SOUTH GATE — For members of the retirees' chapter of United Auto Workers Local 216, the meeting this month was like witnessing the loss of an old friend. It was the last gathering in the hall that has been the chapter's home for 36 years.
The hall, on Tweedy Boulevard, is being converted to accommodate a UAW job-training program, following UAW International's decision to revoke Local 216's charter at the end of May.
As their last official act in the old meeting place, the 500 assembled chapter members and their spouses joined hands and sang the union anthem, "Solidarity Forever." The chorus reverberated with emotional voices: "Solidarity forever; the union makes us strong."
End of a Chapter
Closing the hall ends a chapter of South Gate history and resolves the last question left dangling by General Motors' announcement, two years ago, that it would not reopen the South Gate plant where the Local 216 members worked. That question was whether the retired members would get to keep their meeting place.
"I'm not surprised," said one retired auto worker who had belonged to the local 35 years. "When they close a plant, the international takes over the local chapter."
The dreaded topic was the last item on the meeting agenda, and the local retirees' chairman, Harold Clements, tried to reassure the apprehensive members.
"Like you, I am sad to be leaving our home," said Clements, 65, a veteran of the South Gate plant. But he suggested that members take some consolation in the fact that the hall would remain in union hands.
Moving to Pico Rivera
The retirees' chapter will move to the headquarters of Local 509 in Pico Rivera. Clements assured members that although "it's not home yet, it's a very nice hall."
Members seemed to be taking the move in stride. They asked where they would go now to take care of medical claims, or whether the new hall has adequate parking space. (Clements assured them it did. He said members could continue to check on their benefits through the South Gate UAW office.)
Trouble for Local 216 began three years ago, when GM decided the South Gate plant, which opened in 1936, should be closed temporarily. Auto sales were down nationwide, and the plant had just been retooled to produce a model that was selling poorly.
GM announced in 1983 that the plant would remain closed permanently, throwing the active worker's chapter into dormancy and leaving the future of the old meeting hall uncertain.
Funds Kept Hall Open
The chapter was able to keep the hall open for the last two years because it had enough funds saved to pay the costs. Also, the UAW regional director, Bruce Lee, persuaded the international not to revoke the charter for a while, said Henry Gonzales, assistant regional director.
When GM told the UAW in March that it was trying to sell the plant, the UAW decided Local 216's grace period had run out, Gonzales said. The international union, he added, did not allow the retirees to keep the hall because, once its fund is exhausted, their dues of $1 a month will not cover the cost of the hall's insurance, taxes, utilities and maintenance.
"They let them have their own local autonomy, but when they can't pay, the international takes over," Gonzales said. Despite the hall's sentimental value, he said, "the international is not going to subsidize the local union."
Because the hall "is history," the international union decided to use it for its training program, Gonzales said, rather than sell it.
The loss of the old meeting place was still upsetting, though.
"We were up at the conference in Fremont making the formal report, and I'll tell you, some people started to cry," said Gonzales, who worked 12 years at the South Gate plant. "I was choked up."
In an interview after the final meeting, Clements said that the retirees "all had hopes that someday (the plant) would reopen." Some of the members, he said, had worked there when it opened.
"It's sad to leave a place that's been such a big part of your life," Clements said, "but we'll be happy in the new place."