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GloboCars: THE NEXT CENTURY : Workers Recall Their Lives on the Line

March 01, 1994|LINUS CHUA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was a time when Southern California prided itself as a top auto manufacturing center--second only to Detroit. In South Gate, Commerce, Pico Rivera and Van Nuys, the Big Three auto makers churned out vehicles for a state and city that were wedded to the car, where freeways had surpassed palm trees as a civic symbol.

Men and women on the production lines earned a good wage for bone-wearying work. At the high point, more than 8,000 auto workers filled the plants around Los Angeles and shared the benefits of Southern California's boom economy.

There was a tight friendship on the line that spilled over to after-work activities. They were a family, and no strikes, layoffs or pay cuts could take that security from them.

All that changed in the past two decades. The oil crises of the '70s drove down demand for luxury cars. Foreign competitors shipped in compacts, giving local auto makers a run for their money. Detroit consolidated.

In 1971, Chrysler closed its plant in the City of Commerce. Nine years later, Ford shut down at Pico Rivera. General Motors folded its South Gate plant in 1982, after a brief effort to compete with "J" cars--compact Chevrolet Cavaliers. GM auto workers in Van Nuys thought their plant would never shut down, but it rolled out its last car--a flame-red Chevrolet Camaro--in August, 1992.

Today, all that remains of big-time auto production in California is a GM-Toyota joint venture in Fremont, which is making GM's Geo Prizms and Toyota Corollas.

In Los Angeles, there are only memories for now, and three former auto workers share theirs in this look at an era not long gone.

'We used to work almost 10 hours a day'

When Jessie Dominguez was 17, he left college after one semester to go to work at GM's Van Nuys plant, hoping to make enough money to buy a car and then return to classes. Instead, he stayed almost 19 years, married and fathered three children. After the plant shut down in 1992, Dominguez and his family lived in limbo for a while. Now 37, he's back in school at Valley College, pursuing a degree in communications.

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When I was hired by General Motors, I went right to the assembly line. Because of my youth, I was put into a very hard job there. I worked on the assembly line where I'd install steering columns in the cars. I would wire them up and secure them, bolt them down to floorboard and to the column. We used to work almost 10 hours a day. Back then, it was very common.

I went from that to what they called an ARO, which is an absentee replacement operator. Because I was able to learn a lot of jobs, you know, whenever somebody was sick, absent from work or was out on vacation, I would take over their jobs. I had to know at least 20 jobs. And the pay you got, I think, was a nickel (per hour) more for knowing that.

So, that's when I started doing my next job--in repairs, and I did that for a number of years. At that point, say in '83, that was when I started getting involved with the union. I ran for an office in '84, and I became an executive board member. A lot of people knew my father (who was a union representative) very well. Because of my father's name, and because I was his son, for that reason, I became heavily involved in the union. . . .

My work was like part of my life. It was the kind of work I enjoy. Working for the union, you work at a nonstop basis. You're not just a representative, you're a lot of times a confidant of the people. You're a social worker on one term and a negotiator with the management on another.

Even when I worked on the assembly line, I enjoyed my work. I took pride in my work. I have no problem telling people I work for General Motors, I build cars. Working in an auto plant, you had a sense of prestige. We had a sense of, how do you say, satisfaction building cars. We didn't look at it as just, oh, it's just a product. We look at it as it's part of America. . . .

I have a lot of friends that call me on the phone and ask me how I'm doing. Everywhere I go, to any shopping mall, anyplace, I always see someone from General Motors, and it's different. Every auto worker, when we see each other on the street, we'd stop, we'd hug, or hand shake, whatever the case may be, and we ask how you're doing, and we talk. The closeness is something I couldn't even describe. Because you grew up together. I went to General Motors as a teen-ager, became a young man and ultimately entered manhood at General Motors. . . .

What General Motors was doing was downsizing. The only auto plant that was remaining (in Southern California) was us. . . . In July '91, I think it was the second week, they ushered us all out to a meeting in the back yard. They brought in an individual from Detroit, Mich., one of their (General Motors') spokesmen. He came out with his speech, which was supposed to be, hey, General Motors' reasoning why they had to close the plant, and then announced the plant would close a year later.

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