Working With Ed Asner to Keep the GM Van Nuys Plant Open

Eric Mann, Jesse Jackson and Ed Asner at UAW victory rally.

“I come to you as an old UAW card carrier. Spot polisher and buffer at Kansas City and a metal finisher in Chicago”

– Ed Asner, 1983, at UAW Local 645 Campaign Rally to Keep GM Van Nuys Open

Ed Asner and I were very close allies and comrades for several exciting years from 1982 to 1986. I was a UAW assembly line worker at the GM Van Nuys Plant and the coordinator of the UAW Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open. Ed Asner was a well-known and respected actor but to us he was a key leader and organizer in our campaign.  This Campaign did not take place in the revolutionary “Sixties” but the Counter-revolutionary times of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan. 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. And its strong Black, Latin@, and women workers focus was a direct challenge to the racism and misogyny of the times, and the all-the-times of the United States.

This is not primarily a story about Ed. It’s a story about a powerful coalition of many stars in which Ed played an important role. For the many friends of Ed Asner this may still be a side of him you did not know. And for those who do not know him, and may Google a guy named Lou Grant, this is Ed in a far more important role on the stage of history.  

Spoiler alert—we initiated the Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open in 1981 even before GM threatened to close our plant. We spent 2 years building a powerful coalition, we met with GM President F. James McDonald in 1984 as which time, shaken up by our real threat of a boycott of GM cars in the largest new car market in the U.S., he made a 3-year commitment to keep the plant open. Thanks to our work we won one of the great UAW labor/Black/Latin@/women’s victories of the entire period as GM kept the plant open until 1992—the exact ten years we had demanded to “keep GM Van Nuys Open.” More than 4,000 workers, 50% Latin@, 15 Black, 15% women, kept their jobs for a full decade.

This is a story about a side of the labor movement, the United Auto Workers, New Directions Movement, the Black and Latin@ movement, new communists in the labor movement, and Ed Asner that you may not know. And yes, to celebrate his life, one of his finest hours.  At this time of rising fascism and narrow trade unionism, it’s important to not just remember our great victories of social justice unionism, but to replicate them.  And for the bold members of the One Member, One Vote UAW movement (1m1v.com) I hope this inspiring story can contribute to your great victory for workers’ rights and social justice unionism in the October 12-November 12 referendum for direct election of UAW officers.[1]  

We are deeply grateful that this story is documented in brilliant detail by Michal Goldman, in her film Tiger by the Tail.  (It is also described in my book, Taking on General Motors: A Case Study of the UAW Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open.) [2] Michal directed and edited the film, I wrote the narration, and Ed was the narrator. So, we collaborated in the movement and the codification, interpretation, and representation of our own movement—as the late Dana Alston expressed it, “We speak for ourselves!”

The plot is explained in Ed’s opening narration in Tiger by the Tail as the camera focuses on hundreds of workers piling out of the plant at closing time

This is the General Motors assembly plant in Van Nuys, California. Since 1947, thousands of workers here have made millions of dollars for GM. Thanks to their union, the United Auto Workers, they’ve also made a decent life for themselves and their families. Right now, 4300 workers on two shifts are producing the hot selling Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds.

But General Motors has been threatening to close the plant since 1982. Industry analyst and GM president McDonald himself admit that GM may well close the Van Nuys plant in the next few years. My name is Ed Asner, and this is the story of a union trying to stop a plant closing before it happens!

The workers strategy is clear. They have formed a coalition, one of the broadest I can remember in three decades in the labor movement. They are meeting GM’s threat with a threat of their own. If GM ever moves to close this plant, the coalition will initiate a boycott of General Motors products in southern California, the largest new car market in the United States.

The “broadest coalition” that Ed describes was built one person and one relationship at a time. It was a literal all- star team of Black, Latin@ community leaders, insurgent Catholic clergy, Democratic Party pro-labor elected officials, and   UAW Local 645 union leaders, all of whom had substantial social bases and a unique willingness to fight GM with a militancy and social justice politics the company had not seen in decades. At the 1984 meeting with General Motors president F. James McDonald, our delegation included  congressman Howard Berman who arranged the meeting, UAW Local 645 president Pete Beltran, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, Baptist Ministers’ Conference President Frank Higgins and Rev. Bill Coleman, East Los Angeles Assemblyperson Art Torres, The Father of Chicano Studies Professor Rodolfo Acuna, La Placita pastor and liberation theologist Fr. Luis Olivares, Catholic Archbishop Juan Arzube, International Association of Machinists secretary Eloy Salazar, Screen Actors Guild president Ed Asner, and UAW Local 645 campaign organizers  Mark Masaoka,  Kelly Jenco,  Jake Flukers, Mike Gomez, and Dorothy Travis, and Eric Mann. We were also helped by high visibility support from United Farmworkers President Cesar Chavez, artist Jackson Browne, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the critical boycott research by Pete Olney and students at the UCLA business school.

