-by Kevin Young and Diana Sierra Becerra
General Motors CEO Mary Barra will give the University of Michigan’s commencement address on May 3 and will also be awarded an honorary doctorate. Explaining this decision, the UM administration depicts Barra as a pioneering leader and a role model for young women. According to the UM website, “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.”
UM administrators are not alone: many liberals seem to consider Barra a symbol for women’s rights. In February, websites like Think Progress protested rumors that GM was planning to pay Barra only $4.4 million a year, somewhat less than previous (male) CEO Dan Akerson. Even the website SumOfUs.org, whose slogan is “fighting for people over profits,” ran a petition in protest. Soon after, it was announced that Barra’s 2014 salary would be $14.4 million.
While many have celebrated Barra’s appointment (and salary) as a great victory for women, she and her company have in fact done enormous harm to women in the United States and around the world. 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. A Maryland woman named Laura Christian, whose birth daughter Amber was one of these victims, has compiled her own running tally of 44 confirmed deaths (see the “GM Recall Survivors” page on Facebook).
In contrast to Mary Barra’s salary of $14.4 million, consider another amount: 57 cents. That’s how much each replacement ignition switch would have cost. But GM decided it didn’t make good business sense to replace the defective products. Instead, it lied to the victims’ families and even threatened them. Barra’s precise level of knowledge about the defects remains unclear (she was a senior VP for GM prior to becoming CEO), but recent evidence confirms that she was aware of certain problems in the Cobalt and other vehicles several years ago.
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 for caring for the family’s four children. Who are the real feminists—GM CEO Mary Barra, or women like Jhessica and Jennifer, who have sustained their young families while also fighting for justice from GM? If Jhessica and Jennifer are evicted from their homes, should they feel comforted by the fact that a woman heads the company that is responsible?
We could mention many more examples: 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 displacement, 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.
Feminism is sometimes understood as the right of women (typically wealthy white women) to share in the spoils of corporate capitalism. But real feminism means confronting corporations like General Motors. It means fighting to replace a system in which the rights of consumers, workers, and families (including the vast majority of women) are subordinated to the quest for profits. It means fighting so that all women—and all people—can enjoy basic rights like food, health care, housing, a safe and clean environment, and control over their bodies and labor. The neoliberal and imperialist “feminism” of people like Mary Barra or Hillary Clinton recognizes none of these rights.