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At the Crossroads

A thorough – and sometimes painful – examination of the struggles of the US auto industry.

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The off-shoring of auto factories, restructuring of union contracts, and flight of the educated class from cities like Kokomo have led to unemployment levels in central Indiana that far exceed national averages. The authors show the economic depressions in these small, rural cities to demonstrate that Washington’s bailout, while substantial, does not indicate the same commitment shown to its Wall Street analogue. Fearful that a collapse of the automotive industry will erode America’s industrial base, Aamidor and Evanoff worry that US manufacturing clout, so mighty and decisive during World War II, is no more.

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Although they champion the workingman and everyday laborer, neither author hesitates to illustrate the self-inflicted wounds exacted at the very hands of GM and Chryslers’ management and work force. Extravagant labor contracts saddled with very generous unemployment benefits bear part of the blame. The repeated shortsightedness of GM and Chrysler executives also deserves its fair share of condemnation. High sales throughout the 1940s and 1950s created a “never idle the assembly lines” mind-set. As long as the factories were churning out product and the American people were buying, technological innovation was no more than a peripheral concern.

The scope of “At the Crossroads” is broad because any understanding of the rise, decline, and history of government policies concerning the auto industry requires a deep inspection of diverse subjects. This book is at once an American industrial history, financial assessment, cultural analysis, economic inspection, and global forecast.

Evanoff and Aamidor’s work deserves praise for its meticulous reporting and thorough research. This work is not a light, easy jaunt through the American automotive crisis and the corresponding problems that have descended upon the increasingly global network of jobs and technology the industry requires. Aamidor and Evanoff astutely show how the challenges of the small-town entrepreneur are directly connected to the fortunes of communities that have relied for generations, at least tangentially, on the domestic automotive giants.

Aamidor and Evanoff’s primary concern is that large-scale manufacturing is quickly becoming a distant memory in this country. Much of their discussion supporting this thesis is valuable, from original anecdotes to detailed historical recounting. It is easy to lose track of the names of the several businessmen, mayors, union workers and corporate executives the authors intermittently reference throughout. And while their detailed accounting of the financial intricacies of Chrysler and GM’s government-orchestrated bankruptcies is at times tedious, these very figures serve as the best means of understanding the mechanics of the bailout itself.

The recent upsurge in GM’s sales, up 12 percent from a year ago, may be the first positive signs for the sagging American auto industry. Could the simultaneous safety failures on Toyota’s most dependable models mark a sea change for the prospects of a refurbished and pared-down GM? While optimists and automotive employees may perceive recent successes, however small, to be portentous of the triumphs to come, the free market, which has rarely been kind to the Detroit Three, may have the final say – if Washington ever decides to remain on the sidelines.

Jackson Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.