L.A.'s Booming Auto Industry Now a Memory

TIMES LABOR WRITER

Once upon a time, in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, they cut an imposing swath through the heart of Los Angeles County.

There was the Chrysler plant in the City of Commerce, the Ford plant in Pico Rivera, the General Motors plants in South Gate and Van Nuys, the Studebaker plant in Vernon, the Nash plant in El Segundo, the Willys-Overland plant in Maywood.

When GM announced the closure of its Van Nuys plant Friday, it snuffed out the last glimpse of an era in which 15,000 or more Los Angeles auto workers put together half a million cars in a single year, assembling everything from Buicks to Barracudas, Mercurys to Valiants and Comets to Lancers.

In those days, long before America's industrial economy hit hard times, Los Angeles County boasted that it was the second-largest auto-making center in the nation, behind Detroit. The fact that the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri began making more cars than California was only slightly humbling. Not only were the plants here, but the car culture was here, and the two reinforced each other.

"We were part of something big," said John Allard, 77, who came here from Kansas during the Depression, found a 50-cents-an-hour job at the Chrysler plant in 1936 and made his living until the plant was judged too old and small and closed in 1971.

Sure, there were temporary layoffs in those days too, and the pay didn't begin to soar until the 1970s. The assembly-line work was performed in what one labor leader called gold-plated sweatshops, and the job security clause in the union contract wasn't as strong as it is today. But the expanse of the work was magnificent.

So was the optimism.

For every foreign car that was sold in the early 1960s, American car manufacturers sold 10. In one Baby-Booming year alone--1964--the number of licensed drivers in the country shot up to 93 million from 72 million. The market seemed endless. That a company such as GM could reach the point it has today, when it has 30% or more auto-making capacity than it needs, was unthinkable.

"Our biggest problems were getting new contracts and arguing over speed-ups of the line," said Harold Clements, 71, who came from Georgia, got a $1-an-hour job as a spray-painter at the GM South Gate plant in 1946 and eventually became a United Auto Workers staff member before retiring in 1980, two years before the South Gate plant closed.

By 1960, Bill Dredge, then The Times' auto editor--a position that no longer exists at the newspaper--wrote confidently, "There is nothing on the horizon to indicate that auto manufacturing will have any sudden spurts here in the next five to 10 years--unless some major merchandising revolution involving the far western market should hit the auto business."

By 1965, one of Dredge's successors proclaimed, "There's little doubt that Los Angeles (has) assumed the lofty status as the auto capital . . . apologies to Detroit."

It was a time when industrial jobs were an attainable ladder up from poverty. A time when you could carve out a middle-class existence with merely a high school degree, or less. A time when the expressions "blue collar" and "working class" carried more meaning, more purity. A time when "service sector" would have been mistaken for the military.

It was a world John Allard fit into when he came to Los Angeles. He was in a fix, a farm boy whose parents had lost their Midwestern farm. He had planned on becoming a teacher. He had graduated from high school in Kansas and was principal of a small grade school there by age 23, making $45 a month. When his family decided to move to California, he came here first. A neighbor across the street helped him catch on in the receiving department at the Chrysler plant, which was then all of 4 years old.

Allard quickly became caught up in the United Auto Workers' national organizing drive, which unionized the plant in 1937. A few years later he was made a UAW staff member, shifted back to plant work in the mid-'40s, then returned to staff work as an organizer in the '50s. The work force swelled from 1,000 in the '30s to 5,700 in the late '50s and had shrunk back to 1,300 when the closure came.

Allard still goes into the UAW office each Thursday to help the union's Chrysler retirees with pension problems.

"We never could have imagined there would be this kind of change that has come about," he said Friday.

The curse was that the change came as quickly as it did.

By 1971, when the Chrysler plant shut down, imported cars were already taking 41% of all sales in Los Angeles. Other industrial jobs were fading, creating a wrenching impact.

Six years after Chrysler closed, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. shut down its Los Angeles plant. Three years later, Ford closed its Pico Rivera plant after producing a total of 1.4 million cars. Two years later, GM folded South Gate, idling 5,000 workers and a history of 4.5 million cars. The next year, Kaiser Steel Corp. shut down the last blast furnace at its Fontana mill.

Many of these jobs went overseas or to cheaper, non-union regions in the South or Southwest.

"A lot of people moved around over the country in an attempt to get jobs, but few of them were able to go to another facility of that company and fit in, very few," said Jim Daughterty, a retired utility workers union official who has been working on a labor history project for a Southern California social research group.

"It's certainly a changed world from what we knew then," said Allard. "And in many ways it's a sadder one."

Chronology of Auto Plant Closings in California

* August, 1992: General Motors will close its assembly plant in Van Nuys; 2,600 workers will lose their jobs.

* May, 1983: Ford closes assembly plant in Milpitas; 2,386 jobs lost.

* December, 1982: Chrysler closes parts depot in San Leandro; the facility had 77 workers.

* April, 1982: GM closes its South Gate assembly plant; more than 2,550 jobs are lost.

* March, 1982: GM closes its auto plant in Fremont; 2,500 workers are laid off. The plant reopens in 1984 under ownership of New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., a company jointly owned by Toyota and GM. The plant now has 3,000 workers--many rehired from GM's original crew--who make Geo Prizms and Toyota Corollas. (When GM's Van Nuys plant closes, it will be the last auto plant in the state.)

* February, 1981: GM closes two parts depots in Oakland.

* February, 1980: Ford closes car assembly plant in Pico Rivera; 1,670 jobs are lost.

* July, 1971: Chrysler closes auto assembly plant in City of Commerce; more than 1,300 workers are laid off.

Source: UAW and The Times' research library

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