomed. On the other, if we don't work now for our future and a transition to a clean energy economy, we're doomed. It's heart wrenching, Dad. I'll go ahead and tell you now that I will help you, but I need you to be willing to help me too. Please hear me out.

My entire conscious life has been directly connected to you, General Motors and the Saturn plant in Spring Hill. The "Saturn" part of our story is especially important because it was a car and an entire company designed in the 1980's in response to Japanese vehicles that were kicking American ass during an energy crisis.

It hits so close to home right now, it hurts.

You took us from Freeland, Michigan to Middle Tennessee in 1988 when "Saturn" was nothing but 3,000 acres of corn field, some office trailers, and a rock quarry. We watched as the grassroots company grew from a trailer park in Spring Hill to an innovative, case-studied, globally known and tremendously respected brand that was actually different.

And it really really was different. Those weren't just commercials. I was there with you. Remember showing me around the facility for the first time? Remember the first Saturn Homecoming? Remember when they installed the pollution scrubbers and I was extra interested?

When the first Saturns rolled off the line in 1991, I don't know of another community of employees and local families in the United States that has ever been so proud. I remember you and mom popping in the video tape - the one of all of the Spring Hill employees and Skip LeFauve - and us watching together on the old brown couch.

It was a different kind of company. It was a different kind of car. It was innovative. And remember a few years later when Saturn became the brand through which the EV1 electric car was leased? The EV1 program put GM far ahead of the curve in the electric car field and promised to usher in a new era of American ingenuity. And remember, Dad, when you brought home an EV1 pre-launch model just as I was learning to drive?

I knew I was experiencing the future. For a teen with car and baseball magazines strewn across his bedroom floor, I beamed and bragged about you and about GM to everyone in town (and in that town it really was everyone) - though I would never admit it to you at the time. But of course as this story goes, the promise of that future ended with lobbyists in California and executives in Houston and Detroit. "Different" died. Those grassroots died.

And, as you and I both know, GM didn't stay ahead of anything - in Spring Hill or anywhere. The last of the GM EV1's were rolled to their "death" in 2005, and last month, you and the former-Saturn Spring Hill plant recently had the best product launch in GM history, which would be amazing ...except that it came with the unveiling of a brand new SUV, the Chevy Traverse.

Similar to when the first Saturns rolled off the assembly line, it's difficult to describe my feelings on this except to say that I'm so proud of you, Dad. Absolutely, yes. But I am furious with General Motors. I "support the troops, not the war."

In manufacturing terms, you and the thousands of GM employees in Spring Hill, TN and around the United States are deserving of heroic praise for your work and performance, doing more with less. In executive terms, Rick Wagoner, Bob Lutz and all the rest in Detroit should be flat out ashamed.

The Traverse is a beautiful car by traditional American auto standards, and GM has certainly spared little of its mind-numbingly waning cash promoting that traditional beauty. This "crossover" (read: glossy covered SUV), however, was born into two abysmal climates - economic and environmental - and even starting to think about any new automotive product in traditional American auto schemes represents gut-level, irresponsible, Bush-ian failure. That any car company in 2008 actually promotes something like 25 mpg (with a tailwind, going downhill) for 100 year old suck-bang-blow technology is an absolute travesty.

That it's coming from General Motors whose very survival depended on game changers and innovation for much longer than the last 24 months, is practically a crime. I know you can't innovate on a dime, Dad, but GM has had decades. The Traverse is like a hipster Tahoe. An oxymoron. Whatever they call it; however they promote it; as pretty as it may be, doing the same-old-thing-but-a-little-better is not innovation. And again, for a company with three million dependents, not innovating is not just wrong for business, it borders on moral corruption.

That's who you and I are supposed to call our Congresspersons for? That's what my grassroots support is supposed to promote? Any new vehicle launch begins years before it hits a dealer lot. I know that as well as anyone. New vehicle launch is the exact job I've watched you do for decades. Unfortunately you don't get to choose what product you produce. Rick and Bob choose that. They chose the Traverse and 100 other products and initiatives this decade, and it's precisely that lack of foresight that is unforgivable. It's precisely for these reasons that I'm inexpressibly torn this week as Congress moves to vote on an auto industry bail out.

