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Workers and community take on G.M.: the Van Nuys campaign.


A plant closing is a severe economic blow to town. In October 1982, workers at the General Motors plant in Van Nuys, California, were confronted with the prospect of a closure. But we fought back. We organized the Campaign to Keep G.M. Van Nuys Open. And we did more than talk. We used political and economic tactics, mobilizing community support, threatening a boycott of G.M. cars in the Los Angeles area if the company shut down the plant.

The fate of the Van Nuys plant is still in doubt, but the campaign has made management listen.

On January 23 the Labor/Community Coalition, made up of workers and concerned citizens, had its first meeting with G.M. president F. James MacDonald --part

of a series of discussions to try to head off a plant closing at Van Nuys and a boycott of G.M. products in Los Angeles. Whatever the outcome of those talks, the Van Nuys campaign is an example of what workers faced with a similar situation in their town should do.

At a campaign rally last October 22, more than 500 workers and community leaders filled the union hall of United Auto Workers Local 645 to demand that G.M. executives meet with them. They heard actor Edward Asner praise them for not knuckling under to pressure from one of the nation's biggest corporations. "America's countryside is littered with the shattered hulks of corporate America's broken promises,' Asner said, warning the workers not to swallow G.M.'s public assurances--or be frightened by its private threats.

Also on the dais were the Rev. Luis Olivares from Los Angeles's largest Catholic church, "La Placita,' and Bishop Juan Arzube of the archdiocese of Los Angeles. Father Olivares said: "It is so gratifying to see the church lined up on the side of the oppressed. Far too often it has sided with the oppressors.' He was followed by the Rev. Frank Higgins, president of the 400,000-member Baptist Ministers Conference, who told the audience: "The G.M. plant is over 50 percent Chicano, 15 percent black and 12 percent women--so we minorities are the majority. All that G.M. respects is a big stick, and boycott power is our big stick. If G.M. closes down the Van Nuys plant, we will close down G.M. in Los Angeles.' Manual Hurtado, a Mexican-American auto worker explained, "Without the support of the community we cannot save our plant, and without the initiative and leadership of the workers themselves, there can be no effective movement.'

State Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, Representative Howard Berman and a delegation of twenty-two community leaders from five religious denominations, five national unions and the Mexican-American Political Association called on G.M. to meet with them. Business Week gave the rally a full-page story, warning, "Many union leaders are watching the effort . . . and similar campaigns could begin elsewhere if the tactic of rousing community support for a boycott works.'

G.M. opened its Van Nuys plant in 1947 in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles. At that time, cheap transportation costs made "satellite' assembly plants profitable. As late as 1978 the California auto industry was booming. But when OPEC oil shocks and Japanese competition brought an end to U.S. car makers' unchallenged domination of the domestic market, the Big Three auto companies responded by ruthlessly consolidating their operations, closing plants and laying off workers. They centralized production in the Midwest to reduce shipping costs, retreated from the domestic production of subcompacts (importing them from Japan instead, in joint ventures with Mitsubishi and Isuzu) and focused on a "fewer cars, more profit-per-car' strategy. The California auto worker was marked for extinction. By June 1983, G.M. Van Nuys would be the last remaining auto plant in California.

In January 1980, Ford closed its Pico Rivera plant in Los Angeles; it gave only two weeks' notice. In rapid succession, Mack Truck closed its Hayward plant, G.M. closed its Fremont and Southgate plants and Ford closed its last West Coast plant, in San Jose. But in 1982 there were still 5,000 Van Nuys workers producing Camaros and Firebirds. Both were hot sellers but that didn't stop management: it announced that although the operation was modern, efficient and profitable, G.M. had as many as four excess plants. Because Van Nuys was less profitable than similar factories in the Midwest, it had been put on what the company called the "danger list.' Two weeks later, the second shift was laid off: 2,500 workers on the streets just before Thanksgiving. The company's attempt to frighten us into offering concessions failed. After an all-day strategy meeting attended by more than 250 workers, Local 645 organized the Campaign to Keep G.M. Van Nuys Open.

The laid-off workers planned a demonstration and rally for March 1 to demand that the second shift be put back to work and that G.M. stop its threats to close the plant. We designed posters and buttons, wrote leaflets in Spanish and English and sent speakers to churches, unions and community organizations. A week before the rally, Los Angeles was hit by torrential rains, but our enthusiasm wasn't dampened. We conducted a telephone campaign, engaging fellow members in lengthy political discussions. On March 1 cars were floating in flooded streets and high winds blew the roof off the L.A. Convention Center, but more than 700 people marched in the downpour to express their anger at General Motors and their support for the campaign.

On May 14 more than 1,000 people, flanked by an escort of mounted police, marched down Van Nuys Boulevard, demanding that G.M. keep the plant open. At the rally that followed, United Farm Workers president Cesar Chavez threw his support behind the boycott. "It can be used as a jujitsu because of the ruthless competition in this capitalistic society,' he said. "Los Angeles is the largest new-car market in the U.S., with over 450,000 new cars sold just last year, and G.M. is number one in sales. A 5 percent to 7 percent reduction in their sales in Los Angeles could make the difference between a profit and a loss for many dealers, and could force G.M. to straighten up and fly right.' National media coverage emphasized the threatened boycott, and when G.M. chairman Roger Smith denounced the campaign as "crazy,' we knew we were on the right track.

