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[Exerpt] As Chrysler and General Motors (GM) moved toward and into bankruptcy, they sought and received permission from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to terminate about 2,000 contracts with auto dealers. Many of the dealers want their contracts reinstated and have sought relief from Congress to accomplish that goal. This report examines the changed economic landscape facing the auto sector, automaker arguments in favor of dealer reductions, and dealer counterpoints. It also highlights recent legislation introduced to address dealers' concerns.

Chrysler and GM have emerged from bankruptcy as significantly smaller companies, reflecting the end of a multiyear restructuring process for both companies. Chrysler is now controlled by the Italian carmaker, Fiat, while GM's current majority owner is the U.S. Government. GM, which in 2008 operated 47 assembly, powertrain, and stamping facilities, is to operate 34 plants by the end of 2010 and 33 by 2012. The number of hourly employees will have declined from 78,000 onDecember 31, 2007 to 62,200 at end-2008, to an estimated 40,000 in 2010. By way of contrast, GM had 304,000 hourly workers in 1991. GM also discontinued one brand (Pontiac) and is to sell Hummer, Saab, and Saturn, and some percentage of its GM Europe operations, Opel and Vauxhall. The new Chrysler reduced its number of production facilities from 25 to 17 as part of its restructuring. The company employed 45,000 hourly U.S. employees in January 2008 and 27,000 in February 2009. For the first time, GM and Chrysler are not owned by private investors; rather, the UAW's retiree health trust, the U.S. Treasury, and the Canadian government have taken ownership stakes in both companies.

The auto dealership network, a critical intermediary between automakers and final consumers, has not escaped this turmoil. Auto dealers are independent businesses with contracts with the automakers Most of the approximately 20,000 U.S. auto dealers are family-owned and have been in business in their hometowns for decades. As with all stakeholders in GM and Chrysler, the dealer owners are faced with stark choices as the automakers downsize and seek a more competitive business model. As part of their restructuring, Chrysler cut 789 dealers immediately and GM is to eliminate more than 1,300 when the dealer's contracts expire in October 2010.

While dealer reductions of this magnitude would not have been possible in the normal course of business, the bankruptcy court approved both the Chrysler and GM requests to terminate dealerships as part of larger processes that have allowed a new GM and a new Chrysler to emerge from bankruptcy with many fewer assets and no liabilities. Of the roughly 2,000 dealers affected by these changes, many oppose the changes and have taken their battle against GM and Chrysler to Congress. Congressional hearings have been held and a number of bills to restore the dealer terminations have been introduced. On July 16, 2009, the House passed the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, 2010 (H.R. 3170), which includes a committee-approved amendment offered by Representative LaTourette that would require automobile companies that receive federal funds and are partially owned by the federal government to reinstate agreements with franchise dealerships that had a valid dealer agreement prior to Chapter 11 proceedings. It would apply only to General Motors and Chrysler and would require them to reinstate the roughly 2,000 dealerships they have dropped or would like to drop as part of their cost cutting, downsizing, and overall restructuring. On July 17 the House Committee on Financial Services voted in support of H.Res. 591, requiring an Administration report on the work of the Auto Task Force, including decisions on dealerships. This report will be updated as necessary.


Suggested Citation
Canis, B. & Platzer, M. D. (2009). U.S. motor vehicle industry restructuring and dealership terminations. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.