VAN NUYS — Peter Z. Beltran, the controversial United Auto Workers shop chairman who unsuccessfully tried to block a Japanese manufacturing method from being installed at the General Motors Van Nuys plant, said he has not shown up for work at least 40% of the time since being elected in June.
In an interview, he blamed his absences on a serious illness, which he declined to specify, and said he is applying for 30 to 45 days of sick leave.
But Jerry Shrieves, the local UAW president, said many Van Nuys GM workers have become dissatisfied with Beltran and may launch a recall campaign. "There is a lot of unrest in there because of his absences, so something may be forthcoming," he said. Beltran, Shrieves added, "has let down a lot of people who elected him."
As UAW shop chairman, Beltran, 47, is in charge of local contract negotiations and oversees workers' grievances. Earlier this year, he resigned as president of the UAW local to campaign for the post of shop chairman, believing that would furnish him a better position to unhinge the new manufacturing method, known as Team Concept.
In Team Concept, employees work in groups or teams on entire sections of a car instead of performing a single repetitive task. Team Concept narrowed down 170 job classifications to two: team leader and team member.
The aim is to cut the number of defects in the Pontiac Firebirds and Chevrolet Camaros produced at Van Nuys. Beltran contends that Team Concept is merely an excuse to trim the work force and overtax employees.
In his campaign against the new work method, Beltran has repeatedly clashed with both GM officials and the UAW. In April, he unsuccessfully sued GM to halt the new program. Team Concept was implemented in May. In June, Beltran was elected shop chairman by a narrow margin, while most other officials elected to local UAW posts were pro-Team Concept, including Shrieves.
Over the next several months, Beltran threatened GM with a walkout and a strike and called for the resignation of UAW President Owen Bieber.
Beltran received no support from regional or national UAW officials, most of whom favor Team Concept. And his actions deeply divided both the Van Nuys work force and the local union.
Last month, GM workers nationwide ratified a new contract package with the company, which enables Team Concept to stay in place.
Since the contract negotiations, Shrieves said of Beltran, "I have been unable to find out anything about his whereabouts or what he intends to do."
Since Beltran took office in June, Shrieves estimates that "he has missed 80% of the time."
Workers at GM's Van Nuys plant are upset about Beltran's frequent absences because his responsibilities include making sure the company follows national and local contracts. "I work on the line, and workers say they haven't seen Pete, and there are problems with Team Concept that they want rectified," said Mike Gomez, a GM worker and Beltran supporter.
Beltran said he has missed work only 40% of the time. As shop chairman, he is expected to work at least four hours a day inside the plant. He is then allowed to work up to four hours a day outside the plant on union business.
Those four hours a day outside the plant are under dispute by Beltran and GM. The company said it has no record of Beltran working many of those hours outside the plant, and has not paid him for them. In June, Beltran said, he filed a grievance against the company.
"Unlike the former chairman, when I leave the plant, they want me to punch in and out, and they want me to tell them what I'm going to do or who I'm going to see, and that's something I can't live with," Beltran said.
GM personnel director Jim Gaunt disagreed. "We do not request that he give us the particulars of his business. If we didn't know he was out of the plant, how would we know how to pay him to begin with?"
Beltran said that after he comes back to work, he plans early next year to launch his own recall effort against the national UAW leadership. "I think Team Concept will backfire against the national union leadership," he said. "I will do everything in my power to push that dissent."
But Shrieves said Beltran is a lame duck for the rest of his term, which ends in June, 1989. "There's nothing he can do to change anything," Shrieves said.