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Under Restructuring, GM To Build More Cars Overseas

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

The U.S. government is pouring billions into General Motors in hopes of reviving the domestic economy, but when the automaker completes its restructuring plan, many of the company's new jobs will be filled by workers overseas.

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According to an outline the company has been sharing privately with Washington legislators, the number of cars that GM sells in the United States and builds in Mexico, China and South Korea will roughly double.

The proportion of GM cars sold domestically and manufactured in those low-wage countries will rise from 15 percent to 23 percent over the next five years, according to the figures contained in a 12-page presentation offered to lawmakers in response to their questions about overseas production.

As a result, the long-simmering argument over U.S. manufacturers expanding production overseas -- normally arising between unions and private companies -- is about to engage the Obama administration.

Essentially in control of the company, the president's autos task force faces an awkward choice: It can either require General Motors to keep more jobs at home, potentially raising labor costs at a company already beset with financial woes, or it can risk political fury by allowing the automaker to expand operations at lower-cost manufacturing locations.

"It's an almost impossible dilemma," said former labor secretary Robert B. Reich, now a professor at the University of California-Berkeley. "GM is a global company -- so for that matter is AIG and the biggest Wall Street banks. That means that bailing them out doesn't necessarily redound to the benefit of the U.S. or American workers.

"More significantly, it raises fundamental questions about the purpose of bailing out these big companies. If GM is going to do more of its production overseas, then why exactly are we saving GM?"

The administration has aroused similar complaints by shepherding a merger between Chrysler and Italian automaker Fiat. But it has extracted a promise from Fiat that it will build small cars in the United States.

The complaints about GM's operations portend a potentially larger argument, a political dispute led in part by the United Auto Workers.

"The bottom line is GM would rather pay $2 an hour -- and it's a slippery slope downward," said Alan Reuther, the UAW's legislative director. "If GM is going to be getting government assistance, they ought to be maintaining their manufacturing footprint in the U.S. rather than going off to China, Mexico and South Korea."

Labor costs in those countries are far lower. While paying a U.S. autoworker with benefits costs about $54 an hour, a South Korean worker earns about $22 an hour, a Mexican worker earns less than $10 an hour and some Chinese workers can earn as little as $3 an hour, industry sources said.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, GM chief executive Fritz Henderson met with legislators and sought to ease their concerns over the overseas operations.


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