By Jerry Harris
(Science & Society, Vol. 74, #3, July 2010)
Abstract: Although the world economic crisis has slowed the flow of global investments and production, transnational capitalism has become more centralized through greater monopolization. We can trace this development in the auto industry with an examination of state intervention, transnational alliances and global competition. Far from developing a nation-centric recovery plan the Obama bail-out deepens the auto industry’s global character. This example shows how the transnational capitalist class works through the State to strengthen its dominant position over national capital.
Is the worldwide economic crisis the end of globalization? There certainly has been a retreat of trade, foreign direct investments, cross-border mergers and other indicators of the transnational economy. But the real question is whether or not national economies are growing stronger as the global economy shrinks. Are transnational capitalists bringing their investments home like returning immigrant workers after losing their foreign jobs? One way to examine these questions is by analyzing the neo-Keynesian policies proposed in the aftermath of the U.S. elections. (Harris and Davidson) Has there developed a nationally centered recovery policy, or has the crisis been used to reconfigure corporate combinations that strengthen the transnational character of the global economy?
The auto industry is a good avenue to explore the capitalist response. Cars have a particularly strong national identity. General Motors (GM), Ford and Chrysler are seen as uniquely US corporations. Afterall, millions of Americans grew up with slogan, “What’s good for GM is good for America.” As the New York Times noted, “GM factories churned out…muscle cars with taut, sculptured body panels that were rolling displays of American DNA.” (Maynard) This national identity extends to Japan with Honda and Toyota, Germany with BMW and Mercedes Benz, Jaguar and Rolls Royce for Britain and more recently Kia/Hyundai for South Korea. But the auto industry has long been transnationally integrated through mergers, buy-outs and joint ventures. Looking back to 2001 we see GM owned Fiat, Subaru, Isuzu, Daewoo, Saab and Suzuki; Ford held Jaguar, Aston Martin, Land Rover, Mazda and Volvo; Volkswagen acquired Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Seat and Skoda; Daimler Benz took over Chrysler and Mitsubishi; and Renault controlled Nissan and Samsung. (Harris) These particular sets of transnational relationships come and go but the global nature of the system remains. The current crisis, for all its nationalist rhetoric, is simply reshuffling the deck and deepening transnational capitalism.
The government’s investment into GM and Chrysler has been characterized as saving the US auto industry and even labeled socialist by conservatives. But exactly what is meant by a US auto industry in an era of globalization? Are we talking about a nation-centric corporate policy committed to maintaining a large base of good paying American jobs? Do we mean corporations pledging allegiance to protect and build the national economy first and foremost before their global interests? Are these corporations expected to have a majority of their sales, employment and assets in the US? Or do definitions narrow to US located headquarters linked to an assumption of national economic loyalty? None of these definitions fit GM or Chrysler.
What concerns most Americans is saving jobs, not the particular national identity of their employer. Foreign automakers have flocked to the South in part attracted by large incentives offered by state governments. When Washington was debating the Detroit bailouts Southern senators opposed the plan based on their loyalty to Honda and Toyota. Here we have different arms of government authority backing different transnational players. Kia recently moved to open a factory on the Georgia-Alabama border receiving 43,000 applications for work. A front lawn sign on the main city drag says it all, “Thank You Jesus For Bringing Kia to Our Town.” (Luo)
Unfortunately for union members who benefited from wage and benefit levels hammered out inside the confines of a nation-centric economy, the Southern auto industry brought global competition inside the US. The bankruptcy proceedings for GM and Chrysler were the final blows molding UAW members to labor relations based on transnational production. As ex-UAW local president Frank Hammer remarked, “In a global economy we’re all foreign workers.” To truly be a national industrial policy the state must do more than aid US headquartered corporations. It must also craft a social contract that privileges the national working class, not one that forces workers to accept lower standards based on global competition.
The point is transnational auto companies are as much part of the US economy as GM and Chrysler. Honda began US operations in 1979 and has major facilities in 31 cities in 16 states. Investments have created 367,000 jobs, 27,000 directly employed by Honda in all 50 states and another 100,000 in dealerships with $17 billion in annual wages. (Honda) Toyota has $17.4 billion in direct US investments spending $30 billion annually with US suppliers. They have ten production facilities in seven states, operations that include research, development, design and engineering in 40 states and hold 1,502 dealerships. Toyota directly employs 35,838 people and claims indirect employment of 1,117,511. (Toyota) Its market capitalization is now $123 billion compared to $683.8 million for GM.
