August 27, 2022, marked the thirtieth anniversary of the permanent closure of the General Motors Van Nuys plant. Local periodicals observed the date by profiling the last Chevrolet Camaro to roll off the Van Nuys assembly line. Signed by over 2000 auto plant workers, the red interior and black laced Camaro symbolized “a vanished era of labor” that had defined the San Fernando Valley during the latter twentieth century. Industrial hubs like the General Motors auto plant (Van Nuys) the Rocketdyne aero jet facility (Canoga Park), and the Lockheed-Martin Vega factory (Burbank) had transformed the bucolic flatlands of the San Fernando Valley into a locus of post-World War II defense and automobile manufacturing. But by August 1992, those days were decidedly over. The Valley’s industrial crown jewel—the GM auto plant—is now “The Plant,” a diffuse shopping center of box stores.
For the thousands of auto plant workers who lost their jobs on August 27th, 1992, the thirtieth anniversary of the plant’s closure is especially poignant. Many had worked to meet their ‘30 years and out’ retirement plans when GM shuttered its Van Nuys doors. Now, those same workers would have to contend with what ‘thirty years out’ had meant for them, their families, and their friends. What was it like to work at GM Van Nuys on the eve of closure? How did plant closure alter workers’ realities and communities? Studying how former auto workers forged a sense of belonging in the face of imminent plant closure and in its aftermath enhances our understanding of deindustrialization and its varied legacies, particularly in Southern California. It offers insights into how late twentieth-century economic restructuring, especially the decline of US auto manufacturing, produced liminal identities and new forms of social membership.
Unlike other deindustrializing cities in the Northeast and Midwest, little has been written of the 2,600 employees who either lost their jobs when the Van Nuys plant shut its doors or parted ways in anticipation of its closure. But “rust” also came to the Sunbelt. Plant closure catapulted workers into a state of limbo. A considerable number became transplants and quickly relocated to extant plants in the Midwest. Others stayed put in the San Fernando Valley. A sizeable number of these former employees took the company buyout and retired without full pensions. Others collected unemployment while they waited for their local chapter, United Auto Workers 645, to broker a longer-term, potentially more comprehensive deal with management. Still others traded industrial labor for the service sector after training at regional community colleges. The economic phenomenon of deindustrialization had arrived in Southern California.
In the aftermath of plant closure, auto workers faced the formidable task of forging a new sense of belonging. The Van Nuys plant had granted workers earning power to purchase homes and support their families. But it had also been a site of solidarity, friendship, and chosen family. As many labor historians have observed, closed shops like the GM auto plant built not just industrial commodities but also communities. Out of exacting manual labor came kinship networks. Writing about auto workers in the industrial Midwest, historian Steven High notes that “memories of factory work tended to be framed around the metaphor of home and family. Working in the mill or factory was invariably described in interviews in familiar terms: ‘a home atmosphere,’ ‘a second home,’ or a ‘family affair.’” When the Van Nuys plant closed, those workplace families would change and members would have to find ways to reconstitute their attachment to each other and the place they called home.
General Motors opened the Van Nuys plant in 1947. Initially the plant offered one shift for over one thousand workers. Line workers built Chevrolet trucks and shells for GM’s Fisher Body Division. By the early 1970s, the plant had a second shift and nearly 3000 employees. In 1977, assembly transitioned to the sexy but inefficient Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds. At the height of the plant’s production two years later, just over 5000 unionized workers reported daily for work. With thousands of employees spread across five divisions and divided into two shifts, employees developed simple but effective means of establishing community.
As Alex Gomez, a thirty-eight-year GM veteran notes, a sense of belonging among workers began the day he arrived at the job: “[Management] gives you three days to learn a job, and if you didn’t learn the job, they’d try you on another job. And if you can’t get that one, then you’re out the door.” The pressure workers faced while being “hired in” created a sense of vulnerability that more seasoned workers met with care and compassion. “When I started in the final line, in the bumper pit, they told me to go in the pit and I had to tighten the front, the front driver’s side bumpers, while the guys were literally back-to-back on a real narrow pit. The people with me were a tall Black guy named Key and then the one above me was another Black guy named Willie. You know they’d tell me ‘Hey kid, let us know if you have any problems, we’ll try to fix it before we have to stop the line.’” Alex was hired in on August 13, 1973, in large part thanks to his buddies in the pit.
