Parts From Hell

The automobile industry takes massive risks with workers' and consumers' lives every day.

Boston Public Library / Flickr

The US automobile industry has issued more than one hundred million recalls over the last two years at considerable cost to automakers. But these costs are nothing compared to the deaths and injuries caused by faulty ignition switches, defective air bags that explode shrapnel into drivers’ necks and chests, secondary hood latches that stick to the open position, fuel leaks, water seepage into electronic controls, and power steering failures.

After Ralph Nader exposed the automobile industry’s total lack of concern for safety in Unsafe at Any Speed more than fifty years ago federal regulations were put in place. But enforcement remains problematic. Recent lawsuits against General Motors and Japanese component giant Takata show how the desire for profit continues to overshadow safety and consumer rights.

“The Switch From Hell”

As early as 2001, GM engineers discovered that the ignition switch it used in its compacts could easily slip out of place and stall a car. If the switch was joggled to its accessory position by either a heavy key chain or a person bumping against it, the car could lose power. Heedless of this dangerous possibility, General Motors kept installing them in their Cobalts and Saturn Ions, and even added them to their Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice, and Pontiac Pursuit. Evidence now indicates that from the beginning, the switch met neither internal GM standards nor the federal standard. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requires auto companies to notify it within five working days if a product flaw is detected, yet GM remained silent, and between 2003 and 2007 installed the defective switch on 2.6 million cars.

Internally, two GM engineers, Ray DiGiorgio and Gary Altman, attempted to modify the design, considering two potential fixes in 2004. But in a decades-old pattern, GM rejected both as too costly, despite being less than a dollar per switch. Instead it kept tabs on the number of resulting front-end crashes caused by the defective switch.

Evidence now shows that after DiGiorgio’s suggestions were rejected by GM’s Safety and Research Strategies team, he went around the company’s decision, signing a contract in April 2006 for a modified version with Delphi, the supplier. But anxious to avoid being caught going against a corporate decision, DiGiorgio never changed the switch’s code number. As a result dealerships had no idea a replacement part existed.

The results have been devastating; lives and families have been destroyed from deaths and injuries caused by the faulty switches. In 2013 members of GM Recall Survivors traveled to Detroit for the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting. Calling on shareholders to hold GM executives accountable, the group held press conferences, rallied in front of the GM headquarters and met with GM CEO Mary Barra. They demanded compensation for victims and their families, for company officials to be held criminally liable for their actions, and for changes in the law to improve safety standards.

Laura Christian, spokesperson for the survivors, and mother of Ambrose Rose, killed at fifteen while driving a 2005 Cobalt, stated her objective in coming to Detroit: “I believe the shareholders need to know that they may be the key to helping hold GM to a safety standard rather than a profit culture.”

As early as May 9, 2009 GM had the data from black boxes of Chevrolet Cobalts confirming that the defective ignition switch was responsible for deaths and injuries. Yet when families attempted to investigate why the death occurred, GM claimed there was no evidence of a defect and in at least one case threatened to sue if the family did not withdraw their lawsuit.

By February 13, 2014 GM had been forced to recall 1.37 million cars, replacing what Ray DiGiorgio — the design engineer who first okayed the part — deemed “the switch from hell.” By September 2016, GM had recalled 2.6 million cars because of the ignition switch and paid $2 billion in criminal and civil penalties — including $900 million to NHTSA for failure to inform the federal agency and customers.

But GM remained defiant. When CEO Barra was called to testify before Congress on April 1, 2014, she insisted that, after many tests, the engineering department reported the switch was safe enough for even her own son to drive as long as there was nothing else on the ring but the ignition key. Only in passing did she acknowledge that simply bumping the key ring could cause the switch to rotate and the engine to stall. That same month Time magazine named her one of the hundred most influential people in the world.

To date GM has settled cases involving 124 deaths and over 1,250 injuries. Industry analysts insist that Barra handled the ignition switch crisis well and in January 2016 she became chair of GM’s board of directors. Fifteen GM lawyers, and engineers DiGiorgio and Altman, have been fired but no criminal charges have been filed.