In comparison let’s look at GM and Chrysler. Before bankruptcy Chrysler claimed to employ 100,000 workers in all 50 states, held about 4,000 dealerships and maintained relationship with 6,000 suppliers. Direct employment in manufacturing and warehouse facilities were just over 60,000 in 16 states. Additionally, Chrysler employed 9,350 manufacturing workers in Canada where 25% of its production takes place, plus another 5,711 factory workers in Mexico. (Chrysler) About 70% of Chrysler’s world sales are in trucks and SUVs and 75% of its sales take place in the US. Relying on the national market and pushing America’s big vehicle culture are the very elements that put Chrysler in an untenable competitive position. Survival depends on greater global reach and small car technology, exactly what the Fiat takeover is constructed to correct.
As for GM, it reported 47 manufacturing and warehouse facilities in 13 states, 21 of those in Michigan. Working in these facilities are 82,849 employees. GM also claims to be “Mexico’s single largest employer” with some 78,151 workers and production plants in four states exporting five different brands to the US. Their Canadian profile is much smaller with just 12,000 directly employed. (GM1) The data clearly show that GM and Chrysler have a bigger US footprint in terms of employment and dealerships than either Toyota or Honda.
The above figures cover GM’s and Chrysler’s NAFTA base, but we still need to examine their broader global integration. Chrysler has operations in 125 countries, mostly in sales, marketing, communications, service and distribution support. It also has seven manufacturing operations that include Austria, Germany, Venezuela, Taiwan, China and joint ventures with Mercedes, the Egyptian government and state owned Beijing Automotive. Joint partnerships include the development of hybrid technology with GM, Mercedes and BMW, and production of four-cylinder World Engines with Hyundai and Mitsubishi. Chrysler also buys transmissions from an affiliate of Nissan. Joint ventures in auto manufacturing include Hyundai building compact Dodges in Korea for markets in Mexico; China Motor Corporation producing Chrysler Town & Country and vans for markets in Taiwan; Chrysler building pickup trucks for Mitsubishi for US markets, minivans for Volkswagen for sale in North America and engines in Mexico for GAZ in Russia. Consequently, while their sales abroad are limited Chrysler is deeply imbedded in the global assembly line. Cerberus Capital Management owns 80.1% of Chrysler and as a leading global private investment firm has worldwide assets and relationships. The German auto maker Daimler AG still owns 19.9%. (Chrysler)
According to GM in 2009 they have manufacturing plants in 34 countries employing 244,500 people. Of the 13 brands they own and produce six come from foreign mergers and acquisitions. These include Daewoo, Holden, Opel, Saab, Vauxhall and Wuling. GM has joint ventures in advanced technology with Chrysler, Daimler, BMW and Toyota and major vehicle manufacturing ventures with Toyota, Suzuki, Shanghai Automotive, AVTOVAZ of Russian and Renault. (GM2)
In examining their global holdings we see GM has joint ventures in Latin America with CIADEA of Argentina, OBB of Ecuador and in Colombia holds 84.3% of Colmotores. They manufacture in Argentina, Brazil and Chile and assemble in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. By 2012 GM plans to invest $2.5 billion in Latin America financed from local operations and a $500 million loan from state banks in Brazil. In Africa operations include joint ventures with local or state corporations in Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria, Tunisia and South Africa. Linked partners include Isuzu, Itochu and Saudi private investors. In the Middle East they employ 33,000 workers in dealerships selling 46 different models. (Ibid) These regions earned $1.3 billion in 2008 while operations in N. America lost $14.1 billion in the same year.
