Car salesman fired for questioning 'Buy American' movement

February 24, 1992|By New York Times News Service

DETROIT -- A Chevrolet salesman who questioned the value of the "Buy American" movement in a nationally televised interview has been dismissed by his boss, who says his customers are angry about the comments in the interview.

The episode highlights concerns over the popularity of foreign brands and the resulting job loss among U.S. automakers. It also put the salesman, 31-year-old Matt Darcy, at the center of the debate between those who believe buying a domestic car is a duty and those offended by efforts to coerce consumers.

Gordon Chevrolet in Garden City, Mich., dismissed Mr. Darcy, a former appliance salesman who joined the company 13 months ago.

The owner, Gordon Stewart, who said he sells many cars to auto workers, said that his primary goal is to please his customers and that Mr. Darcy does not have the right to air his views if they threaten his business.

"Truth is not an issue," Mr. Stewart said. "You have to be careful."

Mr. Darcy has since received job offers from many employers who say he was victimized by misguided patriotism.

"All that we accomplished was to put another American out of work," said Forrest Scott, sales manager of Tamaroff Buick in suburban Detroit.

Mr. Darcy, whose parents are General Motors assembly line workers, made his comments to Lesley Stahl, a reporter on the CBS News program "60 Minutes," while manning the Geo car exhibit at the Detroit auto show in early January.

Mr. Darcy dissented with a colleague's opinion that Americans should buy only U.S. vehicles.

"If America makes a good product, I buy it," Mr. Darcy said on the program. "If they don't, I buy what's good for my money. I don't have to spend money because it's American."

Many second Mr. Darcy's opinion, including economists who think his position ultimately helps rather than harms the U.S. economy.

Some dealers also say recent anti-Japanese car advertisements are ill-conceived and that the ads should instead focus on the quality of U.S. models.

Most callers to a Detroit radio show agreed that Mr. Darcy was unfairly let go, and that consumers should buy U.S. cars for their workmanship, not as a charitable act for the Big Three.

But Mr. Stewart said Mr. Darcy's comments offended some customers. About half his clients work at nearby GM plants, he said.

Mr. Stewart said he received phone calls from several members of the United Automobile Workers who insinuated that Mr. Darcy's statement could prompt a boycott. UAW officials say no such threat existed.

Mr. Stewart said he had no choice but to dismiss Mr. Darcy.

In his explanation about the dismissal, Mr. Stewart wrote, "Matt's philosophy about the domestic automobile manufacturing industry is in direct conflict with at least 50 percent of our customer base."

Daniel Hayes, who heads the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, said Mr. Darcy had been disloyal. "Mr. Stewart is not paying this gentleman to tout the opposition," he said.

But other dealers noted that Mr. Darcy, who drives a domestically made Geo Prizm, was representing a brand that sold models made in the United States as well as the Geo Storm model, which is made by Isuzu in Japan.

In recent months, the difficulty of figuring out what vehicles, or parts of vehicles, are U.S.-made has been highlighted in several reports, including the "60 Minutes" segment. Many foreign companies operate factories in the United States, and the Big Three put their nameplates on many models they buy from Japanese manufacturers.

Mr. Stewart has learned twice this year about the strength of the "Buy American" sentiment. In a recent promotion, he offered shoppers prizes that included a camera made in China and a video-cassette recorder made in Japan. A GM worker reportedly complained to a radio station, and Mr. Stewart has replaced the gifts with U.S.-made cooking sets and $500 cash.

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