With General Motors due to announce shortly what factories it will close late next year, tensions are running high at the company's long-threatened Van Nuys assembly plant.
A battle has erupted anew between the self-described militant union faction led by Peter Z. Beltran, president of United Auto Workers Local 645, and a more conciliatory group headed by Ray Ruiz, the local's No. 2 official as chief negotiator and shop chairman.
Ruiz's star appeared to be rising at Beltran's expense since the spring, but amid fresh concern over the future of the Van Nuys plant, Beltran is trying to mobilize support to oust his younger rival.
Emotions Run High
Although many workers are confident the plant will stay open, a sense of apprehension over the matter has fired emotions, said Chuck Simons, who left the assembly line last month to be co-editor of GM's in-house newsletter, Positive Press.
"There's been a lot of talk for years about shutting the plant over everything from paint fumes to union agreements," Simons said. "But if they say they're closing the plant this time, everyone knows that's it, for good."
Joe B. Garcia, financial secretary for the local, said the nervousness has spurred heated verbal exchanges in and around the plant.
"There are threats from both sides," Garcia said.
He added that workers are "being careful not to walk anywhere alone." Police said they received no reports of incidents.
The Beltran and Ruiz factions last feuded openly in May when the local narrowly approved a Ruiz-backed plan to introduce in Van Nuys Japanese-style management techniques known as team concept. The concept, which also is supported by GM, permits employees to work in small teams and, in theory, to have more say in the way a car is made.
The only other GM facility using such techniques is the GM-Toyota joint venture in Fremont, Calif. Ruiz says team concept will increase the factory's efficiency and prevent a shutdown. Beltran, on the other hand, says team concept is an unnecessary concession and that a boycott he has threatened for years ensures that GM will keep the plant open.
A linchpin holding together support for team concept has been a promise by Ruiz and Bruce Lee, the UAW's Western regional director, that team concept would not go ahead unless GM made a long-term promise to keep the plant open.
50 Workers for Training
But Ruiz said he decided to act quickly in preparing for team concept, prompted in part by word that GM plans to close several facilities. On Sept. 29, Ruiz authorized sending 50 workers to a GM training facility in Burbank to review interpersonal communications skills the company says are essential to make team concept work.
Lee says no promise was broken, maintaining that the union received its necessary assurance in the form of GM's decision last month to scrap plans to build plastic-body Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds. The plastic cars, until recently scheduled to debut in 1993, would have replaced models made in Van Nuys and thus threatened to doom the plant.
But GM's plastic car announcement did not satisfy Beltran. He has been telling workers that they were deceived and is urging that they dump Ruiz.
The issue has divided workers, helping to set the stage for a heated confrontation last Tuesday afternoon between supporters of Beltran and Ruiz in the parking lot behind union headquarters.
It was the second anti-Ruiz rally orchestrated by Beltran in a month. During the first, on Oct. 2, an estimated 300 to 400 union members voted unanimously to suspend Ruiz indefinitely. The UAW overturned the vote, saying it did not follow proper procedures.
Last week's session attracted a total of nearly 1,000 workers from both sides who came, many with beers in hand, ready for a shouting match. Some challenged the authority of speakers, jeering at them and calling them names.
Fear of plant closure does not give Ruiz "the right to waive our . . . rights to self-government," Beltran told the crowd from the back of a flatbed truck.
Ruiz, whose presence was a surprise even to some of his close supporters, offered to shake hands with Beltran before stepping on the back of the truck for his turn to speak. Beltran refused the gesture, directing Ruiz instead to take the microphone.
"I'd like to thank all of you for coming to my party today," Ruiz said to the crowd. He then accused Beltran of caring more about his future in union politics than saving the plant.
"When our politics come ahead of the membership, then we've got a real big problem and we've got to get that changed," he said.
Many of Ruiz's supporters abruptly left the session after he finished speaking, so the recall vote was interrupted. Beltran says he collected 319 votes against Ruiz and maintains that was enough to oust his rival, but regional UAW officials have ruled otherwise and the matter has been appealed to the union's headquarters in Detroit.
For a recall, the local's bylaws require a two-thirds vote at a meeting attended by a quorum of at least 25% of the "members under the jurisdiction of the steward or committeeman." The plant employs more than 4,500 hourly employees, about 2,200 of whom have been on indefinite layoff since July. The UAW's regional office, taking the position that laid-off workers must be counted as union members, said that Beltran did not have a quorum.
The Van Nuys plant was placed on an endangered list in 1982 because of its distance from Midwestern suppliers and because disappointing sales in Western states force it to ship many of its cars east of the Rockies. As a result of added shipping costs, a car made in Van Nuys costs $400 more than one made at a sister plant in Norwood, Ohio, the company says.
Last month, following the disclosure of its biggest quarterly operating loss in five years, GM announced plans to close at the end of 1987 at least two or three of its 30 assembly and 11 metal-stamping plants.
The company will not rule out the possibility of closing the Van Nuys facility, although the most recent indications are that it will be spared. GM spokesmen have stated that the company will announce its plans by the middle of this month, but officials in Van Nuys say an announcement will come immediately after today's general elections.