It's very difficult to feel sympathy for the American Big Three automobile companies, having sold us junk for the past 60 or more years, and having a tin ear for what the public needed.
When the Volkswagen Beetle came to America, it was an instant hit, and Detroit responded with the Corvette and Thunderbird. OK, the Corvette was and is a winner, but not exactly the "People's Car."
I recall reading memoirs by the Mustang's father Lee Iacocca and former GM executive John Delorean, which reported Detroit's top executives lived in bubbles that never saw or drove the cars of competitors nor cared about what consumers wanted.
Detroit's offerings ran the gamut from A to B, so they didn't have anything to respond to the '70s Oil Crisis, but the Japanese did. Detroit cried foul to Washington and a 1981 "voluntary restraint agreement" limited the Japanese to exporting 1.68 million cars to the U.S. per year.
The Japanese automobile industry reacted by exporting bigger and more expensive cars and building assembly plants in the U.S.
Foreign competition did force the American companies to improve the quality of their vehicles, which had been famous for people not wanting to buy cars made on Mondays and Fridays, when those skilled union workers were either hung over, or getting that way.
When living in Hong Kong in the '70s, my right-hand drive Chrysler was imported from Australia. While my peers were driving Mercedes, my company's CEO was on Chrysler's board; enough said. Every turn made the extra nuts and bolts left under the seats and wheel wells let their presence be known.
Yes, it is true the current credit crunch is unique, and people who want to buy a Ford or Chevy (or for some odd reason, maybe even a Chrysler) can't buy them now. But the fact is, these companies have steadily been losing market share over the years. The handwriting has been on the wall for a long time.
I subscribe to Consumer Reports magazine, which has backed up the public's perception of American cars being of lower quality than imports, especially Japanese, for years. My January 2009 issue with the Owner Satisfaction survey says "In all, 20 of the models with the lowest rating were American; 11 from GM, seven from Chrysler and two from Ford."
You just know Detroit will be back for more bail-out funds as there is no way any large company can turn around in a few months. It should be explained that Chapter 11 bankruptcy doesn't stop business from continuing. It just takes off the heat from creditors while the company is reorganized; unprofitable lines of business killed and productive parts sold off or kept in place.
However, the threat of the loss of three million jobs, manufacturers and suppliers has to tug at one's political heartstrings, and the industrial skills that can turn out military tanks in time of war (and even in time of peace) shouldn't be lost. And wouldn't be in bankruptcy.
With a little more analysis, there is more to the story. If the point is supporting national champions and American jobs, the automobile's badge doesn't tell you much about that. At one chauvinistic point, the state of California required all of their government fleet to be "American" cars, until someone pointed out the Fords they were buying were made in Mexico and the Toyotas they avoided were made in Kentucky.
As to union salaries, According to an item floating around the Internet (I couldn't find the original), Forbes magazine reports the labor cost per hour, wages and benefits for hourly workers ran from $70 to $75 per hour ($141,000 to $151,000 per year) for Ford, GM and Chrysler, with Toyota, Honda, Honda and Nissan at $48 ($96,000 per year).