Coalition Supports Bid to Keep GM Plant Open
An unusual coalition of business leaders, clergymen, politicians, unionists and entertainers gathered Saturday across the street from General Motors’ endangered Van Nuys plant, seeking to encourage auto workers struggling to keep the plant open.
Speaking to a crowd of about 750 GM employees and their supporters, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson praised the auto workers as “freedom fighters,” and a Chamber of Commerce official said the possible plant closing could have a devastating economic impact on the entire San Fernando Valley.
The rally came at a time when local union members are divided over the best strategy for persuading the world’s largest auto maker to prolong the life of the last car manufacturing facility in Southern California, the nation’s largest market for new cars.
“Those who are working for jobs as an alternative to welfare and despair deserve a right to keep your jobs so you can make America strong for everyone,” Jackson, a 1984 presidential candidate, said to lusty approval. “You are the true freedom fighters, not the contras in Central America.”
United Auto Workers Local 645 has been trying to secure a commitment from General Motors to keep the plant open for at least 10 more years. The plant has been under threat of closure since 1982, and all 2,190 workers on the plant’s second shift will be laid off indefinitely on June 9.
The company plans to phase out production of the Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird at Van Nuys in 1989 and has not said whether it will manufacture another car there after that time.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Studio City), Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), actor Ed Asner, a number of religious leaders, and representatives of several other unions, including striking TWA flight attendants, all spoke of the importance to the community of keeping the plant open. And singer Jackson Browne lent his voice to the effort.
David Miller, president of the United Chambers of Commerce, said his organization, which represents 7,200 businesses in the valley, is supporting the campaign to ensure the factory’s long-term future. He said closure of the plant would have an economic impact far beyond the immediate loss of 5,000 jobs. A shutdown, he said, would create a ripple effect that ultimately would mean the loss of 35,000 additional jobs and the closing of 518 businesses, based on government studies.
Peter Z. Beltran, president of the Van Nuys UAW local, once again threatened to launch a boycott of General Motors products in Southern California if the company shuts the plant. “We believe a corporation has a social responsibility to the community and its workers,” Beltran said.
The company has been pressuring the union to modify work rules to make the plant more efficient. Negotiations have been under way for months on adopting a “team concept” of production similar to that used at Japanese auto assembly facilities. Beltran has opposed the change, but it is favored by Ray Ruiz, the local’s bargaining committee chairman.
Ruiz’s stance is gaining favor in the plant, according to him and a number of others in the union. They said the growing sentiment for accommodation with the company was manifested last week when a slate of delegates headed by Ruiz defeated Beltran’s slate to be the local’s representatives at the UAW convention in Anaheim in June.
Ruiz opposes a boycott, explaining, “We would be boycotting products built by our brothers and sisters in other GM plants.” Ruiz also said he fears that the threat of a boycott would have the opposite effect to what its advocates intend because General Motors, not wanting to appear to be bowing to pressure, would be more likely to close the plant.
Eric Mann, coordinator of the Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open, said a boycott would be a “last-resort tactic” if other efforts fail to persuade the company to keep the plant running. “Our bottom line is if everything else fails, we have a trump card,” Mann said.
Some other efforts were outlined by Bruce Lee, western regional director of the UAW. Lee told the crowd that on Friday the California Employment Training Panel had agreed to give General Motors $20 million to retrain Van Nuys workers for new production methods if the company agrees to keep the plant running. “That removed one major obstacle to keeping the plant open,” he said.
Lee is opposed to a boycott but did not mention that Saturday. Like most of the other speakers, he called for a united effort to keep the plant going despite tactical differences that exist within the UAW. He said he opposes “concessions” but said that the union would be willing to make some changes under the right circumstances.