Plant closings bill showdown

Workers put politicians on the spot

Sacramento, CA

Workers filled every seat in the large hearing room and spilled over into the aisles and upper balcony. At the front, the Democratic members of the California State Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee looked like they wished they were a million miles away. The Republicans, with no “pro-labor” image to worry about, were openly hostile.

For over three hours, workers stepped to the mike and gave bitter, eloquent testimony about what plant closings had done to them, their families, their co-workers and their communities. They blasted the corporate greed which had made it happen. They defied the sweating, uncomfortable legislators to do something about it.

PlantClosingBillThe June 16 hearings climaxed a statewide campaign on behalf of Assembly Bill 2839, sponsored by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles. The Waters Bill would guarantee severance pay and one year’s continued health benefits to victims of major plant shutdowns. It would require employers to give at least six months’ advance notice before closing a plant, or be fined $1,000 for each idled worker. It would require companies planning a shutdown to open their books and make a good faith offer to sell the plant to worker- community groups instead of closing it.

Similar bills are now being considered by 21 state legislatures around the country.

Mass mobilization

Fighting for the Waters Bill has been a major concern of Californians Against Plant Shutdowns (CAPS), a statewide network of labor-community coalitions fighting plant i closings at the local level. The hearings were an impressive show of strength for the five- month-old group. Among the 400 people who jammed the committee chambers were laid-off lumber workers from the north state and workers from the recently closed Bumblebee Tuna plant in San Diego, near the Mexican border. Workers from California’s sole surviving General Motors plant in Van Nuys gave up a day’s pay to join fellow GM workers from Fremont and South Gate, whose plants have already closed. Three busloads of workers made the 16-hour round trip from Los Angeles, while the San Francisco Bay Area sent six more.

To testify for the bill, CAPS mobilized clergymen, union officers and local political officials, as well as a parade of rank and file activists, employed and unemployed.

Few were more eloquent than Mary McDaniel, 25-year veteran of General Electric’s flat iron plant in Ontario and head of the United Electrical Workers local in the plant. Earlier this year, after piling up profits for GE for two generations, the plant’s 1,100 workers were thrown on the street as GE shifted production overseas. (See UNITY, March 12, 1982.)

“GE decided to close that plant ten years ago,” McDaniel told the committee, her voice tense with anger. “Two years ago we read about it in a trade paper. We confronted management, and they said it was a misprint. A misprint! A year later we found out it was true. They didn’t tell us; we found out.

“I’d bought a mobile home. If I’d known I was about to lose my job after 25 years, I wouldn’t have done it…. I’m typical of other workers in that plant, and of a lot of people in this room today.

“Once we learned the truth about GE’s plans, we were able to put pressure on the company to bring about some of the things asked for in this bill. We forced them to give us partial health benefits. But it took intense mobilization of our people . . . . If it takes legislation to protect other workers from having the same thing happen to them, we’re going to have to have it.”

McDaniel brought the crowd to its feet cheering when she concluded, “We’re asking for your support, but we want you to know that if we don’t get it, it won’t stop us. One way or another, we’re going to change things in this country.”

Saving jobs, or saving face?

In fact, few workers at the hearing had any illusions about its probable outcome. The previous week, Democratic legislators met with CAPS organizers and pleaded with them not to “embarrass us” by forcing the issue. They insisted that holding big corporations responsible for the consequences of the plant closings that have already idled 200,000 California workers would be “bad for the business climate” in the state. But they dreaded having to vote the bill down before a large crowd of angry workers.

To improve the bill’s chances of passage, major concessions had already been made. In its original form, the Waters Bill closely followed a proposal which failed by a single vote to pass the Oregon state legislature last year. It would have required 20 months advance notice, fined companies $10,000 per worker for failing to comply, and required them to give laid-l off workers 85% of their regular pay for a full year after the shutdown. This would not merely have given workers needed protection; it would have actively discouraged businesses from closing plants in hopes of easy profits. In its present form, the bill still offers workers important protections, but the incentives to keep plants operating are far weaker.

But even these concessions weren’t enough. After four hours of testimony, the committee still refused to vote on the issue, sending it back to Waters for “fine tuning.” A San Francisco Examiner reporter called it “a polite way of shelving the bill.” Pete Beltran, president of United Auto Workers Local 645 (Van Nuys), spoke for most workers in the room when he said it was “a move by the Democrats who don’t want to get themselves out on a limb.”

Waters vowed to “keep fighting,” but as UNITY goes to press, the bill’s prospects do not look good. Most workers we talked to at the hearing felt it would have been better if the committee had been forced to declare itself one way or another, instead of setting the bill up to be killed off or watered down behind the scenes. All felt, however, that it was a mark of the movement’s growing strength that the Democrats were afraid to expose themselves publicly.

Needed: an independent movement

The outcome of the hearing points up a dilemma faced by the anti-plant closings movement across the country. The battle in the legislative arena is an important part of the fight for job security. The Waters Bill has already served as an effective rallying point for workers in California. The aid of sympathetic Democrats like Maxine Waters was needed in getting the bill before the legislature.

Yet the Democratic Party as a whole, like the Republicans, is committed to the idea that the only way the U.S. will recover from its current economic mess is to give big business more freedom of action, rather than less.  That puts it in direct contradiction to the aims of the anti-plant closings movement – which seeks to restrict the right of business to shut down plants whenever and wherever it pleases, forcing workers, taxpayers and communities to clean up the economic and human wreckage that is left behind.

As the movement gathers momentum, it will have to chart an independent course for itself – one that enables it to unite with politicians when they act in workers’ interest, but leaves it free to attack them when they betray that interest.

Democracy in action?

Before the hearings began on the plant closings bill, supporters went through the Capitol halls lobbying members of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.  A group of us talked with one powerful liberal Democrat in his office.

A Chicano auto worker from Los Angeles did most of the talking.  He spoke passionately about his life and the need for this bill.

“I come from the ghetto,” he said.  “I have worked hard all my life for General Motors.  You would be proud of me.  What will happen if the plant closes?  I will lose everything.  This bill is the only answer I’ve seen.  The businessmen don’t care.  I’m coming to you just like they taught us in school – to come to our representative when we need help.”

During the whole time the worker spoke, the politician stood before us, eating an enchilada.  He was more worried about the sauce dripping onto his $250 flannel slacks than listening to us.

A clergyman joined the discussion, urging the politician to listen.  It was an issue of concern around the state, he pointed out.

With no response, the auto worker began talking once again – angrily this time, raising his voice.  This is a question of the lives of thousands of workers, he exclaimed.

Only when the people’s representative finished his midday snack did he bother to answer.  “There is a problem,” he said, “but this bill is not the answer.  Excuse me, I have two meetings to go to.”

We all looked at each other.  I half expected the auto worker to punch him out.  He didn’t, of course, but someday the people will deal a collective blow to all these phony politicians.

–a Bay Area Machinist