The back story: my role as GM assembly line worker, lead organizer and team builder  

By the mid-1970s many of the veterans of the Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Asian/Pacific Islander, civil rights and anti-war movements came to believe that the U.S. needed a socialist revolution and a New Communist Party.[3] Out of that initiative my wife Lian Hurst and I joined the communist August 29th Movement (ATM) (yes, the day of Ed’s death) a predominantly Chicano, but also Asian and some white, revolutionary organization. Lian had been in the Berkeley/Oakland Women’s Union and I was a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Newark Community Union Project, and Students for a Democratic Society. One of the compelling appeals of ATM (and later the League of Revolutionary Struggle into which we merged) was its strategy for revolution. ATM believed in the strategic alliance of the Black, Latino, and multi-national working class and Black, Latin@, Asian Pacific Islander oppressed nationality peoples in alliance with the nations and peoples of the Third World against U.S. imperialism.[4]  This attracted people who had been in the civil rights and Black, Chican@ and Asian Pacific Islander liberation movements who wanted to give a greater working class focus to that work. This was not abstract. Our belief in the working class, the proletariat, encouraged ATM and LRS cadre to get jobs among the “lower stratum workers” of Mexican and Asian immigrants, often women, and the strategically pivotal heavy industries— “point of production” where the autoworkers, steelworkers, coal miners, and other major unions had such great potential.

At the time, I was an operating room orderly at Alta Bates Hospital and Lian was working as a skilled machinist at De Laval Turbine. At the time, the Big 3 auto makers were under federal pressure to hire more women under Title IX of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

For us, getting into Ford or GM was like getting to be one of Gladys Knight’s Pips especially to be part of the great United Auto Workers, with 1.5 million members in the U.S. and Canada. Lian applied and was accepted at Ford, Milpitas, outside of San Jose where we lived at the time and became a member of UAW Local 560. Lian was able to use her influence to get me hired there. I am eternally grateful as both ATM and Lian helped me get into the auto industry and the UAW that shaped the rest of my life.

We loved working at Ford. The comradery and class consciousness of assembly line workers is palpable as it takes more than 1,000 people per shift to build a car, often at 60 cars an hour. You are very dependent on your co-workers to help you and there is a great community of autoworkers in a grueling but very well-paying job—and the pay was great. Today as people “fight for $15, in 1975 we were making $12 an hour and $18 for overtime. We were told by our higher seniority workers that “you will have a job for life” but seemingly overnight all of that changed.

As Ed Answer says in the narration of Tiger by the Tail,

The GM Van Nuys plant is modern, highly efficient, and profitable. But it no longer fits into the master plan of General Motors. In 1978, the pressures of international competition forced the US auto industry into a major structural crisis. The big three auto makers responded with bold and ruthless reorganizations concentrating domestic production in the Midwest, importing sub-compact cars from Japan. Less cars but more profits per car. Less workers and more robots. And the cruelest tactic of all, entire plants shut down permanently.

No region in the US was hit harder than California. From 1980 to 1982, five auto plants employing 21,000 workers at peak production, were closed forever. Ford, Pico Rivera, and Ford, San Jose, Mac Truck in Hayward, GM plants in South Gate and Fremont, closed.

I loved working at Ford, Milpitas. But then half of us were laid off and then a few years later, as we were never called back, Ford shut down the plant permanently. By then our family had decided to move to Los Angeles and I was so fortunate to get a job on a new second shift at GM’s assembly plant in Southgate. Southgate Local 216 was among the most respected in the country with high quality products and a vast majority of Black workers.  We were so happy to be hired— and stunned when only 90 days later GM laid off our entire shift and 2,000 workers were thrown back into the streets. In less than a year, in 1982, GM closed the entire plant permanently.

Fortunately, 500 high seniority workers mainly Black were able to transfer over to the GM Van Nuys plant in the San Fernando, Valley part of L.A. city. By a miracle I was also able to transfer over to GM Van Nuys.

There I met Pete Beltran, the charismatic, handsome, and legendary president our local, UAW 645. Pete was already a legend in UAW militant circles and I had seen him at several important state-wide meeting. Pete was an unusually progressive, radical, internationalist trade unionist who blamed our International Union (as the conscious workers did as well) for conciliating with GM’s plant closings and suppressing dissent among the members—to the point of conciliating with the companies to fire the most class-conscious workers. He had been a chair of Locals Against Concessions when GM first started asking workers to give back benefits and wages to better “compete with the Japanese” and the International conciliated with anti-Japanese sentiment to try to push through those concessions to “save our jobs.” The International strong-armed many workers and still, despite a powerful opposition, gave back many benefits and wages. That accomplished nothing but to weaken our union. GM Ford, and Chrysler still closed down many plants.

I saw my fellow workers at Milpitas and Southgate, who had once been so proud and confident, begging the company to keep their jobs. I understood. For an autoworker, this was the only job of its kind and for Black and Chicano autoworkers and the growing number of women coming into the industry, the job was a lifeline and the lay-off on the way to a plant closing felt like a death sentence.

The first day I got hired at GM Van Nuys, in January 1981, Pete Beltran was involved in a hotly contested electoral race for re-election. He was accused by conservative Chicanos and whites of caring too much about the United Farm Workers and getting too involved in supporting Latin American movements for self-determination in El Salvador and Nicaragua. UAW Local 645 was the center of progressive organizing and so many city-wide initiatives—like the anti-nuclear “Jobs with Peace” were birthed in our union hall. I joined his presidential campaign immediately and played initiated a new form, “New hires and Southgate transfers for Pete Beltran” to educate so many of the new workers (yes, not having yet passed probation and very afraid of losing my job over it.) Through that initiate Pete brought me into his inner circle. I was so impressed by his capacity to build such a broad coalition inside the union. Fortunately, Pete was re-elected.

