GM’s CEO Should Not Be Honored At Commencement

The following statement was written by the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) and approved by SUM.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra will give the UM commencement address on May 3 and will also be awarded an honorary doctorate by the university. According to the University Record, “Barra has established an exemplary career in the predominantly male world of the auto industry.” The same article praises her “vision,” “business acumen,” and “leadership.”

The results of GM’s business acumen are nothing to applaud, though. Barra and her company have done enormous harm to people and the environment. Although Barra is now being depicted as some sort of feminist, it is in fact women who have been the most negatively affected by her and her company—after all, it is women who tend to bear the heaviest burdens when family members lose their jobs, when the banks foreclose on struggling households, when the environment is poisoned, and when people are killed in preventable car accidents.

The most visible evidence of GM’s crimes is the ongoing scandal over its belated vehicle recalls. So far, defective ignition switches in the Chevy Cobalt and other models have been linked to at least 13 deaths, and possibly hundreds more. Each replacement ignition switch would have cost only 57 cents. But 57 cents was too much. Instead, GMlied to thevictims’ families and even threatened them. Barra’s precise level of knowledge about the defects is still unclear, but recent evidence confirms that she had been aware of certain problems in the Cobalt and other vehicles several years ago (she served in several senior VP positions for GM prior to becoming CEO in January).

The recall scandal is just the tip of the GM iceberg. A less publicized scandal is GM’s illegal firing of injured workers from its Chevrolet plant in Colombia. GM cut corners on plant safety and, when workers were injured, it fired them and got corrupt Colombian officials to cover it up. Again, the effect on women has been disastrous. While the injured male workers have waged a public campaign for justice, their wives, daughters, and mothers have shouldered the private burdens of sustaining their hungry families. Jhessica Ospina, whose disabled father Manuel was fired by GM, has been forced to work 60 or more hours a week to help keep her family in their home. Jennifer Bohórquez, the wife of injured worker Carlos Trujillo, has borne the primary responsibility of caring for the family’s four small children.

Many more examples could be cited: GM’s abuse of assembly line workers here in the United States, its role in creating Michigan’s foreclosure crisis, its major contribution to global warming, and its dumping of toxic chemicals in the United States, Colombia, and elsewhere. GM is also linked to the U.S. military-industrial complex that has profited off human suffering in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where women have been disproportionately impacted by the sexual violence and multitude of hardships that accompany war; Mary Barra herself sits on the board of General Dynamics, the sixth-biggest Pentagon contractor. All of these issues are women’s rights issues, and in each case GM has been firmly anti-woman.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization and the Student Union of Michigan at the University of Michigan call upon the administration to rescind Mary Barra’s speaking invitation and honorary doctorate, and to replace Barra with someone who has instead made a positive contribution to women’s rights and human welfare.