Wednesday, March 26, 2014

GM coverup of ignition problem cost lives

Christopher Hamberg, 18, died in a Cobalt accident. Source

By Richard Mellor
Afscme local 444, retired

When the US government, on the taxpayer’s behalf, sold our GM shares at the end of last year, we ended up only losing $10.5 billion.  The auto bosses were bailed out to the tune of $49.5 billion after the crash and we got back $39 billion.

Naturally, the mouthpieces of the 1% claim this was a great result, as without the bailout, we would have lost one million jobs, some say more than 2 million and the economy would have tanked even further.  Along with the loss to state and local government of $40 million in tax revenue a truly horrific picture was painted by the bailout supporters.

So after holding a 60% ownership of GM, the taxpayer is just about out of the auto business.  The problem is, we were never really in it; our money was.

Now there is a possibility that the taxpayer may have to fork over more cash in the light of GM’s recall of some 1.4 million vehicles last month due to ignition problems.  Numerous accidents and deaths have been attributed to the problem. What happens apparently is that if they keys are too heavy or get jostled or bumped, it can cause the car to stall and airbags fail to deploy.  This is pretty serious when you’re traveling down the freeway at 70 mile an hour.

It turns out that GM knew about the ignition problem as far back as 2005 and even warned dealerships of it. G.M.’s sales department had issued two service bulletins to dealers related to faulty switches, advising them to tell customers to drive without heavy key chains that could jostle the ignition and shut down the car.” The New York Times revealed in an extensive piece on the issue this week.

By 2009, GM could no longer deny there was a serious problem as data from a cars black boxes have revealed that there was a “potentially fatal problem” the Times adds.

Despite this and deaths being reported, GM officials went on the offensive.GM officials  threatened people whose relatives had been killed that if they didn’t drop their lawsuit the company would come after them for legal fees. Monsanto has used the same tactic against farmers that oppose their Genetically Modified seeds, bankrupt them in court. Money wins in their courts. In other instances GM just ignored pleas for help and demands for answers. One father whose 18 year-old son died when he lost control of his car and hit a tree told the Times that, “Nobody ever called me. They never followed up. Ever.”  And this was after GM officials determined that the ignition was a problem. Surely murder is applicable here.

In accepting responsibility when it is too obvious to continue avoiding it, GM officials admit that “The process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been.” What an insult.  Considering they knew about a flaw that has been linked to 31 crashes and 12 deaths a statement like that is nauseating.  In all, at least 23 fatal crashes have involved the recalled models, resulting in 26 deaths the New York Times points out.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is not such a “robust” agency as well it seems.
As is always the case, after people die, the investigations begin, new promises are made and we move on until the next disaster which is more likely just around the corner.

GM is falling back on its bankruptcy agreement to avoid any responsibility and potentially costly litigation. In that agreement, G.M. was shielded from liability for accidents that occurred before July 10, 2009.  Very handy, I don’t recall the taxpayer agreeing to such a thing or having any say in the terms of the agreement.

This whole affair stinks, but it’s the usual scenario, the same scenario that led to the BP spill, the West Virginia chemical spill that poisoned their water. The West Texas fertilizer explosion and numerous other disasters are all, as I have explained in previous commentaries on this blog, market driven. These disasters that devastate the natural world the communities in which we live and take human lives, are a natural and unresolvable consequence of a social system based on profit. They are as natural to it as the periodic crashes and economic crises that occur.

Is regulation a waste of time?
It is important to support regulation that protects, or is aimed to protect people and the environment.  But it is just as important to recognize that the agencies doing the regulating and the nature of the government directing it is not composed of working people and does not represent the interests of working people.  With regard to the BP spill for example, the New York Times pointed out that an Interior Dept. investigation revealed that “Federal regulators responsible for oversight of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico allowed industry officials several years ago to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil — and then turned them over to the regulators, who traced over them in pen before submitting the reports to the agency…..”  The 1% regulating themselves will never solve these issues in a permanent way.

This danger always exists even if an individual involved wants to do the right thing.  The ultimate right thing in the capitalist mode of production is profits. So while I would argue it is correct to support what I would call capitalist regulation, or representatives of capital regulating industry, they will always put profits first. Consumer watchdogs are exactly that, watchdogs. And the amount of money available for bribery and corruption is vast. Whole careers can be destroyed with all the consequences that flow from this.

Controlling this sort of thing is impossible as long as the commanding heights of the economy, the major industries, are privately owned. In all the articles about this issue with GM, it is always executives and/or engineers that are involved.  Workers have no real say in how production is managed; what is produced, how when and where. What happened with GM is that the auto bosses were bailed out not workers.

The production of society’s transportation needs will only be efficient in a social sense when under control and management of workers, when it is a collective process based on production for society’s needs and not profit. This would include all workers, skilled workers, scientists and engineers and other experts, as well as consumers.  Shop floor committees at the point of production would need to be formed under the supervision of workers.  These would be linked with committees based in working class communities.   Under real public ownership the workweek could be cut in half giving workers more time to participate in the management of the labor process.  It is certain that the auto would not dominate under a democratic socialist plan of production.

It’s the same with public services. I worked for a public utility and it is generally a more humane and secure environment.  But even here, workers have no real say in the organization and planning of work.  Public utilities generally function under the direction of politicians, consultants and financiers in the two Wall Street parties and will exploit the knowledge workers have but operate within the framework of a market model.  Many management personnel in such a situation might be good and skillful administrators but here again, the worker has no control and the skill one has is used to ensure capitalism functions correctly. As a union person I always argued for us to elect our own forepersons and bosses.

GM has a huge cash hoard as it has made profits for the past 4 years. Whether GM can fall back on the bankruptcy agreement to avoid responsibility or whether or not the taxpayer is in for another round of gifts to the coupon clippers remains to be seen, but either way, this is really secondary.  No amount of court cases or fines will stop this. Only when workers liberate the major forces of production from private hands will we begin to solve these issues permanently.

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