For U.S. Carmakers, the End of an Era

William Serrin did not take seriously the possibility that foreign companies would sell half the cars sold in the United States.

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My U.S. News column this week is on how the General Motors-United Auto Workers contract marks the end of an era. In it I quoted William Serrin's 1973 book, The Company and the Union. Serrin is critical, I think harshly critical, of the UAW for not asking enough from the company and for not seeking to improve working conditions. He assumed, as did just about everyone, that the structure of the auto industry would continue unchanged indefinitely; he did not take seriously the possibility that foreign companies would sell, as they do today, half the cars sold in the United States. But I was unable to find a particular quote that I wanted on this point in the hardcover edition of the book. Now I have the 1974 paperback edition, with a long epilogue. Here are the quotes, from Pages 310 and 311:

"Even a balanced transportation system [Serrin wanted lots more mass transit] will depend in large measure upon individual vehicles of some sort, and it is logical to assume that GM, Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors will build them. Even if one disagrees [as Serrin did] with the philosophy of men like Richard Gerstenberg of General Motors Corporation, Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca for Ford Motor Company, and Lynn Townsend of Chrysler Corporation, one should not doubt the business abilities of these men or their subordinates. They do not intend to see their corporations become extinct; it is vacuous to think that the corporations will become extinct."

In the 34 years since these words appeared, each of the Big Three has been threatened with bankruptcy, while American Motors is no longer a factor. Serrin is a good writer and a good reporter but, like almost everyone else concerned with the auto industry in the 1970s, a poor prophet.