Exploding Airbags

On October 20, 2016 the NHTSA confirmed an eleventh death from a Takata airbag rupture. The woman had been driving a Honda Civic, but the problem wasn’t restricted to Honda. Nearly seventy million similar airbags have been installed in the vehicles of fourteen auto manufacturers including the Detroit Three.

Takata, a Japanese component supplier with production facilities on four continents, had developed a compact airbag and began mass producing the bags in 1998. Earlier air bags emitted a toxic fume when deployed, but Takata’s bags were different. They were inflated by a tiny explosion caused by a compound commonly used in fertilizer.

The new airbags were considered superior, and were widely adopted. When the first injury occurred with the Honda Accord in 2004 both Honda and the supplier considered it “an anomaly.” Yet, the problem reoccurred, and cases of Takata airbags spontaneously exploding and injuring drivers mounted. In response, Takata analyzed its product and came up with one reason and then a second. Meanwhile, Honda filed a standard report with NHTSA, but the agency never investigated.

The problem kept occurring in airbags manufactured in different facilities and under different conditions. Takata studied the problem, but never halted production. Instead it expanded its supplier base.

In 2014, after more than one hundred people were severely injured or killed, Takata finally admitted the instability of its compound. According to a NHTSA press release, airbags in cars residing in hot, humid states or in older cars rupture at a rate as high as fifty percent in a laboratory setting. Last June the Department of Transportation warned vehicle owners under recall to drive them directly to a dealer for repair, but this is easier said than done for people who rely on their vehicle to get to work. Using a different propellant, Takata is now churning out a million replacement airbags a month, but at that rate, it will be several years before replacements are fully available.

Who’s at the Wheel?

These two cases — and they are just two of many — show that the auto industry is incapable of monitoring itself. In both cases the industry chose to continue production. Despite wreckages, injuries, and deaths, the companies hid their problems and refused to take responsibility until years went by and enough lawsuits and public exposure clearly established their culpability.

Although companies have internal standards and belong to the United States Council on Automotive Research, which sets and updates design and performance specifications, these controls can be easily circumvented, as we have seen.

The NHTSA has also been caught sleeping at the wheel. Of course today NHTSA and the independent monitor of Takata and the Coordinated Remedy Program aggressively promote the recall, and call on the media to help spread the word. But as a rule, the federal agency trusts that auto assemblers and suppliers will report problems in a timely and accurate manner. It assumes they will comply with safety standards, and it passively accepts paperwork that companies fill out. In the case of Takata’s airbags, no official was assigned to investigate why their airbags were exploding shrapnel into driver’s faces, necks, and chests, causing some to bleed to death and others to suffer severe injuries.

What About the Workers?

As an autoworker (now retired), I’ve seen how supervisors constantly talk about quality but really value numbers. I wasn’t surprised to read about how a now closed Takata plant in La Grange, Georgia handled a defective airbag inflator. Instead of scrapping the parts when a helium test detected a leak, the test was simply repeated until the helium was gone. The defective part was then assigned a new barcode so that the repeated testing couldn’t be tracked. Only the anonymous testimony of an engineer, recently given in a deposition, revealed this practice. The engineer said that when he questioned the manipulation of the test, he was told to leave the meeting; later he left the company.

The dangerous products being pushed out by auto companies raise questions about the role of workers. How many knew that their company was endangering customers through negligence and greed? Perhaps they didn’t have enough of an overview of the production and design process to come to that conclusion, or perhaps they felt powerless. But certainly if we are looking for what force might be able to fight for safe products, workers are an obvious place to start. The auto industry has proven it cannot police itself and a federal agency alone is clearly not up to the task. Indeed, most of the evidence received about company malpractice is the result of whistleblowers or paper trails discovered in the course of litigation, but only after much damage has occurred.

From this point of view, workers are a logical force to fight for consumer safety. That, of course, would mean a very different method of production, one that would put safety first. It would certainly not study a safety problem while still continuing production or expanding its market as Takata did. Workers — including engineers, assemblers, skilled trades, and management — would have an overview of plant processes and would be reporting, and working to solve, problems.