GM’s Asian-Pacific operations are active in 11 countries. In China the corporation is involved in seven joint ventures and two wholly owned foreign affiliates with more than 20,000 workers. In Australia they merged with Holden’s Motor Body Builders producing 18 local models. GM in India acquired the CK Biria Group in 1999, manufactures seven models and is adding R&D facilities in Bangalore. In Indonesia GM acquired PT Garmak Motor in 1997 and now assembles Blazers and imports GM vehicles, not from the US, but from Thailand and Korea. In Japan they operate through their 50.9% ownership of Suzuki, and in South Korea GM has majority ownership in Daewoo along with co-owners Suzuki and Shanghai Automotive. GM also owns 43% of Hyundai Capital, which mostly makes car loans and unsecured personal loans. South Korea has become the world center for GM’s small car design and Daewoo produces eight models in four manufacturing sites and also assembles in Viet-Nam, China, India and Thailand. Lastly, in 1996 GM built a state-of-art plant in Thailand that now makes six models. (Ibid)
GM’s operations in Third World markets are growing and have “survived virtually unscathed” in the global downturn. In 2008 sales increased 10% in Brazil, 9% in India, 6% in China and 44% in the Asian-Pacific region. As pointed out by Heather Timmons, “GM has often acted like an entirely different company from the one that is collapsing in Detroit.” Rather than gas guzzling SUVs they build fuel efficient affordable cars in China, flexible-fuel engines running on ethanol in Brazil and a new small car in India to compete with Tata’s Nano. (Timmons)
Throughout Europe GM sells autos and trucks and operates ten production and assembly facilities in seven countries. Moreover, in examining GM’s production, administrative and engineering facilities we find activity in 21 countries employing 54,797 workers. (GM3) Although their European presence will be reduced after the Opel deal, they will still retain 35% interest in the newly formed company. A little further east GM has stakes in three Russian assembly plants building Cadillac, Hummers and Chevrolets holding 15.2 percent of the market.
In 1995 foreign sales became larger than GM’s domestic market which went into sharp steady decline after 1999. In this same period the corporation began to aggressively enlarge their foreign holdings expanding their transnational character. While the US still is their largest single market 78% of GM sales are abroad, China and Brazil being the two largest. The corporation maintains sales and services in 140 countries. The point of all this data is to show that both auto corporations are deeply integrated into the global assembly line, financially connected to other transnational players and base their corporate strategy on global accumulation patterns not the national market.
In a study done before the global crisis by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD) on the world’s top 100 non-financial transnational corporations (TNCs) GM ranked fourth in foreign held assets. Following are figures for the auto corporations covered in this article plus Ford. The transnationality Index (TNI) percents refer to the ratio of foreign held assets, sales and employment to the total figures.
Auto Corporations Ranked by Foreign Assets, 2004 (UNCTD)
|Corp.||World Rank||Foreign Assets||Total Assets||Foreign Sales||Total Sales||Foreign Employed||Total Employed||TNI %||Foreign Affiliates|
As clearly indicated by their TNI percents the national investments of GM and Chrysler were of greater importance than the three other companies. But what will remain after bankruptcy? The Obama $15.5 billion deal for Chrysler will save about 35,000 jobs. On the other hand there will be about 38,000 lay-offs and buy-out offers for the remaining 26,000 UAW members. Plans also include closing 25% or nearly 800 dealerships while GM will shut-down 2,369 or 40% of its 5,969 dealers. Between GM and Chrysler 187,000 dealership workers will lose their jobs. Among GM hourly workers 60,000 took cash buyouts in 2006. Of the remaining 61,000 another 22,000 are slated for lay-offs when GM closes 14 plants and three warehouses leaving just 33 US facilities. After $50 billion in support, when the dust settles GM expects to employ only 38,000 union workers compared to the 395,000 in more than 150 plants at its peak in 1970. (Vlasic and Bunkley) After all these cuts the size of Toyota and Honda in the US will match that of GM and Chrysler. Thus the US footprint and identity of GM and Chrysler will be significantly reduced; their US operations becoming simply one entity among many in their network of global accumulation. The so called effort to save the “American auto industry” has further its transnationalization.
