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Layoff Grinch : Holidays Fail to Cheer GM Workers Whose Jobs Will Go

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousands of American workers have had their Christmas spirits dampened by recent job losses or by the prospect of unemployment, but Francisco Repreza has more to worry about than most wage earners this holiday season.

The assembly line job that he has held at General Motors’ auto plant in Van Nuys since 1976 in all likelihood will disappear by August, when the San Fernando Valley factory is set to close. That, in turn, may mean that the middle-class life that Repreza and many of his 2,600 co-workers labored hard to earn will slip away forever.

So even as Repreza exchanged Christmas gifts Wednesday with his wife, Rosa, their 7-year-old son, Christopher, and close relatives, there was no escaping a feeling of gloom.

“It’s the beginning of a sad time,” said Repreza, 36, who came to this country from his native El Salvador in 1973.

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“If I go to the unemployment office, I see long lines,” he noted.

“I don’t see a possibility of getting a good-paying job like I have now,” he added, acknowledging that he has few job skills suitable for another line of work.

Likewise, economic uncertainty faces GM employees across the country. Many fear that their jobs will be among the additional 74,000 positions that the auto maker plans to slash over the next four years as part of a huge retrenchment announced last week.

It’s a nasty turnabout for workers who once were the envy of much of blue-collar America for their relatively high pay, generous benefits and what seemed to be considerable job security.

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Now they have few places to turn. Good blue-collar jobs are disappearing in Southern California and across the nation.

On top of that, the repetitive assembly line duties that most auto workers are accustomed to are vanishing in modern American industry, noted Dan Lacey, an Ohio-based consultant who edits the newsletter Workplace Trends.

“There’s nothing else made that way,” he said.

Still, Lacey said, most GM workers hang on to their work until the bitter end, because they realize that they are unlikely to ever again enjoy the same standard of living. Once their jobs are eliminated, he said, “you’ll see them at the post office, you’ll see them at the gas station and at the body shop, and they’ll be telling war stories about their days at GM.”

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Compared to others being put out of work amid the nation’s blizzard of layoffs, Repreza and his Van Nuys counterparts are lucky in a number of respects.

For one thing, workers at the San Fernando Valley plant were given plenty of advance notice; GM announced its Van Nuys shutdown five months ago. Also, the Van Nuys employees will continue to receive most of their regular wages until September, 1993, under the United Auto Workers’ current contract, and they may get additional pay and benefits under the next contract.

For the Reprezas, though, a sense that worse times lie ahead already is setting in. This year, the family spent about $200 on Christmas gifts, down from about $600 last year.

Rosa, 29, who speaks little English and hasn’t held a permanent job since she and Francisco were married in 1980, is looking for work as a baby sitter or maid.

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Francisco Repreza, who earned $29,000 this year at the Van Nuys plant, plans to look into retraining programs after the factory closes. Even with newly learned skills, though, he is pessimistic that any industrial employer will offer a good job to someone his age with little applicable experience.

The ever-available jobs at fast-food restaurants don’t pay enough to cover his bills.

So Repreza is giving thought to a fall-back plan. He talks of selling his 1,200-square-foot house in Lake Los Angeles, a remote desert community in the northeastern corner of Los Angeles County, and using the equity to start a retail business in his native El Salvador.

It isn’t something he or his wife want to do. Most of their close relatives left El Salvador and also live in Southern California.

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The Reprezas also are loathe to give up the modest but comfortable life they have scratched out in this country. Six years ago, with only $3,000 to put down, they bought their Lake Los Angeles house for $65,000.

That gave Repreza a 65-mile commute to work--but also the satisfaction of home ownership in a safe area. There are “no gangs, no bullets,” he said, a refreshing change from the family’s old neighborhood, Lincoln Heights.

And though Repreza has often been angered by his plant’s management policies--as well as union leadership that he regards as weak-willed--he takes pride in helping build the Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds that roll off the plant’s assembly line. “Every time I see one of our cars--even if I’m with friends--I say, ‘Hey, that’s what I do,’ ” he said.

“And I feel ashamed if I see one of our cars (broken down) on the side of the freeway,” he added.

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A short, powerfully built man with an easy smile and dark, wavy hair, Repreza finds his job physically punishing. He spends all day picking up 10-pound brake boosters, carrying them to the cars on the line, then crouching to screw them in.

“At the end of your day, your arms are killing you,” he said. “And all the bending, it hurts your back a lot.”

Still, “for all the time you’re working,” Repreza said, “you have a steady job, so you feel good. There’s satisfaction in knowing you have a steady job.”

And, he said, “I feel better doing what I do best.”

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