But how can we begin to shift the dynamic to prioritizing safety over profit? Let’s consider what could have happened when the federal government bailed out GM and Chrysler. It could have demanded reorganization that put workers in charge of safety. Instead the US Treasury demanded that the workers, who had no say in corporate decision-making, sacrifice wages and benefits so that they would be comparable to those working in non-union auto plants.

Granted, asking workers to assume responsibility over the production process seems daunting at a time when worker strength and unions are declining. And auto workers have their own safety problems to contend with, from excessive heat, fumes, toxic chemicals, noise, repetitive work, and malfunctioning equipment. Thirty-five years ago, when I first worked at a Ford plant, I had a minute and twelve seconds to complete my job on the assembly line. I worked a ten-hour day, five days a week, with an additional eight hours of mandatory overtime every other Saturday. Today working conditions are even worse; assembly lines run much faster and even with all the ergonomic technology, workers suffer from high rates of injury from repetitive jobs.

Asking workers to monitor safety may seem more impossible with the election of President Donald Trump, who has already issued an executive order on reducing regulations:

In addition to the management of the direct expenditure of taxpayer dollars through the budgeting process, it is essential to manage the costs associated with the governmental imposition of private expenditures required to comply with Federal regulations. Toward that end, it is important that for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations are identified for elimination . . .

Given this statement, federal agencies charged with protecting consumer safety may very well find their budgets cut to the bone. In this situation, it’s essential to consider the tools we have at our disposal and in particular the alliances we can forge.

Once upon a time most occupations that were seen as “men’s jobs” were dangerous. Working men were expected to shoulder the risk as the masculine way to feed one’s family. But unions fought to change this and waged a successful struggle to pass the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. OSHA benefited all workers and helped to change how people viewed work.

Unfortunately it didn’t manage to open the door to developing a broader vision of how workers could be an integral part of building safe products and services. Sure, unions have been under ferocious attack, making it hard to think beyond their own membership. But the long-term impact of unions’ defensiveness is impossible to deny; today even basic workplace safety is being undermined.

Some unions are developing a broader vision however, whether that’s calling for Medicaid for all or for strengthening Social Security. Nurses’ and teachers’ unions are clear examples. Nurses have demanded lowering staffing ratios to improve patient care, while teachers’ unions have fought for programs that make schools more creative and welcoming to their students. These unionized workers understand that their working conditions are tied to the people they serve.

In fact, their concerns go beyond the workplace to support community issues. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012 the New York State Nurses Association staffed mobile clinics in Staten Island and the Rockaways, going door to door to find people in need of medical help. That experience led the union to organize around climate change and build a contingent in the million-strong People’s Climate Mobilization demonstration two years later. Several unions are organizing contingents for the upcoming People’s Climate March in Washington DC April 29.

The community-focused stance of nurses’ and teachers’ unions offer a stark contrast to the position of building trade officials, who support any and all construction projects, including the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. These officials lobbied the AFL-CIO to support these construction projects over the concerns of indigenous and environmental activists. To their credit a number of unions protested the AFL-CIO position.

In the struggle over whether to identify with employers or develop an independent perspective, autoworkers have also found ourselves on the wrong side historically. UAW officials sided with the Detroit Three, testifying in Congress on numerous occasions in opposition to higher fuel standards. But this position was reversed in 2012 — unfortunately not because it is an environmentally sound direction to take but because the Big Three and its suppliers needed to become more fuel efficient to compete with Japanese and European companies. Instead of developing its own view about securing a better future the UAW remains locked in the narrow framework of only thinking about its members’ jobs. What if unions demanded a “just transition” so that even if an industry had to shut down or retool in the transition to a sustainable economy, workers’ lives were not linked to the corporation?

Although we are far from being a working class that has an independent vision and the confidence to fight for genuine quality control over our work and the products of our labor, we do have a few genuinely positive examples of how this can be accomplished. The solidarity exemplified by these examples isn’t a generous gift one group hands to another; it is the reciprocal understanding that leads to a community better able to defend itself. In this scary moment that lesson can propel us forward.