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UAW’s Van Nuys Chief Stung by Challenge From Within Ranks

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Times Staff Writer

When thousands of United Auto Workers delegates gather in Anaheim on Sunday for the union’s national convention, Pete Beltran will be just an observer. He’s never been comfortable in that role.

Beltran, president of UAW Local 645 in Van Nuys, says he’s marched, picketed and fought for the working class all his life, bucking General Motors and, at times, the national union.

Lately, however, Beltran has been frustrated. He was stung by GM’s announcement early last month that it soon will lay off 2,190 workers indefinitely at its Van Nuys assembly plant.

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Then, on April 22, the rank and file snubbed Beltran. Union members, many worried that the layoffs could be a prelude to the eventual shutdown of their plant, selected a slate of seven convention delegates who support the “team concept,” a GM-backed production method styled after Japanese techniques.

Beltran, who adamantly opposes the idea, finished ninth, making it the first time the local hasn’t named its president a delegate to the national convention. Worse yet, as far as Beltran is concerned, negotiators for the local late last week reached a tentative agreement with GM that could bring the team concept to the Van Nuys plant.

Those familiar with the local say Beltran’s apparent setbacks reflect a rejection of his old-school, hard-nosed stand against any sort of union concessions. They say it was a victory for the younger, more conciliatory unionists now dominating the labor movement.

The recent developments also would seem to signal the waning of Beltran’s career as a union politician, although observers say it is too early to count him out.

Certainly Beltran, the 46-year-old son of Mexican-American parents who worked on a cotton ranch, has suffered setbacks before. For example, in 1984, workers in the local ratified by almost a 2-to-1 margin a national contract agreement that Beltran had outspokenly opposed.

Beltran, however, now faces a powerful and self-assured challenger in Ray Ruiz, 31, who as the union’s shop chairman led the winning slate of convention delegates. Ruiz, who also is the local’s bargaining committee chairman, and Bruce Lee, Western regional director of the UAW, were the negotiating team that agreed on the concept proposals last week.

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Peter Zapata Beltran was born in El Paso and grew up in San Fernando. (Emiliano Zapata, for whom he is named, was a Mexican revolutionary and agrarian reformer.) Beltran graduated from high school in 1958, and like many of the workers he represents, his first job out of school was at the GM plant in Van Nuys.

Inspired by Reuther

In 1966, Beltran attended his first UAW convention, where he was moved by the words of the late Walter Reuther, the militant president of the UAW from 1946 to 1970 and a major inspiration for Beltran and many of his counterparts.

Beltran moved to Salinas in 1975 to become regional director for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, an arbitration agency. Frustrated by funding problems, Beltran returned to the assembly line in Van Nuys a year later, working in the hard-trim department, where such parts as dashboards and mirrors are installed. He soon re-entered the local’s politics, was elected president in 1978 and has held the job ever since.

Beltran discounted his recent loss in the convention delegate election. He said he did not campaign for a seat and noted that only 1,800 of the 4,300 eligible union members voted. Moreover, his three-year term doesn’t end until June, 1987, and union officials from both camps say Beltran easily can regain support by then. Observers say that much of Beltran’s opposition might be short-lived, inspired by the big layoff now scheduled for July 7.

All the same, the vote has taken a toll on Beltran.

“Pete’s been hurt bad,” said Rodolfo Acuna, a Chicano studies professor at California State University, Northridge, who has followed the local’s politics. “He doesn’t talk about it much. But you can see the pain.”

Rebecca Morales, who teaches urban affairs at UCLA, said Beltran was deeply hurt by the local’s recent vote because the convention this year, which will have more than 7,000 delegates, will be held in Southern California, where the Van Nuys factory is the only operating auto plant.

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Feels Betrayed

Beltran says he was instrumental in Ruiz’s ascension in the local’s politics and thus feels betrayed.

“I supported him. I saw something in him, that he would develop into a good leader,” said Beltran, the anger growing in his long face. “Now, he is attacking me unscrupulously.”

Ruiz says he was trained by Beltran at union leadership seminars but does not consider him a mentor. He says he got help getting started from Jerry Shrieves, who preceded Ruiz in his union post and now works on the assembly line.

Beltran can be fiery at a rally, but he is sober and self-effacing in a one-on-one meeting. Ruiz, in contrast, is flashy. He wears lots of jewelry, including a heavy gold chain on his neck. He speaks very quickly, rattling off numbers dispassionately along with campaign-like rhetoric.

“People are tired of the old ways,” he said. “They’re questioning Beltran’s credibility. The vote on April 22 was a mandate for a different way of doing business. People want change.”

Rivalries between local presidents, whose offices are in union halls, and shop chairmen, who often have closer relationships with workers because they keep desks on plant floors, are common in the industry, said Paul Schrade, a former Western regional director for the UAW.

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Typical union politics includes lots of handshaking and backslapping, Schrade said. “People have to come into the union hall to see Pete,” Schrade said. “He can’t possibly have the contacts.”

The most obvious philosophical difference between Beltran and Ruiz is over the team concept. Under such a system, a majority of the plant’s workers work in small groups rather than on a traditional assembly line. GM says the team concept improves quality control, in part because it puts pressure on workers to check their own work.

The company also says the system would make the plant more efficient, partly by reducing the number of inspectors that are needed. Before contract changes can be made to introduce the team concept, however, a majority of the local’s membership must vote in favor of the plan in this week’s balloting.

In any case, GM officials say they can make no commitments to keep the plant open beyond 1989. That is when the company plans to phase out production of the Camaro and Firebird, most likely in favor of new, lighter models with plastic skins such as the Pontiac Fiero.

Beltran has been at the forefront of a campaign to use pressure from labor, community, religious and political organizations to keep the factory operating. The plant, which opened in 1947, is the San Fernando Valley’s second-largest corporate employer with 4,800 workers.

Although he rejects the “militant” label that he often is given, Beltran has threatened a nationwide boycott of GM cars unless GM guarantees that it will keep the plant open for at least 10 years.

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Beltran, however, has few illusions about his chances for success. Pushing a hand through his head of dark hair blazed with a white streak, Beltran noted that he has suffered many disappointments, particularly in the recent era of labor concessions.

List of Frustrations

His list of frustrations include the leadership of UAW head Owen Bieber and the reduction of 500 jobs at the Van Nuys plant in 1983, when GM eliminated the “rolling” relief system that allowed workers to take breaks when they felt tired.

In 1984, Beltran backed an unauthorized walkout aimed at pressuring the company to reach a national contract agreement instead of separate local ones.

When a national agreement was reached two weeks later, Beltran asked workers in Van Nuys to vote it down because he believed it did not provide big enough wage increases. The membership, however, rejected Beltran’s pleas.

His disappointments notwithstanding, Beltran said he intends to run for reelection in 1987 and then retire in 1988, when his 30 years with the union will assure him of a secure pension. Then, he said, he may try to get into city politics.

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