Tales From the Assembly Line : Unions: UAW official Mark Masaoka’s strong stand on plant closings has earned him the confidence of workers. Ancestry is not an issue, he says.


“Don’t vote for the Jap,” Mark Masaoka’s opponent in a union election told auto workers seven years ago.

Masaoka, a Japanese-American electrician at General Motors’ Van Nuys assembly plant, lost that race, although he says a job transfer was the major reason for his defeat.

But Masaoka kept running for offices, and today he is unit chairman of United Auto Workers Local 645 and one of the few Asian-American UAW officials in the country.

Masaoka, 38, says that he knows auto workers have bashed Toyotas with sledgehammers in “Boycott Japan” rallies and that an unemployed Detroit auto plant foreman and his stepson beat a Chinese-American to death with a baseball bat, mistaking him for Japanese.


But, he says, workers relate to him not in terms of his ancestry but by his positions on issues, such as the recently announced closing of the Van Nuys plant.

“When I get up in the national convention, in which I’m the only Asian-American among the 3,000 delegates, what is controversial is not that I’m a Japanese-American, but my statements that the union is not doing enough to fight plant closings,” he says.

“I think, basically, working people are more open to other kinds of people that they work alongside of. I feel more comfortable in these situations than I do in, say, other (white-collar) circles where you may not get overt kinds of comments, but there’s a more subtle racism.”

Outspoken remarks such as these have won Masaoka the confidence of many union members.


“They figure he’s a good leader,” says Jake Flukers, a millwright who is vice president of Local 645. “The things he has said, some people would be afraid to say. . . . Mark won’t hold anything back.

“He experienced a plant closure (before). He could relate to some things going on. He let us know some things that were going to happen.”

The question of fellow union members’ reactions will be moot, however, if Masaoka’s career comes to an end. That possibility has grown since General Motors Corp.'s recent announcement that it will close the Van Nuys plant next summer. The company blamed the shutdown on sluggish auto sales.

Masaoka is irate at the auto maker for closing the last major car factory in Southern California and eliminating up to 2,600 jobs.


“I’m angry that the company has gotten away with their lies and deceit,” he says. “That they have falsely given people the impression that if we adopted the Japanese-style team concept and that if we made concessions, that they would honor their promises that the plant would remain open.

“Even though you mentally anticipate the closing, it still feels like a sock in the stomach.”

The company did not make promises to workers, General Motors’ spokesman Patrick Morrissey says. He blames the closing on “market-driven factors such as excess manufacturing capacity and a declining automotive market.”

As he contemplates his future, Masaoka says he may work at a General Motors plant elsewhere or as an electrician at a local factory. “The prospects locally are very poor, given that you have thousands of (recently laid off) aerospace workers looking for jobs,” he says.


As for the effect on his personal life, “We’re going to get by and (my family) is going to be able to keep our house,” Masaoka says. “We’ve anticipated these things. . . . We’ve been paying off debts and my wife’s father lives with us, and that has saved some of the family resources.”

Masaoka lives in a Tudor-style home near Silver Lake with his wife, Kathy Nishimoto-Masaoka, a teacher, and their children, Mayumi, 10, and Dan, 8.

He says the family was better prepared for this closing because he worked at Ford’s Pico-Rivera plant when it shut down in 1980.

Hired part time at Ford in 1977 while taking machinist classes at a trade school, he began putting in too many hours on the job and not enough hours into studying. So he quit school to work full time.


“I did not expect the Ford plant to close,” he says. “Ford had not closed a major factory since World War II. You remember the way word (of the closing) sort of hits the floor and spreads like a dam bursting.”

When his Ford co-workers applied for jobs at General Motors in Van Nuys, “I would see people who had been very confident being reduced to scrambling for work under very different circumstances,” Masaoka says.

“Some of us drew lessons from that, which we attempted to apply when we came to Van Nuys.”

At Van Nuys, Masaoka again intended to work part time while completing a course in aircraft mechanics. He finished the class but remained at GM.


“The money was relatively good,” he says of the job that paid about $11 an hour. “You develop a lot of friends among co-workers. And it’s an honor when you’re elected a representative.”

He made his first run for union office less than a year after he arrived at Van Nuys. He was nominated by workers transferring from the South Gate plant closed by General Motors in 1982.

“They were not getting good treatment, so I was outspoken about that,” he says. “They had not been there (at Van Nuys) long enough to run (for union office). . . . A number of them approached me and asked me to run.

“They said: ‘We’re going to elect you, but we want to make sure that you stand as tough as you are talking.’ ”


As he continues to work as a union leader, Masaoka says, he makes “a clear distinction in my identity about being Japanese-American and not being Japanese.”

“The biggest part about it is the seminal experience of the concentration camps during World War II,” he says. “Both my parents were incarcerated. While it was based on racism here, it occurred because of actions taken by the government of Japan.”

Masaoka’s mother was interned in Utah. His father was held at Manzanar and later fought in Europe with the Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team.

Masaoka graduated from high school in San Mateo in 1971, then came to Southern California to find work. Living in Little Tokyo, he joined residents fighting Japanese corporations that allegedly tried to evict residents to build banks and office buildings.


He worked for a Japanese-American plumbing company before joining Ford. Few of his assembly plant co-workers were Asian-Americans; at the Van Nuys plant, they make up 2% of the employees.

While his ancestry has not been controversial among union members, it has come up in ethnic jokes. And there has been some confusion when he has shown up to speak on behalf of the union and people didn’t realize he was from the UAW.

But there have been triumphs as well.

Once, while walking a picket line, Masaoka passed a co-worker as big as a linebacker wearing a T-shirt with a caricature of a Japanese person driving a Japanese car--both enclosed in a red circle with a line through it.


Given the man’s size, Masaoka hesitated to speak up, but he felt compelled. “Hey, brother, I’ve got to talk to you about that shirt,” Masaoka told him. “It’s offensive to me.”

“I can see your point,” the man said. “I’ll change it at lunch.”

“And he did,” Masaoka says.