From May to October the campaign focused on deepening its organizational base. We had long discussions with key clergy, unions and black and Chicano organizations, who pledged that if a boycott was necessary, they would help carry it out. The time to request a community meeting with top G.M. officials had arrived. G.M. had something we wanted: our jobs. We had something G.M. wanted: the power to call off a possible citywide boycott. When workers and communities have power, fruitful discussions with big business can take place. Last December, Smith agreed to meet with our coalition. We have no illusions that those meetings will save our plant. But since G.M. is guided by a hard-nosed philosophy of management rights, its decision to talk with us proves that the campaign is an effective force.

Local 645's fight against G.M. has drawn considerable attention from labor activists. Here are some of the lessons we have learned:

Preserve an adversarial relationship with management. Too many workers facing plant Shutdowns have followed a strategy of appeasement, offering concessions. Unions should understand what used to be taken for granted: the interests of workers and employers are diametrically opposed, and the union's role is to fight the company aggressively. There's a saying that goes, "If you want to fight the company, first get out of bed with it.'

Reject the "war with Japan, peace with G.M.' strategy. The paralyzing anti-imports sentiment also exists in our local, but patient educational work by the leadership has shown workers that G.M., with at least 45 percent of the U.S. car market, has no reason to cry about imports. We have resisted being sidetracked by racist hysteria. No destroying Toyotas with sledgehammers for us. G.M. made more than $2 billion in profits last year, and G.M. can afford to keep our plant open permanently. It is the target, not the Japanese workers.

Break out of the collective-bargaining straitjacket. Most labor-management contracts are stacked in management's favor, and one union local does not have the bargaining leverage to prevent a plant closing. So we rejected G.M.'s contention that the shutdown was a "purely economic issue of the marketplace'; we entered the political arena, where we could mobilize allies in the community, the media and government.

Keep the workers center stage. As media coverage and community support grew and as clerics, lawyers, actors, teachers and other professional people joined in, the campaign could have lost its working-class character. Fortunately, our supporters understood that they must set aside their political concerns and work for the union's objectives. The movement's militancy, flexibility and consistency depend on the political clarity of the auto workers' goals.

Get a union-local president who is willing to lead. Pete Beltran, president of Local 645, is an important figure in the U.A.W. and in the Los Angeles Chicano community. He has spent long hours with campaign organizers and has made our fight his top priority. He explained his passionate commitment: "It had a profound effect on me to see other local presidents, who only a year ago strutted with confidence, watch in horror as their members and then they themselves were thrown into the streets. I swore that if G.M. ever tried to close our plant, we would give them the fight of their life.'

Focus on minority communities. We understood that the impact the shutdown would have on Chicano and black communities was our strong suit in the battle against G.M. By emphasizing the disproportionate hardships minority groups would face, rather than acting as if we were all workers in the same boat (the traditional "color-blind' approach intended to appease the most racist white workers), we have built unity in the local. To do otherwise would underestimate progressive white workers' potential for class consciousness and risk losing the support of the most militant minority workers.

For example, many of the key campaign organizers are Chicanos, but speeches at union meetings had never been translated into Spanish. We organized a drive for our local to buy headsets that would transmit simultaneous translations. We had to contend with some "let them learn English' chauvinism, but after a number of Chicano workers threatened to drop out of the campaign, the local's executive board voted unanimously to buy the equipment. What could have been a major setback to the campaign was averted.

Despite G.M.'s claim that its decision to pull out of California is based solely on economic considerations, its "geographical policy' has a discriminatory effect. Only three years ago there were 20,000 auto workers in California, and at many plants nearly half the workers were Chicanos. The closing of the Van Nuys factory would drive more Chicanos out of the industry and would destroy Local 645, a vital institution in the Latino community. By publicizing the repercussions the plant closing would have on small businesses, the tax base and the political power of the Chicano community, we dramatically expanded our base of support.

Similarly, while Los Angeles's large black community is situated twenty miles away from the plant, the people realize the significance of keeping Van Nuys open. The recent closings of the Goodyear and Firestone tire factories, the Bethlehem Steel works and G.M.'s Southgate facility, all located in the heart of the black community, have been devastating. After the Southgate shutdown, more than 500 workers, most of them black, were transferred to the Van Nuys plant. If it is closed, the number of well-paid industrial jobs for black workers will shrink even more. State Assemblywoman Waters, who represents the Southgate area and whose top legislative priority is the protection of communities against plant closings, said, "While we were too late at Southgate, we will not allow G.M. to run away and close down Van Nuys. We will stand our ground here.'

When the Labor/Community Coalition first demanded a meeting with top G.M. officials, many people said it was a brilliant tactic but the company would never acknowledge us, let alone meet with us. As we continue our discussions with G.M., we are also expanding the base of our coalition, hoping our campaign will continue to provide valuable lessons for the labor movement, and will save the jobs of 5,000 auto workers.
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Author:Mann, Eric
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 11, 1984
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