But shortly thereafter the rumors of a plant closing at Van Nuys began to surface.  I do not know exactly how I got the idea, I think from my experience at CORE and NCUP and also support for the United Farm Workers boycotts, but I knew the only hope we had was to transform our “save the plant” campaign to a true Black, Latin@, and women’s worker/civil rights movement.  I approached Pete with a radical idea. What if we set up a committee to stop GM from closing down the plant. We know it’s coming. We could organize a large coalition and somehow threaten GM with a boycott if it ever closed the plant. (This process took a long time to figure out but I am explaining the proposal brought to Pete.) He was very skeptical. First, he thought GM would never close down Van Nuys. We were building the best-selling Pontiac Firebirds and Chevrolet Camaros, beautiful muscle cars with very high profit margins and a big West coast market. Second, he warned me, “We can’t raise the issue of the plant closing. If we do, and it does happen, the company and the workers will blame us.” He told me, “Start building a team inside our Political Action Committee but do not announce anything, yet. There I got the support of PAC chair Mike Gomez, without whose support the campaign could not move forward. (Organizing is building relationships of trust and finding people to support and even provide cover for your work.) I began with my closest comrade Mark Masaoka, a brilliant shop floor organizer with a deep base in the predominantly Black body shop, Jake Flukers, a very progressive Black worker in the skilled trades, Kelly Jenco, a white woman worker who had been through a shelter for battered women, Manual Hurtado, the most radical and effective Mexican worker in a plant that was 50 percent Latino and Jake Flukers, a Black skilled trades worker from Shreveport who was one of the few workers to really stand up to the anti-Japanese hatred the company was trying to foment in the plant. Without the support and friendship of Pete and Mike, who had institutional authority, there was no way, as a very new hire, (and a Jew) I could play such a prominent organizing role or have any chance of success.

Then, right on cue, GM forced our hand. As I say in Tiger by the Tail,

In November of 1982, GM laid off the second shift. 2,500 workers laid off right before the holidays. We were all working nine hours a day, feeling very good about the car sales. The next thing we know, almost overnight, the company pulls us in to these meetings of 50 people at a time, and gives out these very elaborate corporate reports about why our plant is in danger and why they may be having a plant closing here. They tell us that the plant is, in fact, quite modern, quite efficient, but because it’s in California, we’re on the so-called danger list, and we may be closed just like South Gate and Fremont. We were all taking notes and discussing it, and it seems like almost a week later we were laid off. And 2,500 of us were in the streets.

Fortunately, we had been organizing for six months before hand especially in the community. As one example, a Black woman autoworker, Dorothy Travis, introduced me to her pastor, who was a former autoworker at Ford Pico Rivera. He was very excited about the campaign and introduced me to the Baptist Ministers Conference. From there I had to go through a complex screening process by the Fraternal Relations Committee. They gave me five minutes to address the 100 Baptist Ministers. I made the most of my time. I explained that when GM Southgate closed more than 500 Black workers were able to transfer to Van Nuys. The workers, as they knew, were the working-class backbone of the community and if GM Van Nuys closed so would the last high paying jobs in the Black community. But it was more than that. I explained this was a civil rights issue, a Black community issue and we could not let ruthless corporations like General Motors, the largest corporation in the world, to close down complete communities and not give a damn about Black workers. The group was deeply enthused and its president, Frank Higgins, became a strong ally, leader, and close friend. This was the model. This could not be a paper coalition. GM could not be bluffed. Would the Baptist Ministers Conference boycott GM products in LA if GM ever closed the Van Nuys Plant? As Reverend Higgins later told GM president McDonald, “You know Black folks and Black ministers love Cadillacs. But you close this plant and we can learn to love Lincolns.” It was that thought and militant rhetoric backed up by real organizing muscle that made our movement so unique.

We also understood we had to keep winning the moral argument. At our first rally to Keep the GM Van Nuys Plant Open more than 1,000 people attended and the rhetoric from Pete Beltran, Cesar Chavez, and Maxine Waters set the tone for the entire campaign. Again, thanks to Tiger by the Tai, as Ed Asner said,

the Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open was born. Throughout this campaign, the quality of the “spoken word” rivaled the best performances of the revolutionary Sixties.

Pete Belran:

When this plant was established after the war, there was nothing around it. A whole community has grown up around General Motors. And the question that we have to ask and begin to start asking, as it concerns plant closures and capital flight, is what gives General Motors the right to come into a community and use our people’s energies for 30, 40, 50 years, pollute our waters, and poison our air, and then when they want to, they drop us off as casually as we would an orange peel. That’s the question that we’re asking. They have a social responsibility. We know they do. And we have to spread that word out.

Assemblywoman Maxine Waters:

Not only are we going to force corporate responsibility in this state, and we’re going to stand up against the kinds of actions of General Motors. You must say to your elected official and those who you elect to represent you that the state does have a responsibility in this matter, that the state must legislate in this area, that the United States Congress does have a responsibility in this area, and that they’re going to forward with disregard for the dollars and the influence of business in their campaigns, and they’re going to do the right thing for workers. I think you can force that kind of correct moral decision from your decision makers. And the work that you’re doing here today, the march that we will have, the confrontations that we’re forcing with General Motors will all make that come about. I commend you for being on the forefront of this fight. I stand with you, ready to call it like it is whenever we have to.

Cesar Chavez:

If GM won’t listen to the workers at the workplace, the ones that make the cars, maybe GM will listen to the consumers, the ones that buy the cars. The boycotts work because of the vicious competition in this capitalist society, and that helps you come in and use the boycott as a Jiu jitsu against those products that you want boycotted. So, we feel that a five to seven percent, five to seven percent of consumers telling General Motors, “We’re not going to buy your products if you don’t straighten up and fly right,” would be enough to scare the hell out of them.