Direct U.S. Employment Expected After Bankruptcy
|Auto Transnational||Expected Employment|
Not only are these corporations left more dependent on their transnational networks, but their dismantling was a sell-off to transnational corporations. The most obvious is Chrysler, in which saving an American auto company meant selling it to Italy’s Fiat. The government was forced to court to fight off a challenge from a group of powerful lenders who opposed the Fiat takeover and argued a breakup of the company would benefit them better. The lender steering committee included JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and four other investment firms representing a wider group of 45 hedge funds and banks. Of course these are transnational firms, but if the argument for nation-centric economies holds true why would the US government oppose US financial institutions for the benefit of the Italians? The only way to understand the battle over Chrysler is to see it in transnational terms. Washington saves jobs thereby maintaining political legitimacy, but only by adjusting the internal market to globalization through a transnational deal.
Fiat will get Chrysler without paying in cash or stocks but by offering world class technology. Financial analyst Max Warburton says “Maybe, just maybe, (Fiat) has got an once-in-a-lifetime chance to pick up car companies for free, it’s almost too good to be true.” (Schwartz) Fiat’s advantage is its fuel efficient engines that consume 10% less gasoline and emit 20% less carbon dioxide than commonly used engines. In effect, the key to the deal was the government forcing Chrysler to meet global standards in auto production while junking the more backward US technology. Management teams are being sent to Fiat’s factory in Tychy, Poland to learn the latest robotic technology. The Tychy plant produces a car every 55 seconds, about twice as fast as Chrysler’s facility in Belvidere, Illinois. Fiat’s original ownership stake was 30 percent, but rose to 51% by the end of 2011.
An additional push for global fuel-efficiency standards took place in the Rose Garden where Obama gathered ten transnational auto companies to announce his proposal for a national standard of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. To push the proposal along the Energy Department began lending money from its $25 billion fund to develop fuel-efficient cars. Underlining the transnational nature of the program $241 million went to GM, $151 million to an affiliate of South Korea’s largest chemical corporation LG Chem, $100 million to the French/Japanese TNC Nissan, $93 million to Ford and $70 million to Chrysler. This transnational pattern was repeated in the government’s $3 billion cash-for-clunkers program. The three US automakers accounted for 38.6 percent of the sales while Japanese corporations took 46 percent of the market. Toyota lead with 19.4 percent followed by GM with 17.6 percent.
Fiat’s overall plan was to also obtain GM’s Opel with the help of the German government. The plan was to be among the top five global automakers, creating an Italian/German/US corporation, but the deal for Opel fell through. Already well placed in Brazil, Fiat will now use Chrysler factories in Mexico to make the 500, its competitor to the Mini Cooper. Chrysler will also begin to sell seven Fiat models in their network of US dealerships. In turn, Fiat will take Chrysler’s Jeep into Brazil, Russia and India. Fiat already is a major player in the US farm equipment market with its CNH division headquartered in Chicago. By 2012 Fiat owned 58.5% per cent, and the UAW 41.5% of the corporation by accepting stock and a $4.6 billion government loan to take over Chrysler’s pension fund. But this comes with only one board seat and little control over corporate decisions. The management and revenues from Chrysler are now merged into Fiat’s overall corporate structure where it is viewed as a subsidiary of the parent company.
When loaning taxpayer dollars to GM, President Obama portrayed it as an effort to save an iconic American company. As he stated, “This industry is like no other — it’s an emblem of the American spirit, a once and future symbol of America’s success.” (Maynard and Merced) But he made clear the government is eager to sell its 61% ownership of GM back to private shareholders, has no desire to run the company and will stay out of most business decisions. The UAW takes a similar approach to the 17.5% ownership they will hold through its retiree health care fund. As one local union president in Michigan stated, “We don’t run corporations. We represent people.” (Greenhouse) A better statement of US trade union philosophy would be hard to find. A simple focus on distributive policy and a rejection of strategic involvement in social and economic planning has long been the hallmark of mainstream unionism. UAW national president Ron Gettlefinger stated he wants to sell the union’s stock in GM as soon as practical, being more interested in administrating the health fund than the auto company. With both the government and union refusing a role in forming strategic market decisions an industrial policy for auto is hard to imagine. In fact, the New York Times reported “the Obama administration structured the G.M. and Chrysler plans to lessen the union’s voice in management.” (Ibid) There may be some minor battles over a factory closing or the importation of a foreign made model, but a neo-liberal belief in the market is clearly dominant. This plays to a transnational strategy of recovery rather than a US based economic plan. Fitz Henderson, the new C.E.O, is the personal embodiment of the global experience having served as head of GM in Brazil, then all of Latin America, then as head of the Pacific-Asian region and lastly as head of GM Europe.
