Presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke at a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin on Wednesday, pledging to simultaneously support auto workers and a national transition to fuel efficient technologies, such as hybrid cars. Obama told the group of autoworkers, “If our government is there to support you and give you the assistance you need to re-tool and make this transition, this plant will be here for another 100 years.”

Obama’s speech came at the heels of GM’s announcement of a $38.7 million loss for 2007 and buyout and early retirement offers to all of its hourly workers. “I know how hard your governor has fought to keep jobs in this plant” said Obama. “But I also know how much progress you’ve made—how many hybrids and fuel-efficient vehicles you’re churning out.” American automakers have recently increased their hybrid offerings, but the market is still dominated by Toyota and other foreign competitors.

Obama said as president he would spend billions of dollars to create so-called “green collar” jobs to develop more environmentally friendly energy sources. “My energy plan will invest $150 billion over ten years to establish a green energy sector that will create up to 5 million new jobs over the next two decades—jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced. We’ll also provide funding to help manufacturers convert to green technology and help workers learn the skills they need for these jobs.”

A Consistent Message On Hybrids and Jobs

This proposal is not the first time that Obama drew connections between domestic auto-industry jobs and green vehicle technologies. In Nov. 2006, Obama and Jay Inslee (D-Wa.) introduced ” The Healthcare for Hybrids Act.” The bill proposed that up to 10 percent of the retiree health care costs for a qualifying manufacturer be paid by federal financial assistance—that is, if the carmaker invests at least 50 percent of the those savings into hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles, including the retooling of assembly lines and the retraining of workers.

At the time, Walter McManus, an auto economist with the University of Michigan, said, “Senator Obama and Congressmen Inslee have recognized these companies are circling the drain, and with them our national economy and energy security. Their stroke of genius is in connecting the dots: Decreasing oil consumption is clearly a top national priority but it will not happen without a national investment.”

“SUVS Become Hybrids”

In Wisconsin on Wednesday, Obama drew a comparison between hybrid production and shifts to wartime manufacturing after the Great Depression. “Prosperity hasn’t always come easily. The plant shut down for a period during the height of the Depression, and major shifts in production have been required to meet the changing times,” he said. “Tractors became automobiles. Automobiles became artillery shells. SUVs are becoming hybrids as we speak, and the cost of transition has always been greatest for the workers and their families.”

In terms of his personal ride, in July 2007, Barack Obama traded in his Chrysler 300C, an eight-cylinder 5.7-liter sedan which gets 15 miles per gallon in the city—for a Ford Escape Hybrid, the first gas-electric vehicle produced by an American carmaker. The Escape Hybrid achieves 34 mpg in the city.