So now our campaign was beginning to convince us we could win.  The biggest factor was that our allies really gave a damn. We all knew this would be a multi-year campaign and if GM closed the plant we would have to deliver on our promise of the boycott. GM Van Nuys represented 5,000 jobs, in a plant that was 50% Latin@/Chican@, 15% Black (750 jobs) and 15% women (750 jobs). There was a lot at stake and the organizing took a lot of one on one relationship. Pete with Cesar, me with Maxine, this was not just getting people to show up, give a speech, but in their own way, signal GM they really didn’t give a damn. This was serious business and as Chavez said, if could get 5 to 7 percent of GM’s customers in new and used cars to boycott GM products that boycott would be effective. And if could convince GM we really had the power to carry out that threat, keeping the plant open was truly possible despite the fact that there had been no other such campaign in the U.S.

Deepening our base and figuring out the tactical plan

As Ed Asner explained in Tiger by the Tail,

In May, 1983, after a layoff of six months, two thousand people were called back for the second shift. While some breathed a sigh of relief and tried to forget, a large core of dedicated organizers remained.

So here was our dilemma. It was true, many of the workers who had been such militant supporters of the campaign lost interest. They had got their jobs back, for how long they did not know, but we knew a plant closing was still a very high possibility. Interestingly, our community allies who were such serious political people understood the danger and the consequences more than many of the workers and they by now felt a real investment in –the outcome. It would do us no good to try to rebuild the movement once GM announced the closing of the plant.

After a year of the highest profile and front-page coverage of our rallies and press conferences our Labor/Community Coalition steering committee knew it was time to push for the meeting with GM. We had developed a great letter writing and phone call campaign, but we knew these tactics alone would not dissuade GM. If they decided to close the plant tens of millions of dollars would be their motivation. Rev. Higgins, members of the UTLA, and others came up with the idea of a big leadership meeting at the UAW hall. Not 10 or 15 leaders but 100 community leaders and 100 of the most dedicated workers— real people with real bases in unions, churches, universities. We spent months preparing for that meeting. We made a list of the next 25 key people we had to enlist so that we could finally make our demand for GM to meet with us and make a long-term commitment to keep the plant open.  Ed Asner was one of our most important hoped-for new allies.

Ed Asner and Kim Fellner come forward

By now, Ed Answer was known as a dedicated actor and an outspoken militant. He was the star of a wonderful TV show, Lou Grant, the sequel to his Lou Grant character on Mary Tyler Moore. But this time, Lou Grant was a deadly serious and brilliantly written hour-long political show with decidedly left liberal politics and great ratings. Ed played a dedicated newspaper editor who would fight for the truth regardless of the consequences.

For many who were there and many who never knew Ed at that level of fame and recognition, Wikipedia explains

 “Ed Asner was one of the few television actors to portray the same character in both a comedy and a drama. He is the most honored male performer in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards, having won seven – five for portraying Lou Grant (three as Supporting Actor in a Comedy Television Series on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and two as Lead Actor in a Dramatic Television Series on spin-off Lou Grant.”

So, in 1982, as we were fighting a plant closing, Ed Asner had stood up for the people of El Salvador and openly challenged the U.S. government.  Almost immediately CBS summarily cancelled Lou Grant after 5 very successful years and still on top of its ratings. I’m sure Ed was a shocked as anyone, perhaps feeling protected by his celebrity. Gut, like W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Muhammad Ali, Ed learned, when you go beyond “domestic issues” to challenge the world-wide imperialist aspirations of the U.S. empire the payback is severe.

Ed was also at the time a militant and outspoken president of the Screen Actors Guild. I reached out to Kim Fellner, who was working as the National Information Director at the Screen Actors guild, was already a well-known organizer and ally.[5]  I called her to help set up a meeting with Ed, asking both of them to become more directly involved in our movement. I met with Ed and Kim and the connection was genuine and powerful. I explained the high stakes of our campaign and Ed said, “Count me in.” Knowing him, I knew he meant it.

The Community Leadership Meeting to Keep GM Van Nuys Open that moves us closer to victory

After months of organizing we believed we had built the strongest team—100 of our most militant UAW members and 100 community leaders.  It was time to call the question.

At the March, 1984 Labor/Community Leadership Meeting we planned the program carefully as if writing the script for a play. The goal was to create strong moral and the force to demand the meeting with top GM officials.

Pete Beltran gave a rousing welcome.  I laid out the tactical plan for the campaign and the role this meeting could play in bring us closer to victory. Actors Bennett Guillory and Charley Degelman produced a moving presentation of Paul Robeson’s historic, 1947 defiance of the House Un-American Committee. This was a conscious tactic to challenge some of the anti-communist attacks on our campaign (and me) from the right-wing of our union, who we called “the in bed with the company faction.” (Imagine what they called us?)

Bishop Juan Arzube, the highest-ranking Latin@ officials in the enormous Catholic Archdiocese, with his regal persona, addressed the group,

General Motors is talking about moving to the Midwest and closing down this plant. This is still in the talking stage. But the question is are they moving because this plant does not provide them with profits? Or are they moving because they feel they will get greater profits in the Midwest? I believe the latter is the case. And so, the issue really at stake is this. Does General Motors have a responsibility to this community that supported them and has supported them for 37 years?

But it sounded even more moving when he repeated it in Spanish.