The heart of the GM recovery plan is to sell-off a number of subsidiaries to the highest transnational bidders. The most important is Opel, a German company bought in 1929, whose subsidiary includes Vauxhall produced in Britain. The story of Opel involves government, union and transnational interests plus 29,000 workers in Germany and another 20,000 in Europe. The GM plan included getting a $6.4 billion loan from the German government, so it’s not surprising that European political rhetoric was similar to sound bites in the US. Social Democratic leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated, “We are not just talking about Opel but we’re talking about Germany’s position as an industrial center.” (Dougherty) In order to save German industry the union and government turned to a consortium of transnational corporations. Magna International, an Austrian/Canadian auto engineering company that assembles Jeeps for Chrysler and SUVs for BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche was to hold 27.5% of the new company. Additionally, Russia’s state owned bank Sberbank would own 27.5%. This played well into Putin’s policy of economic expansion into Western Europe to balance European investment into Russian oil and gas. GM was to maintain another 35% and Opel employees would hold the remaining 10%. Losing out were Fiat, a Chinese automaker and a Belgian private equity fund.
In its effort to save jobs the German government turned to transnational capital in both its statist and private forms, maneuvering between competitive blocs to make the best deal within the context of globalization. The Merkel administration, as the Obama White House, rejected a nation-centric option instead defining national well being as deeper insertion into the transnational economy. Opel would not be an American car, nor a German car. But a product of a Russian/American/Austrian/Canadian/German TNC. Clearly global competition is not nationally based, but the result of the transnational capitalist class creating alliances and competitive blocs out of former national industries. As for national states, they maintain some measure of political legitimacy by saving jobs within a structure of global capital accumulation while serving to facilitate transnational deals through large loans and public rationales.
But the German government’s plan ran into trouble with overall transnational capitalist class (TCC) interests as represented by the European Union. Merkel’s six billion dollar bail-out was attacked as too nation-centric, favoring Germany over Opel’s operations in Spain, Britain and Poland. Here we see the complex interplay of transnational competition using nationalist and regional rationales to fight for their share of the global market; as well as the still existing contradiction between national and transnational economies. Each government sought to maintain legitimacy with workers fearing the loss of their jobs and local capitalist networks fearing the loss of business. The EU, attempting to maintain an equal playing field for all transnational actors, had to step in and criticize Germany’s local bail-out. As GM’s business began to recover they abruptly pulled out of the entire arrangement saying that Opel was too important to its “global vehicle development strategy” to let go. (Vlasic) In the end GM has received billions from the US, Canadian and German governments, shrunk its US footprint and maintained virtually all of its global structure.
An interesting sidelight is how US government bail-out money has let US transnationals deepen their ties to China. Goldman Sachs (another recipient of government funds) recently paid China’s Greely Automotive $334 million to become a 15.1 percent owner. In-turn, this frees up capital for Greely to bid on Ford’s Volvo unit and expand into Europe. For their part, GM recently expanded their Chinese presence with a $293 million buy-in to the FAW Group creating a 50-50 joint venture to produce light trucks. Through all these deals we see how government funds help promote transnational investments that blur the identity of national ownership.
Other sectors of GM being sold off include Saab to Sweden’s Koenigsegg Amtomotive. The deal includes private investor from the US, Norway, state-owned Beijing Automotive and support from the Swedish government. But the most interesting deal is the sale of that hulking American symbol of patriotism the Hummer to a private Chinese company, the Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company. They will continue production at two US plants, keep open 100 dealers and close down Hummer’s South African factory and move those jobs back to the US. The Chinese intend to maintain a US chief executive, locate headquarters in Michigan and save about 3,000 US jobs. Consequently, the Chinese have an American industrial policy even if GM lacks one.