For other workers on the line, it was not gate loading, spot welding, or soft trimming that fused social bonds. For example, the plant was too loud. As one former auto worker elaborated, “We can have a conversation with the operator next to us, but in intervals because the plant floor is loud, we can’t hear. There are bells, and buzzers, and the clink of the chain and the voices of hundreds of people.” Instead, workers shared leisure moments at nearby “satellite areas.” UAW records bear clues of how workers bonded in these satellite areas. For instance, on December 30th, 1970, representatives of the UAW Local 645 lobbied management for heartier vending machine food: “The Union stated that the meat in the sandwiches in the vending machines is very meager, particularly in the barbeque beef sandwiches. Furthermore, some food dated 12/22 was vended on 12/29 in the final repair area.” One can imagine what repair area workers had to say to each other and to their union about those measly and expired barbeque beef sandwiches. Management refused to put televisions in the plant’s cafeteria or other satellite areas so coworkers exchanged words in those spaces. At times those words were acrimonious. Most times, though, they helped forge lifelong friendships. Ernie Combs, a veteran worker of thirty years, reflected that “I had a lot of friends. I had a lot, you know, and that many years, you, you get kind of dependent, you’re dependent on the place for your livelihood.”
Satellite areas were one place that workers established community. The most popular spaces, however, were local businesses where workers decompressed on their lunch breaks or after their shifts. There was Mike’s Pizza and Carl’s Jr. But it was the three nearby dive bars that best fostered community among workers. As Roger Hammon reflected, “As for nearby outside activities, the bars across the street were the closest places to go during lunch breaks and after work, and I can remember two of them: The Trophy Room and Chevy Ho.” Ernie Combs also remembered sharing pints at Chevy Ho’s with his coworkers: “Most everybody liked to drink beer.” If it wasn’t Chevy Ho or the Trophy Room, it was Opie’s, a watering hole owned by Flower Ny, a woman of Vietnamese descent.
Besides beer and conversation, the bars offered workers a seat to rest their weary bones. As one auto worker recalled about the body shop, “The line starts and we move sideways, continuously as we work, we can’t stand still because the line will move away from us. The floor is concrete, and if we are lucky we’ll have a decent mat beneath our feet. If not, we better have on good shoes, and then it really doesn’t matter…our feet are going to hurt. We will be on our feet all day, eight hours, nine hours, ten hours, eleven hours.” One can viscerally feel the relief of an open bar stool.
At Chevy Ho’s or Opie’s, it’s likely that workers discussed their shifts, gossiped about friction between union and management, or shared news of their families. It’s also likely that they planned their next camping or fishing trip. A beloved pastime of Ernie Combs and his four closest plant buddies, fishing, became one of the ways plant workers shared their time off: “My best friends were Mexican guys, and a couple Black guys. We liked to fish and we’d go down to Yuma [Arizona]. And we enjoyed each other’s company all the time. Yeah. We’d go fishing every chance we got, take vacations and go fishing down to Yuma…we would go down there sometimes and spend a week and a half on the canal, fishing for catfish, and have a good time.”
Ernie Combs’ fishing crew symbolized how plant work fostered friendships across racial lines. Indeed, multiracialism was a defining feature of the GM auto plant in Van Nuys and belied monolithic representations of the San Fernando Valley as the wellspring of white “homeowner populism” and the antibusing movement. As one Los Angeles Times reporter put it, “Inside the plant, Grandy, a white Minnesota native, worked alongside an African American from Louisiana, a Mexican immigrant and an Asian American from San Francisco. All were lured to the factory by high wages that promised a better life. Despite their different backgrounds, many workers say they formed lasting kinships, a bond that made the hard labor bearable.” If plant work did not necessarily build friendships across the color line, it at least put individuals of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in close proximity. As Mark Masaoka, an electrician and unit chairman of Local 645 explained it, “[the work] was a valuable way for people of various races to get socialized. You may not eat lunch with black workers, but you work next to them and talk to them and learn about their communities, their lives.” In a city marred by residential discrimination, the plant helped dismantle spatial segregation and racial biases.
Throughout the early 1970s, workers at the Van Nuys plant weathered general strikes and temporary layoffs. The temporary layoffs cautioned workers about what they stood to lose if the plant closed. Alex Gomez recalled the eighteen-month layoff he and his buddies faced from 1974 to 1976: “I was getting tired of partying and there was nothing to do, I was wondering if I was gonna have a job later.” Initially, workers relished the free time and late nights. Soon, they languished in abeyance and longed to be back at the plant. The work provided purpose and structure. It was where they communed with friends. And the money was not bad either. In the mid-1970s workers’ hourly wages averaged $6 or $7, over $30 today.
Then came the closures.
