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Nagging Fears Persist as Several Other Factories Close : GM Workers at Van Nuys Express Relief

November 07, 1986|ALAN GOLDSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

Workers at the sprawling General Motors plant in Van Nuys expressed relief Thursday at news that the long-endangered plant got a reprieve from a wave of factory closings announced by the nation's leading auto maker.

But the good news was tempered by nagging worries. Both company and United Auto Workers officials said the status of the facility, the last auto plant in Southern California, remains uncertain beyond the next few years.

"There are no guarantees," said Phil Sais, 50, a relief worker from Pacoima who has worked for GM for more than 27 years. "It could be a year or two years. Who knows?"

Workers at the Van Nuys plant--which has 2,500 hourly workers and 350 salaried personnel along with 2,190 production employees on indefinite layoff--were told about GM's decisions at an 8 a.m. meeting. Most appeared to be pleased by the news, some even dancing beside the assembly line after returning to their workplaces.

"It's tremendous," said Gil Luna Jr., 28, an assembly worker from Mission Hills who attaches the rear windows to the new Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds made at the plant. "It's great to have news like this before Christmas."

"I was surprised, and I'm going to do something special," said Alan Killiam, 30, while adjusting windows on autos rolling down the assembly line. "I'm going to buy something new, like a new car, and it would be a Chevrolet."

Although the plant now produces Camaros and Firebirds, GM has said it may phase out production of those models as soon as the early 1990s. And there were no long-sought promises from GM on Thursday that the Van Nuys assembly plant will get a new model to manufacture.

At a Detroit news conference, GM President F. James McDonald did say that the company may bring back the second shift of 2,190 production employees on indefinite layoff since July, but there was no word on whether GM will retool the Van Nuys facility.

UAW Regional Director Bruce Lee said he expects the workers to be called back next year.

The decision to spare the 39-year-old Van Nuys plant came at the expense of a sister plant in Norwood, Ohio, near Cincinnati, that makes the same model cars. GM officials said that plant, which employs 4,300, will be shut down by mid-1988. GM said it will close another 10 plants in the Midwest over the next several years, putting a total of 29,000 people out of work.

Nevertheless, many workers said they felt sorry for their counterparts in other states affected by the closings. In addition, some expressed worries about their own plant.

Company officials differed over why Norwood was picked for closing while Van Nuys was spared. McDonald said the Norwood facility would be closed mainly because it is an aging, multistory plant, like many of the others targeted for closing.

He said the Ohio facility, located in a congested urban setting, would be difficult to renovate. Newer auto plants tend to be sprawling single-story buildings with lots of room for expansion or modification of production systems.

"Norwood is certainly a land-locked plant, and it just doesn't look like it has a future," McDonald said. "We hope that Van Nuys will. But we have to keep looking at that."

At a separate news conference in Van Nuys, however, company and union officials said the local facility was saved mainly because UAW Local 645, which represents the workers, narrowly approved GM-backed Japanese-style management techniques in May.

The only other factory using the techniques, known as the team concept, is the GM-Toyota joint venture in Fremont, Calif. The Van Nuys plant manager, Ernest D. Schaefer, said the facility's future depends on its ability to execute the team concept.

"If we're successful . . . then this plant has nothing to worry about," he said. "On the other hand, if we don't do a good job, then we, like all the other plants in the General Motors system, will appear on the endangered species list. "

But Local 645's president, Peter Z. Beltran, who has vigorously opposed team concept, said the plan would cut jobs at the plant.

"It's one thing to negotiate, but you don't need a union to give things away," Beltran said. Beltran said he believed that the Van Nuys plant was saved because it is more efficient than the Norwood factory.

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