General Motors está hablando de mudarse al Medio Oeste y cerrar esta planta. Esto todavía está en la etapa de hablar. Pero la pregunta es ¿se están moviendo porque esta planta no les proporciona beneficios? O se están moviendo porque sienten que obtendrán mayores ganancias en el Medio Oeste? Creo que este último es el caso. Y, entonces, la cuestión realmente en juego es esta. ¿General Motors tiene una responsabilidad con esta comunidad que los apoyó y los ha apoyado durante 37 años?

And when he said, “La cuestión realmente en juego es esta. ¿General Motors tiene una responsabilidad con esta comunidad que los apoyó y los ha apoyado durante 37 años? The entire audience yelled, “Creo que si” “Hell yes!” “Thank you, Bishop!

And then it was Ed’s turn. He knew he had a hard act to follow but he was up for the job.

I come to you as an old UAW card carrier. Spot polisher and buffer at Kansas City and a metal finisher in Chicago. (before he could get further the entire crowd shouted in affirmation) Now if you call GM today, they’ll tell that there are no plans, no no no no plans, to shut down the Van Nuys plant. And some people think that we should believe them. Well we would like to. But their long-term strategies seem to belie their assurances. Someone, Oscar Wilde I believe it was, once said that a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. American corporations are cynics. They know only our cost, never our value.

Their profits out-shout our dreams, and all too often their cynicism infects us. It gets to us. And we begin to doubt our own worth. But not here and not today, for our unity and our activism, our vision—our bishop—are the powerful reaffirmation of human values and social conscience over cynics and corporate greed.

El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido—a people united will never be defeated.

It was beautiful to watch 200 people chant “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” and it went on and on and got louder and louder.

If you see the film, and you must, you will see Ed happier than any time I could remember him. His body language, his carriage, his thrill to be part of a movement where he was an actor on a far larger stage and to come forward as an auto worker brought joy to the amazing collection of leaders—and himself. And I can almost hear him saying, “Fuck CBS, this is who I am.”

We finally get the meeting with F. James McDonald, the president of General Motors, who, only along with CEO Roger Smith, had the authority to grant our requests, aka demands.

Asner narration: After protracted negotiations, General Motors agreed to send their president, F. James McDonald, to meet with the coalition. The meeting took place at the Beverly Hilton hotel where the coalition presented its demand for a long-term commitment to the Van Nuys plant.

As Tiger by the Tail captures, before McDonald walked into the closed conference room he tried to charm the media with an aw-shucks frame for the meeting. “I think the request came to General Motors in a letter to Roger Smith and we said that when the opportunity was right, one of us was on the west coast, we’d be glad to meet them.”

Henry Alfaro, a venerated TV reporter asked McDonald, “Do you feel pressured in any way to attend this meeting? McDonald was so into himself he did not hear the question.

McDonald:  Do I feel what?

Alfaro: “Do you feel like you’re being pressured in any way, sir? Like you’re being pressured in any way?”

McDonald: “No, I don’t think I ever get pressured.”

And there it was, the glib confidence of the U.S. ruling elite going into a meeting with a coalition it believed it could tie around its finger.

But Congressman Howard Berman, in whose district the Van Nuys plant was located, and who arranged the meeting, had a different view of how GM agreed to meet with our coalition,

Well when I first broached the issue of a community meeting regarding the future of the Van Nuys GM plant with Roger Smith, General Motors’ chairman of the board, he reddened a little bit and sort of lashed out. What are those guys doing out there, talking about a boycott? I can’t believe that crazy kind of talk.” So, from that one little immediate unplanned reaction, I reaffirmed that which I probably knew all along, that in the end, the ultimate sanction, the ultimate lever that any of us have, is the potential for hurting GM and their corporate management in the pocketbook

Then we all went into a large conference room that was closed to the press. As soon as he walked into the room McDonald won the initial battle of positioning. Instead of sitting at the table across from us he acted as if he was going to be the only speaker so he set himself up at the front of the room and began lecturing us. He acted as if the meeting was just a courtesy call for the benefit of Congressman Berman, in return for favors in Congress. He began lecturing us about how other communities and unions had been so friendly, they understood GM’s dilemma and wanted to help—offering wage concessions, tax rebates, even funds to build additional facilities. It was as if he had no idea about our coalition, our threat, and the demands we had for him to keep the plant open for 10 years or more. He indicated “the markets look very healthy and he had no plans, in the famous “at this time” to close down the planet. He welcomed questions.

At that moment it was my job to shift the tone, the content, and the form of the meeting or else we would be coopted and hustled. How could we go out of there after years of organizing to say, “Well, we did not expect his moves so we really weren’t able to fully raise our demands.” Bullshit! Now it was our time.

As the chair of the coalition I stood up facing McDonald who was already standing.

“Mr. McDonald. We have heard what you have to say. Now I’m asking you to sit down and listen to what we have to say.” McDonald glowered and just kept on talking–profit margins, market conditions, the competitive advantages and disadvantages of the Van Nuys Plant, blah blah. I had to get him to stop talking and sit down. “Mr. McDonald” I repeated, this time in my strongest but still under-control voice, “We have heard what you have to say. You are threatening to close our plant. We get it. But you need to understand that if you do we will carry out a boycott of General Motors cars in the largest new car market in the United States. This coalition, the Labor/Community Coalition, as you know, has been organizing for 2 years. We have a strong base in Van Nuys, South Central, and East Los Angeles. We are getting consistent favorable press from the Los Angeles Times, Valley News, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Spanish language press including even Business Week and every TV station on the dial English and Spanish.  We know that used cars also make a great deal of money for dealers and we plan to boycott your cars and turn your dealers against you. If you go back to Detroit and do not tell them the full extent of the boycott and it actually happens and hurts your company I assume that would hurt you. So, Mr. McDonald, I am asking you once again—please sit down and listen to us.