And I'm sorry, Dad, I know we talked about this - but a "bail out" is exactly what it is. It's not a loan. "Loans" are something you do in good faith. Like when you bought our home. Remember when you walked into the First Farmers & Merchants Bank in Columbia, TN, looked Jim Cook in the eye, told him what you needed, shook his hand, and he gave it to you because with a look and a handshake he knew you were a man of integrity and character?

If you can honestly tell me that Rick, Bill, and Bob are as deserving as you were - that you would give them a loan on a look and a handshake - I'll call it a loan too.

I can only imagine that a soldier's family feels 100x worse: "Please fund the equipment my father/mom/husband/wife/son/daughter needs to survive... and dear god, please GET US OUT OF THIS MESS!" I know we have to do something, Dad. I do. The last thing I'd ever want is for you and and three million others across this country to lose their jobs. To lose their pride. But I don't just want you to have A job, dad. I want you to have a good job. A job that's part of the leading edge of what this country can do. What it can BE. Like you used to have.

I want my entire generation - bigger than any generation in US history - and those that follow us to have the best jobs in the world too. I don't want 1 in 10 jobs in the US to take a hit next week, but I also don't want hundreds of millions of already-struggling Americans to blow their tax dollars on failure. I don't want to pull out the last straw on you and your friends and colleagues, and I don't want to build scaffolding for something that's so badly broken. The truth is that I am only where I am because of the man you are and your providing for me. And you did that as a loyal employee of General Motors. I get that.

I'm just having a near-impossible time trusting your bosses with what they're asking for. I want you to have your paycheck and your health care and your pension, and shares of stock that are worth more than my morning Dupont Circle coffee, and I also want the electric and high efficiency cars I've dreamed of for over a decade.

My grassroots demands the clean energy future that I HAVE to have for your grand children.

I am a clean energy professional fighting for our collective next decades, and I am a General Motors son worried about our collective next week. So here's where I'm at, Dad...

As I said, I'm going to help you. But I need you to help me too. To some, it would appear that our jobs and our perspectives are diametrically opposed. But as you know, I see us as inextricably linked - whether we were linked by blood or not. It's crucial that someone like you and someone like me work together to move our country forward. And the grassroots is the place to do it. But it has to stay there. It can't be Rick and Bob.

Troy Clarke wrote you, and you've passed it along to me, to ask that we use the force of active citizenship to save a company and an industry. It's unprecedented in GM history, and if GM is actively and truly engaging in the democratic process from the bottom up because it cares about the future of this country, I will support it. I'm going to call my Congresswoman this week, as you and Troy asked, and I'm also going to call the Congresspersons of every state I've lived in for the past 10 years and I'm going to ask them to provide a loan for your company, Dad.

But here's what you and Troy Clarke should do for me.

Next week, and the week after, and every week until every dime of that loan is re-payed, you and Troy and all your colleagues and bosses will call your congresspersons and give them updates on how quickly you are retooling your facilities to build the next generation of clean cars and how many people you have put back to work with Green Jobs.

And before you hang up you're either going to ask for (or thank them for, if me and MY colleagues have anything to say about it) the investment in a new clean energy infrastructure that will not just save a company and an industry, but create an entirely new one.

...you know, it's funny. As I was writing this, the song "409" by the Beach Boys came on my iPod. (Yes, I still listen to the Beach Boys.) My eyes started tearing up, and if I hadn't been in public, I would have all out cried. It is one of the first songs I remember singing along with you in our car, Dad. "She's real fine, my 409..."

The thing is, a 409 cubic inch, 6.7 liter Big-Block Chevy engine isn't fine. It's not even ok. It never really was. That thinking... that tune... is what got us in this mess. I hope beyond hope that one of these years when I come home for Christmas to introduce your grand kids to Big Tom, we'll be singing a new tune together in a whole new kind of car built by the grassroots of your company.

Jake Brewer is the Internet Director at the Energy Action Coalition. You can find more of his writing at Huffington Post, and ItsGettingHotInHere.org.

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