Who's sticking up for GM: Ralph Nader
The automaker's onetime arch-foe tells Fortune he's worried that the government is driving GM's future without listening to the public.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- You know something strange is going on when Ralph Nader calls me to complain that General Motors shareholders are being treated unfairly by the federal government.
"I never thought that in a thousand lifetimes I'd be saying this," said Nader, who has been a household name since 1966, when GM President Jim Roche was forced to apologize at a Senate hearing for siccing private detectives on him. But rather than discrediting Nader, author of the 1965 classic Unsafe at Any Speed, GM discredited itself, allowing Nader to use its discomfiture and the proceeds of an invasion of privacy lawsuit to found the consumer movement.
That's why hearing Nader defend GM (GM, Fortune 500) shareholders is a reversal of the natural order, as if the sun suddenly rose in the West, the New York Yankees stopped hiring stars or Wall Street decided to give suckers an even break.
It's hard to cry for GM investors - when you buy common stock, you should know you're taking risks. But the shareholders' travails are only part of what bothers Nader. His major worry is that President Obama's autos task force is determining GM's fate and the fates of workers, dealers, communities and investors without meaningful input from Congress or the public.
"I care about the consumers and the workers and the communities that are going to be hurt," Nader said. "All of these issues should be discussed publicly. It's elementary political science."
Nader's footprint in the news media has shrunk sharply in recent years. After all, at age 75, he's been a public figure for four decades, and he's acted more than a little quixotically in recent years.
But he's asking a good question. Do we as a country care about having a U.S. auto industry, or do we care about having U.S. auto companies? They aren't necessarily the same thing.
For example, GM's plan calls for closing U.S. manufacturing facilities and replacing their output by importing vehicles made in GM plants in other countries. That probably makes good business sense. But does it make good sense for the country?
"I've been against transplants - because their profits get shipped outside the country," he said. A transplant, of course, is a U.S. production facilities owned by foreign-based companies. But he'd rather have a transplant produce cars here, creating at least some assembly and supplier jobs, than have GM import foreign-made vehicles.
And that brings him to China, GM's most lucrative market. Nader thinks GM is planning to reorganize around its Chinese operation and move as much of its U.S. production there as quickly as it can, eventually using Chinese-made vehicles to supply much of the U.S. market.
That sounds more than a little conspirational, which is somewhat offputting. But I sure got the creeps when I saw that GM plans to begin selling Chinese-made vehicles in the U.S. in 2011.
I tried to get GM to discuss Nader's points (and a few of my own), but my call wasn't returned.
I'm not suggesting that Congress subject GM and the autos task force folks to an AIG-like abusefest or bog down everything with endless yammering. But we should talk about some big-picture questions, given that we taxpayers are funding GM's plan. When Ralph Nader - Ralph Nader - makes more of a fuss about GM's investors and dealers than Congress does, it makes you stop and think. Or at least, it should.