In the US, GM has found it difficult to wean buyers off the profit-eroding incentive deals it first introduced to get sales moving after the terrorist attacks in 2001. Without incentives in October, sales dropped 23%. The company has also been heavily reliant on the sport utility vehicles that generated much of its profits in the 1990s. As petrol prices have risen, sales of the gas-guzzlers have plummeted. In the meantime, GM has been slow to invest in the petrol and electric hybrids that are becoming increasingly popular.
GM's biggest difficulty is the soaring cost of pension and healthcare liabilities for workers and retirees in the US, which add $3,500 to the price of each vehicle. Unions fear that under bankruptcy, GM could cancel worker contracts to sharply reduce its liabilities, erasing decades of hard-won gains. It insures 1.1 million Americans and healthcare costs this year will be about $5.6bn, up from $4bn four years ago.
GM is not the only US firm struggling to cope with its pension and healthcare liabilities while still competing with rivals from low-cost countries.
Employer-paid pensions in the US are estimated to be underfunded by $450bn (£262bn). GM says its deficit is $10bn but official figures suggest its pension is underfunded by $31bn.
United Airlines and US Airways used bankruptcy this year to dump $9.6bn of pension liabilities on the federal agency that insures private pensions - itself facing a $22.8bn deficit. The agency usually makes good on the basic pension but pays no other benefits and has an annual upper limit. Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines, which both filed for bankruptcy in September, are likely to do the same - their pensions are underfunded by $16.3bn.
The number of Americans with healthcare paid for by employers is also steadily falling, according to the Census Bureau. For most workers, the trend has become known as the downsizing of the American dream.