GM chief meets lawmakers to calm anger over cuts

General Motors CEO and Chairman Mary Barra on Wednesday kicked off two days of high-stakes meetings with lawmakers as she defends her company’s plans to close up to four U.S. factories and lay off almost 15,000 employees.

Barra on Wednesday met with Ohio Sens. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Treasury misses second Dem deadline on Trump tax returns | Waters renews calls for impeachment | Dem wants Fed pick to apologize for calling Ohio cities 'armpits of America' | Stocks reach record high after long recovery Sherrod Brown asks Trump Fed pick why he referred to Cleveland, Cincinnati as 'armpits of America' Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSherrod Brown asks Trump Fed pick why he referred to Cleveland, Cincinnati as 'armpits of America' Senate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller GOP senator wears shirt honoring Otto Warmbier at Korean DMZ MORE (R), and Ohio Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John Ryan2020 Dems rebuke Trump on Iran, say they'd put US back in nuclear deal Where 2020 Democratic candidates stand on impeachment Warren unveils plan to cancel student loan debt, create universal free college MORE (D), who are fighting to prevent GM from closing its Lordstown, Ohio, factory. The company plans to shutter that plant in March, jeopardizing 1,600 jobs in northeast Ohio.

Her packed schedule also included meeting with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid Hillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage MORE (D-N.Y.) and Democratic Reps.-elect Rashida Tlaib, Elissa SlotkinElissa SlotkinDems unveil anti-workplace harassment bill Pro-trade group targets 4 lawmakers in push for new NAFTA Bipartisan group asks DHS, ICE to halt deportations of Iraqi nationals MORE and Andy LevinAndrew (Andy) LevinBipartisan group asks DHS, ICE to halt deportations of Iraqi nationals Pelosi, Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez place transgender pride flags outside Capitol Hill offices Dem lawmakers unveil Journalist Protection Act amid Trump attacks on media MORE from Michigan. During her two-day visit, she is also meeting with lawmakers from Maryland.

ADVERTISEMENT

Barra's visit is a very public step in what promises to be an arduous battle for the iconic American automaker as it looks to tamp down the backlash from politicians, including President TrumpDonald John TrumpForget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations Lara Trump: Merkel admitting migrants 'one of the worst things that ever happened to Germany' Financial satisfaction hits record high: survey MORE, over the planned cuts.

Barra walked into a lion’s den on Capitol Hill amid widespread public anger. Lawmakers and Trump have floated proposals that would block GM from its cuts or even punish the company if it follows through.

She strolled to the microphones soon after her meeting with the Ohio lawmakers and pledged to do what she could to relocate Lordstown workers to other plants in Ohio or the broader region. Barra also insisted that the downsizing would help keep the company competitive and a leader in the industry.

But during her brief remarks, Barra was quickly heckled by a worker from the region.

Jimmy Dahman of Canfield, Ohio, just outside of Lordstown, confronted the GM chief on why she would lay off friends of his who worked at the plant just before the holidays.

“We could understand it if they were really in fiscal trouble and had to consolidate,” Dahman told reporters after the conference. “But their profits are up.”

Barra sought to address those questions.

“It’s incredibly difficult to make these types of decisions, so our focus is on the GM team members that are impacted, making sure they understand all of their opportunities,” Barra said in response to a similar question from a reporter.

GM has been scrambling to defend its plans, announced last week, to halt production at auto assembly factories in Lordstown; Detroit-Hamtramck, Mich.; and Oshawa, Ontario, and parts plants in Warren, Mich., and White Marsh, Md.

The company said the decision to idle those plants and layoff 15 percent of its salaried workforce would help it adapt to a massive shift in consumer automobile preferences.

All of the targeted plants assemble or make parts for sedans GM plans to scrap next year as it shifts focus to more popular light trucks, SUVs and electric cars.

“They really are navigating an obstacle course at the moment,” said a D.C. public relations executive who worked on Capitol Hill. “They’re trying to ensure that they can accurately and clearly explain their actions.”

GM did not respond to requests for comment.

But lawmakers have made it clear they would expect answers from the company and efforts to protect workers.

“It’s important for GM and Mary Barra to have very serious conversations with members,” Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellOvernight Health Care: Trump poised to roll back transgender health protections | House Dems plan 'Medicare for All' hearing next week | Walgreens, Rite Aid raise tobacco-buying age to 21 | Drug distributor faces charges for role in opioid crisis Conserving tiny forage fish, the heroes of our shared ocean ecosystem House Dems to hold hearing on 'Medicare for All' next week MORE (D-Mich.), a former GM executive, said in a statement. “Honestly, they should be having these critical conversations more often, so we can keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S.”

Brown and Portman had both blasted GM after it announced the decision to discontinue several sedans, including the Chevrolet Cruze, the sole vehicle assembled at the Lordstown plant.

The Ohio senators said Wednesday they pressed Barra to assign one of GM’s new electric models to Lordstown, saving a plant that’s already lost more than two-thirds of its workforce, but is still an important employer in the region.

“We expect General Motors now to stand with this workforce and give them a chance,” Portman told reporters after the meeting. “We want one or more of those [electric] models to be built in Lordstown, Ohio. That’s where it belongs.”

“They ought to build cars,” Brown added. “We stand with the community to get something in this plant and keep thousands of GM jobs.”

The stakes in the fight are high for both sides.

GM says it is fighting to stay competitive in the auto industry, while lawmakers could face stark electoral consequences if a major company pulls out of their states.

Barra and GM have worked to stay ahead of the backlash.

The meetings with lawmakers this week will be behind closed doors, allowing the GM chief to avoid a more public grilling for now.

But even as Barra makes her pitch to lawmakers, the president may pose a tougher challenge.

Trump has made reviving the struggling U.S. auto sector a centerpiece of his economic agenda. He personally warned Barra not to close down the Ohio plant. Many of the plants are in the industrial Midwest, in states that were crucial to Trump’s 2016 path to victory.

GM’s critics also face an uphill battle to save those jobs, with the company unlikely to shift gears as it struggles to weather a massive shock to the industry.

“You need to show your constituents that you will go to the ends of the Earth to keep them from closing that plant or facility,” the public relations executive who spoke to The Hill said.

But the PR executive said there may be little lawmakers might be able to do. “Despite the economics of it, I think there’s very little that can be said that will keep these plants open.”