Southern California's long history as an auto manufacturing center ended Thursday morning when a flame-red Chevrolet Camaro rolled off the assembly line at the General Motors plant in Van Nuys, the last of 6.3 million vehicles built there over 45 years.
The GM plant once symbolized the region's manufacturing might, and it helped foster development in surrounding San Fernando Valley communities. But in recent years, the world's largest auto maker has been hit with stiff competition from the Japanese, huge financial losses and a shrinking U.S. market share.
The Van Nuys factory, which also made Pontiac Firebirds, was the last auto plant in Southern California. Its demise--announced to the plant's 2,600 workers a year ago--follows the closure in the early 1980s of a Ford Motor Co. plant in Pico Rivera and a GM plant in South Gate and the 1971 shutdown of a Chrysler Corp. plant in City of Commerce. Today there is only one auto-manufacturing facility in the state--a GM-Toyota joint venture in Fremont that builds GM's Geo Prizm and the Toyota Corolla. Most domestic auto manufacturing is now in the South and Midwest, where suppliers are closer and labor is cheaper.
"It's sad for the auto industry, sad for GM to leave Southern California," said Pat Morrissey, a GM spokesman. "But if we're going to compete, this is what needs to be done."
When their final shifts ended Thursday, hundreds of workers lingered on the grounds or across the street at the United Auto Workers Local 645 headquarters, bidding farewell to friends. The GM workers averaged 20 years of service at the plant.
Jose Casas, who retired from GM last year, stopped by to play mariachi music for his former co-workers.
But the mood was far from festive. Some workers complained that GM tried to put a happy face on a sad event.
"Last week they gave us a medallion and a barbecue picnic," said Manuel Olimpio, a 15-year assembler at the plant. "We don't need all that. We need a job," he said, wearing a T-shirt that said, "GM Sucks." Other workers wore shirts bearing the message: "UAW Local 645--'Unemployed' Auto Workers."
The plant's closure had been anticipated for years. GM said in 1989 that it planned to move production of Camaros and Firebirds to a newer plant in St. Therese, Canada, but employees held out hope that the auto maker would bring new models to the Van Nuys facility. That prospect vanished a year ago with GM's announcement that the plant would close this month.
Loss of the plant and its 2,600 jobs--mostly factory-floor positions paying $17 to $18 an hour--comes at a time of deep economic malaise in Southern California. The jobless rate in Los Angeles County tops 10%, and thousands of aerospace and defense jobs have been lost.
The closure "is quite a bomb," said Councilman Ernani Bernardi, who represents the 7th District that includes the Van Nuys plant. "This is a substantial financial loss to the whole community," he said, noting that many of the plant's small suppliers are likely to suffer.
The impact on the laid-off workers will be softened by generous benefits provided under the UAW's contract with GM. Employees who attend classes and retraining programs offered by GM will receive full wages and benefits until the current contract expires in September, 1993. Others will collect 85% of their normal salaries.
About 220 of the 300 white-collar employees at the plant are relocating to other GM sites, while the rest are retiring.
Many production workers said they hoped to land jobs elsewhere in GM.
Company spokesman Edmond J. Dilworth Jr. said some workers might get positions at the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., and he is "optimistic that eventually everyone who wants to work somewhere else will get a job."
But some workers were skeptical. "That's what they're saying, but we know different," said John Ashby, a 27-year GM veteran who worked as an assembly line inspector. "Your chances of going somewhere else are very slim."
Virginia Miramontes, who was the plant's first female production employee in 1970, said she fears that she and her husband--who works in the depressed construction industry--will both be out of work.
"It's been the good life for us," Miramontes said. "Now the door is closing . . . ."
GM said the plant closure was necessary to help stem huge losses. After losing $4.5 billion in 1991, the company announced a massive restructuring that includes closing 21 plants and trimming 74,000 workers in North America by 1995.
At various times the Van Nuys plant, built in 1947, churned out Chevrolet trucks, Corvairs, Monte Carlos, Chevelles and Novas, as well as Oldsmobile Omegas and Pontiac Venturas.
Dilworth said there's been no decision regarding the future of the 100-acre site. He said GM has no offers from prospective buyers but that the company's real estate division will soon begin looking for alternative uses of the property.
The last car to roll down the assembly line was a custom-built Camaro that was ordered by a 33-year-old Iowa car buff.
As the car worked its way down the line, the new owner, Leonard Stevenson, watched as GM workers signed the inside of the auto's hood.
Abigail Martin, 50, recalled that she was the first production employee to become pregnant while working at the plant. Her son, now 19, was nicknamed "Chevy Jr."
Martin, who is retiring after 22 years at GM, said it is painful to see the plant close. "Seeing this go," she said, "is like a scar that's going to take a long time to heal."
Key Dates in Van Nuys Plant's History 1946: Groundbreaking at the plant. December, 1947: Plant opens and production of cars and trucks begins. August, 1948: By a 3 to 1 vote, workers vote for representation by the United Auto Workers. September, 1954: Plant begins producing V-8 engines. August, 1962: Production of Corvairs begins. 1979: Plant attains highest level of employment at 5,132. 1984: GM says it is considering closing the Van Nuys plant. May, 1987: As an alternative to closing plant, the UAW and GM management agree to implement Japanese-style production techniques. including having employees work in teams on entire sections of vehicles instead of performing only one task. The team concept eliminates many job classifications and some union-supported work rules. August, 1987: GM closes plant in Norwood, Ohio--the only facility other than Van Nuys producing Firebirds and Camaros. October, 1989: GM announces that Firebirds and Camaros will not be manufactured at the Van Nuys plant after the 1992 model year. The facility functions as a "flex-plant" with capabilities to respond to market demand. April, 1990: GM says that an internal study finds that the Van Nuys plant has 676 problems per 100 cars produced--the poorest production quality among the 21 plants studied. October, 1990: GM reports the largest quarterly loss in automotive history: $2 billion. January, 1991: GM announces that the second shift will be cut and 900 workers laid off indefinitely at the plant. July, 1991: GM announces that Van Nuys plant is slated to close in August 1992. December, 1991: GM discloses nationwide plans to close 21 operations and eliminate 74,000 jobs by 1995. August 27, 1992: Van Nuys plant--Southern California's last remaining auto factory--closes.