I Know Why General Motors Failed

The Street Hustle

The headline of the Detroit News website was bold, black and stark today: GM FILES FOR BANKRUPTCY.  Although rumored for months, the country is preparing for the worst.  If the company who’s tag line was once ‘what is good for GM is for good for the country’ can fail, what will go next, seems to be the timbre on the street.  The larger question is how could this have happened?  How could this major corporation that was on the cover of the pamphlet for the American Century fail?

I think I know how it happened.

In 1992, I got a temp job at General Motors New York office.  The guy running the temp agency told me it was a great gig, paying $20 an hour.  My responsibilities were to be putting the ‘personnel files’ from the past two years into alphabetical order.  At first, I thought there had to be some kind of catch.  Who pays anyone $20 an hour to file anything?  I don’t think American Splendor author Harvey Pekar was paid that much by the V.A. during his 25-year tenure as a file clerk in Cleveland.

However, the country was mired in a recession and a job was a job, catch or no catch.  So I dutifully reported to the GM Building, right across from the Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue at 9am to put those files in order A-Z.  Our supervisor, a corporate secretary in a black business skirt suit, short pixie haircut and round glasses, told us we were not allowed to look at the files, they were private property and classified information for eyes only GM staff. “You will be terminated immediately and escorted off the premises if you are caught reading the material,” she said.  The other guy sent by the temp agency to be my partner looked shocked.  We both nodded, trying to look serious and officious in the face of corporate paranoia.

While sitting in the file room, my partner and I got talking about this and that.  It turns out we were both aspiring writers.  He wanted to be a playwright and I told him I had just left SPIN to freelance.  “I think I’ve got an article here,” I said.  “Detroit boy goes to New York to avoid the factories and ends up working for GM.”  We both laughed.

Three minutes later, our boss for the day asked me to follow her to a deserted conference room.  She asked me to sit in a chair facing the long beige table and left through a door on my left.  A few seconds later, a WASP-y looking man in a blue suit, white shirt, red tie and black shoes entered from the door on my right.  He sat on the table, kicking his right leg on the table and popping his left foot firmly on the ground.  He introduced himself as Bob so and so from GM’s Public Relations Department.  Bob demanded to know which publication sent me and what I intended to write about the company.

I assured him I had no intention of writing anything about General Motors.  “I came to New York to be a music writer.  If I wanted to write about GM, the Big Three or the auto industry I would move back to Detroit,” I said feeling like I was getting some odd third degree right out of an Elmore Leonard novel.

Bob was from Grosse Pointe, Michigan and told me that he expected a young man from Bloomfield Hills to understand the importance of General Motors in the national landscape.  He pushed his round glasses up to the bridge of his nose and glared at me wordlessly for a moment.  “We afford your family a good living Alex and expect your cooperation in this or any other matter regarding your or your cousins employment with us,” he got up and walked out the same door he came through, slamming it behind him.  As if on cue, my supervisor came in the left door and took me back to my responsibilities for the day. 

I had no intention of writing anything about GM.  However, I thought the threat to my cousins’ employment was a nice KGB-esque touch.

Over paying your temps and other employees while making an inferior product and maintaining a fascistic, corporate secret police to intimidate those who work for you into saying everything is wonderful.  No wonder GM went bankrupt; it must have cost billions just to keep those secret files up to date.  


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