By Jonathan Neale
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Why bailing out General Motors could help the environment

This article is over 12 years, 7 months old
As a climate activist I hate Exxon Mobil and General Motors (GM). But now GM has gone bankrupt and, the TV tells us, Barack Obama has stepped in to "rescue" the company.
Issue 2155

As a climate activist I hate Exxon Mobil and General Motors (GM). But now GM has gone bankrupt and, the TV tells us, Barack Obama has stepped in to “rescue” the company.

Many climate campaigners, like George Monbiot, think that the US government should just let GM go – and the British government should do the same to Vauxhall.

Rescue them, the argument goes, and they will go on producing cars to burn the planet. It’s a natural response. There’s a lot to be said for it. But I don’t agree. Let me explain why.

Everyone who looks into it now knows what we need to stop climate change. We need massive government investment programmes to cover the world with wind turbines and solar power, and to insulate homes and buildings.

We need public transport that replaces cars and tight regulation of the industry. All of that means jobs – tens of millions of them worldwide.

As filmmaker Michael Moore says, we should do today what the US government did to GM in the Second World War.

When the war started the US closed the car plants and reopened them three months later to make trucks, weapons and planes. We need to do the same, but this time to save lives not destroy them.

The same skills that make the gas guzzling SUVs can be used to make wind turbines, solar panels and hybrid buses.

But if governments are not going to intervene to do that, shouldn’t we let the car companies go? No.

It’s not just a matter of jobs in the immediate term. What is at stake in the arguments over GM is whether governments should intervene to save jobs and redirect industry.


US and British governments have poured billions into the banks. We are told that money has gone to “stimulate” the economy. That’s a lie. It has gone to make up part of the losses of the banks.

The government wants them to have more money in proportion to how much they lend. So the government money is not going to loans that would create or save jobs. Instead it is sitting in the bank, giving them greater reserves.

We are told this is “Keynesian” economic stimulation. It is not.

The banks, the right, US Republicans, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown now argue that we cannot pour money in to save jobs because we have already spent it on the banks.

This is why GM is so important. GM is not just one firm. For 50 years it was the largest corporation on the planet. This is a test case to put the question – should the government save jobs and industry?

Obama seems to have decided yes. Brown and Mandelson have decided no – let Vauxhall die.

But in reality Obama is saving the company, not the jobs. In the 1970s GM had 450,000 jobs. Now they have 64,000. Obama will get rid of 21,000 of those immediately and doubtless more will follow.

More important, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union fought for and won decent pensions and healthcare for over a million retired GM workers.

Most of that has now been stripped away by the firm’s bankruptcy. The union has settled for owning a third of a company that makes no profits.

The old, the sick, and the people who built the company have been scrapped. The “industry” will be preserved.

So shouldn’t we say the hell with them all? There’s no point in that kind of “rescue”?


Undoubtedly we should argue for more than this. But we shouldn’t say there should be no rescue. The reason is what we need to happen to save the planet.

I’ve made the changes that we need in order to create millions of jobs and solve the problem of climate change sound easy to achieve.

And technically it is easy. We could do it in five years. The problem is political. We are going to have to fight corporations and governments to make it happen. That will be no small fight.

We will need working people, and their unions, on our side. In the end we will need them to take action.

We can’t build a mass movement to save the climate through sacrifice. We have to build it on fighting for jobs – and not just saving jobs but creating more. If we react to the bankruptcy of the largest corporation in the world by saying it’s not our fight, we won’t build that struggle.

This isn’t abstract. GM has plants in Liverpool and Luton. The Labour government has decided to let them close. Climate activists and socialists have to be talking to the unions there now.

We have to say we fight for jobs and for the climate – and you should join us in that fight.

That’s how you build a movement.

But there is one last warning we have to heed. The GM workers have been devastated because their union defended the company.

The UAW defended SUVs, low gas mileage, and plant closures. If they had fought for the plant to produce economically sustainable goods their members could still have their jobs and pensions.

There’s a lesson there for workers in many industries in this country.

Jonathan Neale is the author of Stop Global Warming: Change the World. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »

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