McDonald looked at our delegation and saw the angriest eyes he had ever seen. Reverend Frank Higgins, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, Father Luis Olivares the pastor of La Placita the largest Catholic church in Los Angeles, Assemblyman Art Torres, actor Ed Asner, Congressman Howard Berman, Baptist Minister James Coleman, Rudy Acuna the father of Chicano Studies. Mr. McDonald, I am asking you again–please sit down. Now it is our time to talk and your time to listen.

McDonald ruminated in front of the 25 of us. He also saw the right-wing of our UAW Union that had crashed the meeting at the Beverly Hilton Hotel but he figured out they could do him little good. The Union leadership, especially Pete Beltran our president, Mark Masaoka and I were in the room. We held the cards. Finally, Mc Donald sat down. And right then I understood we had won—or at least had the chance to win—to get F. James McDonald, the president of General Motors, the largest corporation in the United States at the time.  to agree to keep our GM Van Nuys assembly plan open for ten more years–in the face of the company’s threat and plan to close it.

I seized the advantage. As I looked around that room every coalition member was my friend, my colleague, these were relationships I had built over years, one-on-one, long, thoughtful, strategic conversations. I immediately signaled our Black leaders to take the initiative as we had planned.

Reverend Higgins told McDonald, “You and I know that Black folks and Black ministers love Cadillacs. But we can learn to love Lincoln’s if you close this plant and drive out 500 Black workers. There are the last good industrial, union jobs in the city. You do so at your own peril. And I know you have been sending some spies to my church to check me out. I hope you saw that we have a large congregation that knows all about this campaign and supports the boycott 100 percent.”

Rudy Acuna said, “Everyone knows that Chicanos love Chevies. But I promise you that we will make Chevy a dirty word in the Chicano community if you try to close this plant–remember we loved grape and Gallo Wine too but Cesar is part of our coalition as well and trust me, I would love to organize the GM boycott. Chicanos would never buy a GM car again.”

I saw McDonald, a smart man, truly weighing his options. Our plan was very clear—we had to make our threat credible. This man could not be bluffed. He knew that boycotts generally do not work. He knew only too well that our international union was not on our side–but it was a reflection of our power that Bruce Lee, our regional director, would not oppose Beltran and the campaign that had become a public cause célèbre and gave the International union and him a good name. Even Bruce Lee had publicly embraced our campaign.

Coalition leader after leader explained the depth of their social base and their points of leverage against GM. Assembly members Maxine Waters, Art Torres, and Alan Robbins talked about a motion of censure against GM in the state legislature, nothing with much teeth but a boost to our boycott on the ground. Maxine threated him the most, telling him in no uncertain terms that he was already investigating the capacity of our coalition and he knew and we knew we could cause him big damage.

Then, Maxine moved in to close the deal. (She was our pre-chosen closer and being the closer is an art of the highest magnitude when everything is at stake.)

She told McDonald, “So you know we are going out to a room full of press and TV waiting for the outcome Why not tell them that the plant will be open for a full year. “McDonald was very amiable. “Yes, I can promise that.” (knowing he had the sales to guarantee it). Then Maxine pushed her advantage, “It would mean a lot more if you could commit to two more years of production and work at Van Nuys.” McDonald, and I did find him shaken, said, “Yes, we would not be closing the plant for 2 years.” Then Maxine, never satisfied nor should she have been when fighting for the people appealed to McDonald, “What a victory it would be for all of us if you could announce that the GM Van Nuys Plant will be open for the next three years.” “McDonald, perhaps feeling surrounded for the first time in his life, said to Maxine, “Well, that would be the limit. Three years from now we have some major redesigns and re-models and I can’t make any commitments past that time.”

We were ecstatic but tried not to show it. We then walked out with McDonald to a large press conference when, back in the day, there were 8 or 9 print reporters and another 7 or 8 TV cameras.

The Historic Press Conference

If president McDonald walked into that meeting with a “pressure, I never feel pressure” attitude he came out shaken up and disoriented.

Alfaro: Mr. McDonald, Did you tell the people inside the meeting that there’s a possibility that you may have to close that plant?

McDonald:  “Oh, we said the markets are exceedingly strong right now, they just look outstanding. I don’t see any reason for closing that plant right now. But as far as guaranteeing forever that they’ll be there, I don’t know how you can do that.

Alfaro: “Did the threat of a boycott in any way make you more agreeable to this meeting sir?”

McDonald: “Well I don’t think threats solve anything. Threats on our part or threats on anybody else’s part. We don’t ignore people talking about boycotts, we simply just don’t think they’re good for business. They would hurt business, so if somebody says we didn’t pay attention to it, we do pay attention to things like that. But that’s not the way to solve problems today.”

For us, this was a tremendous public winning of the terms of the debate.  First, McDonald’s use of the term “at this time” not just once but twice made it clear the plant was in trouble and he thought he held all the cards.

But his talk about boycotts surprised us. To admit “boycotts are not good for business and then, “if somebody says we don’t pay attention to it, we do pay attention to things like that” was a major concession to our work.

