GM Executive Vice President of Global Manufacturing Gerald Johnson, right, talks with employees at the Fairfax Assembly & Stamping Plant in Kansas City, Kansas. (file photo - GM)
All three Detroit automakers are observing Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery, on Friday by observing 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, among other companywide efforts to advance the causes of social and racial justice and equality.
Juneteenth marks the date, June 19, in 1865 when Union soldiers, led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, arrived at Galveston, Texas, and announced the Civil War had ended and enslaved African Americans were to be freed. President Abraham Lincoln had officially ended slavery more than two years prior via the Emancipation Proclamation, but Union forces didn't reach Texas until that time, so there was virtually no enforcement.
The 8:46 timestamp is significant because it was the length of time that a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on the neck of George Floyd during an arrest, ultimately killing him and sparking waves of protests across the U.S. and overseas.
Autoblog asked automakers about their plans to mark Juneteenth, what they were doing to advance the cause of social justice for Black people, and how many African Americans they employ in both blue- and white-collar jobs. We heard back from GM, Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Honda but not from Nissan and Toyota.
GM’s U.S. workforce is 17.2% Black and 69.2% white, according to its most recent corporate Diversity and Inclusion Report. GM's total global employment is 173,000, and it says women and minorities represent 40% of its team of corporate officers.
For reference, the Census Bureau says African Americans make up 13.4% of the U.S. population of roughly 328 million people. White people constitute 76.5%.
As previously reported, GM planned to pause production at its factories on each shift today and observe silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. The company will also have a digital countdown clock atop the GM's headquarters in Detroit for the moment of silence.
Additionally, Chairman and CEO Mary Barra has said she will lead a new Inclusion Advisory Board made up of people from within and outside GM to suggest areas for change and hold the company to its commitments to fight injustice and racial inequality. Barra also plans to participate in the Business Roundtable’s Special Committee for Racial Equality and Justice, and the company says it’s working with the GM African Ancestry Network, an employee resource group, to boost diversity and inclusion efforts.
Much of what the automaker is doing Friday revolves around internal communications to employees from senior leaders, but GM also plans to release content across its social media channels. Gerald Johnson, GM’s executive vice president for global manufacturing, who is African American, posted a video to LinkedIn in which he talked about the conversations he’s had with his four sons and 10 nephews about what to do if they're pulled over by police. He said he tells them to place both hands outside the vehicle at all times and to always ask for the officer’s permission to do anything, including reaching for their registration or wallet.
“They always end up in tears, they always end up in emotions, it always ends up with questions of why,” Johnson said.
Like its crosstown rival, and urged on by its UAW members, Ford is pausing for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence at all of its U.S. and Europe facilities, including those working from home during the pandemic. All building monitors will display an 8:46 countdown.
The company this week also held a virtual presentation and Q&A session with a surviving member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the elite Black fighter pilots from World War II.
According to its most recent Sustainability Report, Ford had about 85,000 employees in the U.S. and nearly 199,000 employees globally by the end of 2018. Ford said 31.5% of its global workforce identified as members of a minority group, while eight of 45 corporate officers and two of its 13 board members did as well.
“Diversity has always been a fundamental value at Ford,” the company said in a statement. “To become the world’s most trusted company, we must cultivate a culture where racial and ethnic equality and diversity are highly valued, and all people have a sense of belonging. We’ve been recognized for some of our efforts, but we know that we can do even more so we are building on our strengths and accelerating our action plan.”
The Italian-American automaker is also observing 8:46 of silence at both 8:46 a.m. and p.m. Friday in each time zone. The company announced the plans in a letter co-signed by Mark Stewart, FCA’s chief operating officer for North America, and UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada. “We do this in support of the millions who are demanding an end to racism and hate, and calling for real reform,” it reads. “We do this to recognize that we all have a role to play in this change.”
FCA says it has 45,500 hourly and 14,900 salaried employees in the U.S., but it did not provide a breakout by ethnicity.
The company is currently investing $2.5 billion in Detroit, much of it to build a new plant to manufacture a new three-row Jeep. It’s also giving first dibs on the 5,000 new jobs to residents of Detroit, which is nearly 79% black.
A worker on the Passport assembly line at Honda's Alabama plant. (Honda)
Honda did not disclose the total number of people it employs in the U.S. but said African Americans constitute 16% of its production workforce and 15% of its labor force overall. It sent the following statement to Autoblog:
“Honda will recognize Juneteenth by silencing our social media channels across the region so that voices and stories can be heard and celebrated. Additionally, we will share internal communications within our companies that speak to the significance of this important day.”
The Korean automaker released a statement affirming its commitment to diversity and inclusion and adding that Hyundai is “committed to America’s highest ideals: transparency, fairness and honesty.” It also outlined a number of actions it planned to take to increase racial equality and diversity among staff, including diversity spending targets and making donations to several nonprofits focused on social justice issues.
“For centuries, despite vast economic, social and political disparity, African-Americans have turned challenges into opportunities and struggles into triumphs,” Hyundai said in the statement. “And while much progress has been made since the first Juneteenth — including the election of the first African-American U.S. president — still far too many African-Americans remain marginalized and barred from the simple right to breathe free. For far too long and for far too many African-Americans, the dream of America is still just that — a dream.”