In less than 15 minutes, a round of critics questioned General Motors CEO Mary Barra's sincerity, feminism and morality. This is round one of predictably many protests against the automaker in the wake of several controversies.
Today was GM's annual shareholder meeting at the automaker's headquarters in downtown Detroit, and Barra addressed the media prior to the sit-down. Outside, people have gathered in solidarity for a number of the company's misdeeds. Chief among them: The fatalities caused by faulty ignition switches and labor conditions in the company's Colombian plant.
Yesterday was the first of two planned protests. "They should go to prison for murder!" one former autoworker yells out during back-to-back short speeches.
I talk to Laura Gipe Christian, whose 16-year-old daughter Amber Marie Rose was killed while driving a Chevrolet Cobalt in 2005. Gipe Christian was one of several relatives of victims who met one-on-one with Barra in Washington, D.C. about the recalls; Barra reportedly wept after meeting them. She has flown from Maryland to Detroit to join the protest.
"She was very rehearsed, it was very scripted. There was no real emotion that I could tell. And at the end of the meeting, her and her two attorneys just simply got up and walked out," Gipe Christian said about her meeting with the CEO. At the protest, she's wearing a T-shirt with her daughter's face on it and holding a photograph of her.
Gipe Christian says that she hasn't been in touch with GM since her meeting with Barra. "My attorney has, though.
"None of these families or our family is looking for money. That's not going to bring our loved ones back. But at the end of the day, if we make this so expensive that GM never does this again, then we've accomplished something," she says.
Before the recalls, Barra was widely hailed (including here on Jalopnik) as helping break down barriers for women executives when being named CEO of the world's largest automaker.
But protesters say that women have been among some of GM's biggest casualties, particularly in Colombia where the company builds Chevy-branded vehicles for the South American market. "How come the conversation is not shifted to them?" one critic asks.
Employees at GM Colmotores, the Colombian operation, have said that GM fires employees who are injured on the assembly line, make some employees work unusually long shifts — sometimes 60 hours a week or more — and are paid less than workers in other countries. In some instances of protest, workers have sewn their lips shut with string to call attention to labor troubles there.
"It is women who have been the most affected by (Barra) and her company," one of the protesters in Detroit says. "Feminism does not equal wealthy women exploiting the labor struggle."
Earlier Monday, the Detroit Institute of Arts announced that GM, along with Chrysler and Ford, pledged $25 million to protect the museum's collection.
"What a joke!" one of the protesters yells, describing the grant to the crowd. "These auto companies owe the people of Detroit billions for what they did," he adds, pointing to local economic crises linked to plant closures and layoffs.
But there's a larger question GM has to answer, they say. "What does GM owe society? What does GM owe these families?"
By all accounts, today's shareholder meeting was unproductive, with shareholders largely avoiding asking or addressing the recalls. So what does GM owe? Besides continued apology, we won't know for sure until the lawsuits begin.