As an organizer, your adversary rarely admits that the threat you are making is credible, even if he/she thinks it. And to say what was so obvious, “that boycotts are not good for business” was to us the punch line of the press conference, we had gotten the president of GM to tell the press that the decision to close the plant would still be GM’s, but now they would have to assess the possible damage our boycott could create. (Inside the meeting, he had already assessed it was worth a 3-year commitment that was not happening anywhere I the United States.

Then we had our press conference.

Congressman Berman reiterated that this was not just a “labor’ issue but a civil rights issue. “The Van Nuys plant is a plant that is 50% Hispanic and 15% Black. It is a civil rights issue, and we don’t want General Motors to kiss off this community and then expect the politicians to support their legislative and political agenda.”

Alfaro then pressed us, “Mr. McDonald just came out and he said his commitment is the fact that they’re not going to close this place. You’re talking like they’re going to close it tomorrow. So, who’s right?

Maxine Waters: “That plant has become a symbol of all of the plants that have been closed down in America.”

Without saying it publicly Maxine Waters hinted that Mc Donald had given us a three-year commitment. But she continued, “In order to have a strong boycott, you must do considerable organizing. Those of us who’re here today, who represent large constituencies, are prepared to do that and expand our work in organizing so that, if in the third year, or the fourth year, or the fifth year, they decide to close down that plant, we will be ready to go.”

So here it was. After the meeting Maxine turned to me and said, “Eric, I have been trying to introduce a bill in the legislature to get workers 3 months advance notice. And here we negotiate with the head of General Motors through organizing and threat and we win three years. What have we learned from that story?”

The Bargaining Committee reports back our victory to the members to figure out our next steps.

You may think the story and the film end here? But where are the masses of workers? How do they, as auto workers, understand what happened at the Beverly Hilton while they were at work. What were the negotiations like, what really happened. And unlike too many unions and community groups, where is the accountability of those we sent in to negotiate for us. That Saturday we had a victory and accountability meeting.

That following Saturday our lead team—Rev. Frank Higgins, Father Luis Olivares, Ed Asner, Pete Beltran and myself reported back to 100 or more worker at the Union hall.

Reverend Higgins speech reflected a deeply thoughtful assessment from a Black minister who had just gone head to head with General Motors.

We’re tough enough for the battle. There are some words they use that disturb me. They use terms, I should say, they kept saying “sound business practices,” everything falls under sound business practices. What they’re saying by using that terminology is that as far as they’re concerned, the whole world is their marketplace and they’re saying that they could care a damn about these plants in America. They can put plants elsewhere. That’s cold. That’s very cold. That shows insensitivity, and it shows as to what we’re dealing with. And this is the first time that they have seen a coalition form in this nation that would make them come to bargain table. They didn’t come to bargain, they came to deal with us as though we were children. But they wound up leaving there knowing they had a tiger by the tail.Tiger by the Tail was born.

Pete then gave a speech to the member that as always was very calculated. He needed a mandate to keep the Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open for several more years, and to allocate union funds to keep it going. He knew some of the workers in the plant, not at that meeting, but on the shop floor, may have felt, “Congratulations, sounds great, thanks for you work, let’s move on.”

Pete Beltran: “Now, what are our alternatives, what can we do? McDonald has said two years, and he’s indicated he may meet with us again. Well, one alternative is to simply end the campaign. We can just simply drop out and stop the campaign. (this was a rhetorical device and the workers started yelling, “No, keep fighting). On the other hand, if you’re like myself, and your youth and your energy has been at General Motors for 26 years, it makes you want to fight. It makes you want to struggle. And I say we keep this campaign going for another two years.”

And as Pete talked about his “youth and energy” for 26 years, seeing him so handsome but yes, in middle age, it showed the toll that being an auto worker, and yes, an organizer takes on a person and yes, his amazing will to fight.

Pete and our team got a standing ovation from the membership. It was clear we would savor the victory and fight on.

The Making of Tiger by the Tail and the Story of Ed Asner the Narrator.

Finally, after the historic meeting with GM President McDonald, and the great “report to the workers movement” that extended the campaign for another two years, we had a wonderful juncture in the movement and a great time to complete the film.  Michal Goldman, who had been working with us and shooting and editing for over a year, and I began to lay out the script for Tiger by the Tail. We both knew that a documentary is not objective but, rather, like all films and art, is political. We both wanted a deeply moving picture of a social movement with Black, Latin@, and women in the leadership, but also a very clear, polemical, and proscriptive script to frame the political concepts so that the viewer could follow the organizing and political narrative.  The goal of the film was not to do abstract education about plant closings or even the leading movement to stop one, but to get support for our movement as the campaign would continue. We also wanted to shift the narrative and politics of the plant closing movement to a far greater focus on Black Latina, and women workers and communities and the most militant anti-racist, anti-corporate politics. As I wrote the narration I realized Ed would be the perfect person to deliver it.

I called Ed and called him to ask if he could do it. He was enthusiastic and so were we. So, Michal and I went to Ed’s beautiful office in Studio City to shoot his part. The narration would have many short statements to frame the narrative. We would shoot each one separately in sequence and then cut and paste at the appropriate intervals in the film. We were so excited because the finish line was near.

