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GM Fires UAW Official Opposed to ‘Team Concept’

Times Staff Writer

General Motors has fired Peter Z. Beltran, the controversial official of United Auto Workers Local 645 who contested the Japanese-style work rules installed at the company’s Van Nuys plant a year ago.

GM also dismissed Michael Velasquez, the local’s vice president and second-in-command.

Union officials said the company accused the two of lying about why Beltran, the local’s shop chairman and No. 3 official, was absent from work 38 days last year. GM said the action was intended to defraud the company of money and benefits.

Both Beltran and Velasquez, who were fired April 21, were full-time union representatives but were paid by GM. The two filed a grievance with GM protesting the terminations, and Velasquez charged that the action was a reprisal by the company for recent union activities.

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GM alleges that Beltran, 48, and Velasquez, 51, lied in a Feb. 23 letter to company executives when they claimed that Beltran was away from work for the 38 days to take care of union business. Velasquez sent the letter after Beltran was faced with losing some of his employment benefits because of his absences.

Several top leaders of Local 645--including Beltran--receive waivers for missed days if they are out on union-related business.

GM conducted an investigation, according to Velasquez, and determined that Beltran wasn’t working for the union on the days in question. GM sent Velasquez--who signed the letter excusing Beltran--a termination notice explaining its position.

“This letter would have had the effect of removing Pete Beltran from the attendance control procedure, thereby preventing a reduction in his benefits, unjustly increasing his compensation and reducing the possibility of his forfeiture of employment,” the company wrote. “Acting with Mr. Beltran, you knowingly attempted to derive monies and benefits for him to which he was not entitled.”

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Velasquez, in an interview, denied the charges and steadfastly said Beltran was absent because of union work. “All of those dates we can pretty well document,” he said. He said Beltran was either attending union conferences or doing paper work.

Beltran was not available for comment Tuesday, and GM officials declined to discuss the matter.

Cushion Unit an Issue

Velasquez--a 31-year veteran of the Van Nuys plant--earned about $26,000 annually. Beltran, whose pay was not disclosed, was on GM’s payroll for about 30 years.

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The firings have aggravated continuing tensions between Beltran supporters and the company. Beltran has opposed a Japanese-style production system called team concept used at GM’s Van Nuys plant. The company says team concept, adopted after being narrowly approved by the local’s membership, encourages worker-management cooperation and improves the quality of cars made at the plant. Beltran contends the method is merely an excuse to cut jobs and overwork employees.

Velasquez claims GM fired Beltran and him because they were working on a plan to stop the company from moving the production of seat cushions to another facility, a move that union officials say the company is considering. The union claims closing the cushion-making operation would eliminate 120 jobs at the Van Nuys plant, which produces Pontiac Firebirds and Chevrolet Camaros.

“I think our terminations were contrived by local management because we were tying to stop the outsourcing of work at the plant,” said Velasquez. “Pete pretty well put the company on notice that he would go to the membership and seek ways to stop them. He didn’t rule out the possibility of a strike.”

Under the UAW contract, workers absent more than 20% of their scheduled work days face reductions in such benefits as vacation pay and holiday pay. Workers refer to the clause as the 20% club.

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“GM was taking the position I had contrived a scheme with Mr. Beltran to keep him from the 20% club,” said Velasquez. “Obviously, we denied it.”

This isn’t the first time Beltran’s absences have created a stir. In a November interview, Beltran said he had not shown up for work at least 40% of the time since being elected shop chairman five months earlier. He blamed his absences on a serious illness that he declined to specify.

At the time, the UAW local’s president, Jerry Shrieves, said many Van Nuys GM workers had become dissatisfied with Beltran. “There is a lot of unrest in there because of his absences,” Shrieves said. He said that Beltran “has let down a lot of people who elected him.” Shrieves was unavailable for comment Tuesday.


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