There are many who characterize the world system as a collection of nation-centric economies in competition with each other. If this were true one would expect in response to the crisis a protectionist dismantling of globalization similar to the nationalist reactions during the Great Depression. Indeed there have been some protectionist measures in countries around the world. This reflects the ongoing struggle between nationalist and globalist strategies which characterize this era’s transformation. But auto is an indicator of a broader trend in which TNCs are increasing their monopoly over the world economy.
There are many different policy choices by which to promote a nationalist economic strategy. One would be to close down foreign operations, limit imports, bring production home and compete through exports. Essentially this would return us to the nation-centric era, but in a globalized economy nobody is advocating this idea. As Ron Bloom, head of Obama’s auto industry task force pointed out, the government had no intent to “use its G.M. ownership ‘as an instrument of social policy,’ either by encouraging the production of certain vehicles or requiring that G.M. build more vehicles in, and buy parts for them from manufacturers in, the United States.” (Bunkley)
To maintain political legitimacy there will be some minor compromises. For example, GM agreed not to import small cars from China and instead committed to keeping open two plants in Michigan. Other protectionist policies have appeared. In Japan, Toyota refused to renew the contracts of foreign workers and most of the 16,400 foreign residents of Toyota City returned home. Responding to growing political unrest in automotive centered cities Russia increased import fees on foreign cars only to see new protests in Vladivostok where the economy is built around foreign autos. However, none of these amounts to a nation-centric industrial policy.
It took Flint’s hometown boy Michael Moore to propose a reasonable industrial policy that argues using auto factories for light rail and bullet trains, cleaner buses, hybrid and electric cars, windmills, solar panels plus other alternative energy technologies. As Moore points out, after the attack on Pearl Harbor under government direction GM halted all car production and immediately began assembling tanks and planes. A wholesale conversion today is possible and would save jobs as well as our industrial infrastructure. (Moore) Nothing like this has come out of Washington, the auto industry or the UAW. Robert Reich notes the Obama plan focuses on a financial engineered recovery, not projects that would bring new industries to cities losing auto jobs.
Matthew Slaughter, economist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations lays-out the dilemma for the US auto industry in clear global realities:
it is important to understand that any future success of the Big Three will depend a lot on their ability to make– and sell–cars outside the United States, not in it. A big reason Chrysler has fallen bankrupt is its narrow U.S. focus. It has not boosted revenues by penetrating fast-growing markets such as China, India and Eastern Europe. Nor has it lowered costs by restructuring to access talent and production beyond North America. Chrysler and GM will be stronger if they can become more global, not less so. (Slaughter)
As we’ve seen above, Obama’s bailout does precisely what Slaughter argues is necessary. Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer actually makes a much stronger argument for a neo-Keynesian industrial policy, one that calls for electric cars, recharging stations and a high-speed rail system. Writes Spitzer,
We have had a fundamentally misguided industrial policy over the past decade… to leverage up and guarantee the bets of a financial services sector that has now collapsed and left nothing of value in its wake. What would be a better approach? A policy to support those sectors that actually create goods and values…So why not start with a government order for 500,000 electric cars…It should be open to any manufacturer, as long as 75 percent of value of the car is domestically produced. I don’t care if the name on the plate is GM or Toyota as long as the value added is here. (I prefer a ‘Toyota’ produced in Tennessee to a ‘GM’ produced in China. Why struggle to save the shell of a company—GM—that intends to ship jobs overseas anyway?) (Spitzer)
Spitzer understands that in a global economy there is no corporate national identity. Therefore the key is not saving this or that TNC, nor as Obama called on people to do, “buy an American car.” A car which doesn’t exist and upon which a national industrial policy cannot be built. Only a total overhaul of the industry with an expansion of public transportation in rail and bus, plus a renewal of private transportation based on green technologies will build the national economy. Rather than an auto industry we need a mass transportation/green energy industry.
The TCC response to the world crisis is to expand transnational accumulation through a deeper integration of the national into the global. For the TCC there is no national industrial policy that is not a transnational policy. Economies at home and abroad have merged in ways that intractably link the profits and strategies of TNCs. US auto manufacturers can’t survive without their global footprint. The same is true of every auto corporation no matter their perceived national identity.
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 GM’s crisis is due in part to its financial arm, a major subprime lender which “became one of the biggest players in that segment of the mortgage industry.” (Andrews)