When thousands of United Auto Workers delegates gather in Anaheim on Sunday for the union's national convention, Pete Beltran will be just an observer. He's never been comfortable in that role.
Beltran, president of UAW Local 645 in Van Nuys, says he's marched, picketed and fought for the working class all his life, bucking General Motors and, at times, the national union.
Lately, however, Beltran has been frustrated. He was stung by GM's announcement early last month that it soon will lay off 2,190 workers indefinitely at its Van Nuys assembly plant.
Then, on April 22, the rank and file snubbed Beltran. Union members, many worried that the layoffs could be a prelude to the eventual shutdown of their plant, selected a slate of seven convention delegates who support the "team concept," a GM-backed production method styled after Japanese techniques.
Beltran, who adamantly opposes the idea, finished ninth, making it the first time the local hasn't named its president a delegate to the national convention. Worse yet, as far as Beltran is concerned, negotiators for the local late last week reached a tentative agreement with GM that could bring the team concept to the Van Nuys plant.
Those familiar with the local say Beltran's apparent setbacks reflect a rejection of his old-school, hard-nosed stand against any sort of union concessions. They say it was a victory for the younger, more conciliatory unionists now dominating the labor movement.
The recent developments also would seem to signal the waning of Beltran's career as a union politician, although observers say it is too early to count him out.
Certainly Beltran, the 46-year-old son of Mexican-American parents who worked on a cotton ranch, has suffered setbacks before. For example, in 1984, workers in the local ratified by almost a 2-to-1 margin a national contract agreement that Beltran had outspokenly opposed.
Beltran, however, now faces a powerful and self-assured challenger in Ray Ruiz, 31, who as the union's shop chairman led the winning slate of convention delegates. Ruiz, who also is the local's bargaining committee chairman, and Bruce Lee, Western regional director of the UAW, were the negotiating team that agreed on the concept proposals last week.
Peter Zapata Beltran was born in El Paso and grew up in San Fernando. (Emiliano Zapata, for whom he is named, was a Mexican revolutionary and agrarian reformer.) Beltran graduated from high school in 1958, and like many of the workers he represents, his first job out of school was at the GM plant in Van Nuys.
Inspired by Reuther
In 1966, Beltran attended his first UAW convention, where he was moved by the words of the late Walter Reuther, the militant president of the UAW from 1946 to 1970 and a major inspiration for Beltran and many of his counterparts.
Beltran moved to Salinas in 1975 to become regional director for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, an arbitration agency. Frustrated by funding problems, Beltran returned to the assembly line in Van Nuys a year later, working in the hard-trim department, where such parts as dashboards and mirrors are installed. He soon re-entered the local's politics, was elected president in 1978 and has held the job ever since.
Beltran discounted his recent loss in the convention delegate election. He said he did not campaign for a seat and noted that only 1,800 of the 4,300 eligible union members voted. Moreover, his three-year term doesn't end until June, 1987, and union officials from both camps say Beltran easily can regain support by then. Observers say that much of Beltran's opposition might be short-lived, inspired by the big layoff now scheduled for July 7.
All the same, the vote has taken a toll on Beltran.
"Pete's been hurt bad," said Rodolfo Acuna, a Chicano studies professor at California State University, Northridge, who has followed the local's politics. "He doesn't talk about it much. But you can see the pain."
Rebecca Morales, who teaches urban affairs at UCLA, said Beltran was deeply hurt by the local's recent vote because the convention this year, which will have more than 7,000 delegates, will be held in Southern California, where the Van Nuys factory is the only operating auto plant.
Beltran says he was instrumental in Ruiz's ascension in the local's politics and thus feels betrayed.
"I supported him. I saw something in him, that he would develop into a good leader," said Beltran, the anger growing in his long face. "Now, he is attacking me unscrupulously."
Ruiz says he was trained by Beltran at union leadership seminars but does not consider him a mentor. He says he got help getting started from Jerry Shrieves, who preceded Ruiz in his union post and now works on the assembly line.