For decades, California had the most reliable and profitable market for automobile production and sales. But by the late 1970s, a perfect storm of international competition, oil crises, and stagflation led the Big Three (Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors) to fundamentally restructure domestic manufacturing, especially in California. Rather than absorb shipping and labor expenses for a nationwide production system, executives chose to centralize auto production in the Midwest or across the border in Canada.
Between 1980 and 1983, six of California’s auto plants closed. The closure of the General Motors plant in South Gate was deeply felt by Van Nuys workers. As the historian Becky Nicolaides explains, “South Gate lay directly in the line of fire, losing more than 12,500 jobs by the mid-1980s.” When the GM plant in South Gate closed in 1983, hundreds of African American workers who resided in South Los Angeles became transplants at the Van Nuys plant. In the late 1980s, Eric Mann, a long-term civil rights and labor activist, and leader of the campaign to keep the Van Nuys plant reflected on the South Gate closure: “With closure of the GM Southgate plant, many workers transferred to Van Nuys, of whom approximately 50 percent were Black. Many of the Southgate workers live in the South Central Los Angeles area, the heart of L.A.’s Black community, in cities like Lynwood, Maywood, Inglewood, and Compton.”
South Gate transplants who landed at the Van Nuys plant joined a greater diaspora of auto workers that had grown considerably by 1983. As High observed, auto plant closures, especially those in and around Detroit, produced a growing population of displaced workers. “I-75 Gypsies,” as they self-identified, traveled from plant to plant, often without their families, in the hopes of accruing enough work to retire with a full pension. As one of High’s interlocutors reflected, “We are the people who shut down plants up and down I-75. We have no home plants. We are very hardened people. We are very thick-skinned but we were also very good people because we’ve been at all the battles in the war called the automotive industry.”
Like the I-75 gypsies, South Gate transplants existed in a liminal space between their former lives at the South Gate plant and their new posts in Van Nuys. As Mann notes, writing in the late 1980s, “[South Gate workers] drive over forty miles each way to work, since they do not want to give up their homes, and, after having lived through one plant closing, they certainly won’t uproot themselves based on the tenuous long-term future at Van Nuys.” Even though most South Gate transplants were able to keep their homes, plant closure meant adjusting to lengthy commutes, and a new workplace culture. Although it took time for South Gate transplants to acclimate to the culture of the Van Nuys plant, it was, ironically, company threats of closure that would help transplants find a sense of belonging at their new location.
By 1981, GM’s plans to reduce production in California were common knowledge. A small group of Van Nuys workers, led by Pete Beltran, UAW 645 President, and Mann, then a recent transplant from the GM Milpitas plant, began quietly mobilizing to resist plant closure. Mann and Beltran harnessed their experience as veterans in the Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Asian/Pacific, civil rights, and antiwar movements to strategize a successful movement far in advance of any announcements made by management. They spent the next two years building a multiracial coalition of auto workers. They framed their campaign in a larger, more transnational struggle against U.S. imperialism and white supremacy.
Mann and Beltran understood that auto workers experienced differential racialization and, as organizers, they would have to address those differences with sensitivity. For instance, although the majority of Van Nuys auto workers were Latinx, they experienced racial discrimination distinctly. Campaign organizers noted that Chicano workers, often with higher levels of seniority in the plant, and bearing the scars of linguistic discrimination, did not necessarily want the campaign to be bilingual. Whereas more recent Mexican immigrant workers felt strongly that all materials be translated into Spanish and all meetings be held in both English and Spanish. More to the point, many monolingual Mexican workers felt that the translation provided at organizing meetings was insufficient. The solution they proposed was to purchase United Nations-style headphones and hire skilled interpreters for larger organizational meetings.
As a transplant himself, Mann was aware that seniority could hinder unity among home plant and transplant auto workers at Van Nuys. Indeed in 1983, when the campaign was on the verge of going public, GM had only recently closed its plant in South Gate. At first Van Nuys workers looked upon South Gate transplants with suspicion. If former South Gate workers came with seniority, they could bump a Van Nuys worker from his or her position or shift. On the other hand, South Gate workers could easily become resentful of Van Nuys workers who had better jobs but far less time than them in the company. Mann knew he would have to convince these workers of their mutual dependence and what they all risked losing if the Van Nuys plant closed for good.