But when we got there it did not look good at all. Ed was in great demand and his phone never stopped ringing. He was jammed and distracted but we felt once we started he would focus on the task at hand. Just as we began to shoot something in the lights we plugged in overloaded the electrical system and shorted out all the electricity in Ed’s office. All the lights went out, and it took a while to get all the electricity back on. By then Ed was definitely not in a good mood. I felt myself shifting my consciousness from the director of a movement to the director of a film shoot and yes, a certain intimidation when the “star” was not in a good mood. As if you wanted to coddle him, seduce him into a good mood.

So, Ed finally read the script. While he tried to shift gears, he was still distracted and annoyed. I remember at the time thinking it was OK but no, not great and not the Ed Asner I knew. We finished the shoot, thanked Ed, and went back to the editing room.

The next day Michal called me. “Eric we can’t use his narration. It’s terrible, wooden, this is not the Ed Asner we know and we need him to be powerful and really confront the viewers” I was very upset and apprehensive. I asked the question to which I knew the answer. “So, what do we do now?”  Michal said, “Well he has to reshoot it.” I thought, great, I have to ask Ed Asner to reshoot the narration Then I remembered, or organized myself, “Eric, you are an organizer, he is an organizer and you are both political people. Don’t deal with Ed as a public figure but as a friend and comrade. Assume the best and be honest and straightforward.”  While I wasn’t fully convinced it sounded good at the time.

So, I called Ed. He was happy to hear from me and clearly in a good mood and I’m sure self-critical of his role in the past fiasco. Knowing where this was going he asked, “So how did my narration come out?” I paused and said, “Well Ed it was perfectly adequate but…” but before I could finish Ed said, “Adequate! I am never adequate! it must have really sucked. Let’s get together and reshoot it and let’s find a time when I can really concentrate. I owe you and the film my best work.” I was thrilled—he was a good guy and I did not have to go any further to get the desired result.

The next time we shot it, he knocked it out of the park. He was focused, engaged, and we all were so happy to be able to do the work together. As you’ll see in the film, it ends with Ed, looking straight into the camera and into the viewers face,

The movement at Van Nuys is a work in progress. The workers’ demand for a long-term commitment without contract concessions is precedence setting. GM will resist this challenge to their authority with all the power at their disposal. The workers are saying that those who build the cars with their minds and bodies, not just those who reap the profits, must have a voice in the future of their plant. For them, corporate responsibility is not a mushy phrase. It means that workers, minorities, and communities, must have power over the decisions which affect their lives.

The UAW organizers have been able to enlist some of the most influential leaders in Los Angeles, who have made this coalition a priority. There’s a strong feeling unifying the coalition. For once, just once, wouldn’t it be great to stand up to a giant corporation like GM, and actually win? What a great impact such a victory would have on the entire labor movement. The workers at Van Nuys are asking for your support. Your decision could tip the balance between defeat and victory. Both General Motors and the United Auto Workers are waiting for your answer.

That was Ed at his best—stentorian, authoritative, even a little intimidating in case the viewer really thought there was more than one answer to that question. Ed broke the fourth wall and looked the viewers right in the eye.

I have seen the film dozens of times and I cry each time. As this time of profound counter-revolution, it’s hard to imagine something so magical and successful—both the movement and the film. It is people like Pete Beltran that opened the door for me and Mark Masoaka to build the movement that gave Ed one of the greatest roles of his lifetime. And it took Michal Goldman to spend a year of her life documenting our every word so that 37 years later it still brings Ed and our movement to life. At a time of Black Lives Matter and the endless struggle against anti-Black racism, at a time off such anti-Latinx, and immigrant hysteria, such anger at women, such hostility to labor unions, the militant and confident voice of Rev. Frank Higgins still reverberates.

“When we walked in there they talked to us like we were children. But they walked out of there knowing they had a Tiger by the Tail.”

Our movement kept that plant open for a full decade—1982 to 1992—ten full years past GM’s original plans to close it. Thousands of auto workers and their families won ten years of work and stability before it finally closed.

It was among my, ours, and in my view, Ed’s finest hours. It was such a pleasure to make history together.

Copies of Tiger by the Tail can be obtained at www.thestrategycenter.org and info@thestrategycenter.org

Notes.

[1] This October and November all UAW members will have the opportunity to vote in a referendum to change how they elect the top leaders in our union, specifically the President of the UAW and the other 11 members of the UAW International Executive Board (IEB). It gives them the right to the direct election of officers not through the rigged convention system. This referendum is being mandated as part of the consent decree signed between the UAW and the U.S. Department of Justice. For more information go to 1M1V.org

[2] Michal Goldman, Tiger by the Tail, winner of Best Labor Film at the 1984 American Film Festival, copyright Labor/Community Strategy Center; Eric Mann, Taking on General Motors: A Case Study of the UAW Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open, UCLA Center for Labor Research, 1985.

[3]  The League of Revolutionary Struggle was the product of the merger of the August 29th Movement (ATM) I Work Kuen, an Asian/Pacific Islander Collective that has led the historic International Hotel Campaign in San Francisco, and the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL) previously the Congress of African People whose most prominent leader was Amiri Baraka.

[5] Kim’s impressive body of work includes leadership roles in SEIU, Screen Actors Guild, National Writers Union, National Organizers Alliance and Working America.

Eric Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Newark Community Union Project where he worked closely with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. His story is on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website (crmvet.org). He is presently director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in South Central Los Angeles working at the Strategy and Soul Movement Center. He and Channing Martinez co-host Voices from the Frontlines—Your National Movement Building Show on KPFK Pacifica in Los Angeles. He is the author of Playbook for Progressives: The 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer. He welcomes comments at eric@civilrightsorganizer.com