Mann, Beltran, and the campaign’s other leaders maintained that the campaign’s success hinged on the involvement of the city’s Black and Latinx communities.  Because the Van Nuys plant had been so profitable—and that it was one of the last auto plants in Los Angeles—it attracted workers not just from the San Fernando Valley but across Los Angeles county. As Mann noted, “GM Van Nuys had its tentacles, you could say, in so many parts of the city.” Considering that the Van Nuys workforce was predominantly Latinx, it was less challenging for campaign leaders to amass support from the city’s most prominent Latinx civil rights and labor leaders. Dr. Rodolfo Acuña, of California State University, Northridge, was one of the first to lend his support. The renowned Father Luis Olivares soon joined and became a highly vocal supporter. The campaign even got Cesar Chávez to speak at their inaugural rally on May 15, 1983.
Leaders within the Black community, however, had their own concerns. When campaign leaders attended the Baptist Ministers Conference, it became clear that Black clergymen were understandably apprehensive about supporting a campaign “up in the Valley”—a place infamous for its opposition to school desegregation. Mann assured the audience that campaign leaders were trenchant antiracists, and, in fact, many were veterans of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The most compelling argument, though, was the presence of hundreds of Black transplants who needed the Black community’s support to prevent GM from displacing them once again. In a recent interview, Mann insisted that the campaign’s success “took the Black community. See, the unique thing I was able to do is to be in an overwhelmingly Latino plant and go into South Central, and convince the Black community cause they did not see Van Nuys as friendly. They thought it was white. They said, ‘Wait a minute, you want me to go up and save a plant from a bunch of fucking racists? I said, wait, wait, hold on. I hate those people [referring to the supporters of Busstop, the campaign to stop school integration]. No, this plant is mostly Latino. And I worked at South Gate, and there’s over 500 Black workers over there and you don’t have South Gate, all you got is Van Nuys and even though Van Nuys doesn’t emotionally ring your bell, it should, you should come over there because those Black workers need you.’”
On May 15, 1983, the campaign officially launched at a rally held right outside the plant. With high-profile speakers such as Ed Asner, Representative Howard Berman, Cesar Chavez, Maxine Waters, and Bishop Juan Arzube (the highest-ranking Latino official in the Catholic Archdiocese), it was clear that the campaign posed a veritable threat to management. Yet beyond the threat to boycott GM products, the May 15th rally demonstrated that plant closure was about far more than job loss. It was about what closure would spell for the community of workers and businesses of Van Nuys. It was about the friendships forged at Opie’s Bar. It was about Opie’s owner, Flower Ny, who risked losing her livelihood and sense of belonging as a recent immigrant from Vietnam. Bishop Arzube stirred the crowd with a deeply resonant appeal: “La cuestión realmente en juego es esta. ¿General Motors tiene una responsibilidad con esta comunidad que los apoyó y los ha apoyado durante 37 años?/The question is this: Does General Motors have a responsibility to this community that supports and has supported them for thirty-seven years?”
The Van Nuys plant lasted another nine years. In this way, the campaign was triumphant. It not only forestalled closure but also helped fortify a community of auto workers from across Los Angeles. Ironically, it was the specter of closure that more deeply united workers and solidified their sense of belonging to each other and to the Van Nuys community. As Mann later reflected, the “campaign did not take place in the revolutionary ‘Sixties’ but the counter-revolutionary times of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Not in the period of great labor upheaval of the 1930s and Black-led workers struggles of the 1960s and 1970s but in a period of union defensiveness in the brutal age of plant closings.” But feel-good history this is not. Not even the campaign’s success could parry the inevitable. The rust also came to the Sunbelt. Deindustrialization hit Van Nuys just as it had so many other manufacturing communities of the Midwest and Northeast. As it happened there, plant closures and deindustrialization thrust many Van Nuys employees into the diaspora of auto workers who would crisscross the country in search of continued work. Nonetheless, revisiting how Van Nuys workers built deeper attachments to each other and an even stronger claim to their community complicates our understanding of this recent history and its lingering impact on Southern California today.
Julia Brown-Bernstein is a PhD candidate in the department of History. Her research examines the relationship between neoliberalism, citizenship, and belonging in the post-World War II era. Her dissertation is a history of the central San Fernando Valley as it underwent demographic shifts and economic restructuring from the 1970s to the early 2000s. It examines how immigrants not only made the region a transnational crossroads, linking communities from the Southern Cone to South Korea, but also how they shaped US political life and culture. Her work sheds light on how neoliberal policies of the latter twentieth century altered who belongs and what it means to be a citizen in a privatizing world.
 Julia Brown-Bernstein interview with Alex Gomez, Los Angeles, California, September 27, 2022.
 Facebook message correspondence with Roger Hammon, September 20, 2022.
 Interview with Ernie Combs.
 Interview with Alex Gomez,
 Julia Brown-Bernstein interview with Eric Mann, Los Angeles, California, March 2, 2022.