For American automakers in this and other California towns, all is growing quiet on the Western front.
The last California Ford Motor Co. plant will withdraw from this San Jose suburb by June, ending 50 years of West Coast production by the nation's second-largest automaker.
When that is done, only one U.S. car factory, a General Motors Co. assembly plant in Van Nuys, will remain in the state. And although the Van Nuys plant produces popular models -- the Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro -- it is vulnerable. The plant recently reopened on a one-shift schedule after being shut down for three weeks.
It is a sorry end to the coast-to-coast production dreams of U.S. automakers, overrun by a foreign-car invasion that has taken nearly 55 percent of the California auto market.
It is a tale made even sorrier -- in the case of the padlocked GM plant in nearby Fremont, for example -- by abrupt shutdowns that threw thousands of workers into future shock.
Many of the 8,400 laid-off California autoworkers have spent 10 or more years in relatively-low-skilled assembly line positions, while high-tech companies such as Versatek, Avantek, Intel Corp., and Tandem Computers Inc. were growing all around them. With all of their time spent in sunset jobs, many autoworkers are unprepared for sunrise.
Early morning here comes with sunshine and rolling metal, tons and tons of it, moving at speeds higher than 55 miles an hour along U.S. 101 and state Route 17. It is a fantastic sight, with Toyotas, Datsuns, Hondas, Mazdas and BMWs all fighting for lanes. There are American cars on the roads, of course, but not as many, it seems, as are on the parking lots of Ford's San Jose Assembly Plant plant here.
"People on the West Coast have to drive so damned far to work every day. That's what hurt us out here," said Ford plant manager Paul W. Staley.
He acknowledged the irony. That very need and lust for driving is what attracted automakers to this state. Ford opened its plant here in 1955, a year when U.S. automakers churned out 9.2 million cars and trucks nationwide. There seemed no end, certainly not in 1979, when domestic carmakers rolled out nearly 11.5 million cars and trucks.
"We built 214,697 cars and trucks here that year. We had the Mustang, a really good car, a nice car. We were so busy, we were running overtime shifts," Staley said.
But something happened that same year, he said. Someone, somewhere, turned off the oil spigots, and gasoline prices skyrocketed. And it didn't matter who or what caused the gasoline shortage. Californians still had to drive "damned far" to work. And they wanted to do it cheaply.
"That's how the Japanese got in," Staley said. "People started scrambling for the smaller cars. The Japanese had the product and, at that time, we didn't."
The Japanese also had high-quality cars -- "Mercedes Benz quality for $5,000," says auto industry analyst James Harbour. That created another problem for Ford and other U.S. automakers producing on the West Coast, Staley said.
"A lot of people got into the Japanese cars and never got out. That left us with the job of trying to win them back," Staley said.
Well, the Americans tried, he said. Ford came up with better ideas such as the fuel-efficient Escort and Mercury Lynx passenger cars produced here. But it was too late.
There is a maxim for automakers in these parts, which goes something like this: If you're going to build cars in California, you'd better sell them in California or nearby states, or else get clobbered by shipment costs.
Ford got clobbered. The San Jose/Milpitas plant, for example, was spending $4 million a month -- $48 million a year -- shipping cars back East in search of friendlier markets. That cost was on top of the money spent to make the parts in the Midwest and East for assembly in the West.
"If you go to backhauling these cars much past Denver, you really get into trouble as far as transportation costs are concerned. We were losing our -- well, you know," Staley said.
Costs continued to rise and sales and production continued to fall, from the peak of 214,697 Ford cars and trucks produced here in 1979 to the 108,666 produced this year. The people at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., struggling to stem the flow of red ink, made a decision.
"It probably was the only thing they could do," Staley said of the impending plant closing that will eliminate the remaining 2,600 jobs in a plant that once employed 5,000 people.
It was the latest in a series of similar decisions made by the auto bosses in Detroit about four of their five Western plants. Ford's Pico Rivera plant, near Los Angeles, where the company rolled out its LTD passenger cars, was the first casualty in closings that began in 1980. Then came the shutdown of GM plants at Fremont and South Gate. Now, Ford's San Jose plant at Milpitas.
Business people in this area often talk about the unemployed autoworkers being absorbed into other industries, including computer production. Indeed, computer companies such as Tandem have worked with state and local agencies in an effort to set up training programs. But, many here agree, turning autoworkers into computer people is a task talked about with ease, but accomplished with great difficulty.
"It's almost impossible," said Ella Ledbetter, president of United Auto Workers Local 560 here. "Sure, we have some people who can do that kind of work. But many of our people don't have high school diplomas. It's unrealistic to think that those people coming out of the auto plants can go right into jobs at places like Intel or Tandem."
Even for those who make the transition, there is a kind of culture shock, Ledbetter said. "You take an autoworker who has been making straight hourly wages of about $11. There may be a wife or husband doing the same work, getting the same pay. They have built a life around that salary, okay?
"Then, let's say that same autoworker gets a job in one of those computer places. If he's a programming engineer, or something like that, he's okay. But, most likely, he'll be an assembler. That's $5 or $6 an hour. That's one hell of a drop in pay to do a job that everyone says requires higher skills," Ledbetter said.
Still, Ford officials here are pushing retraining programs for their soon-to-be-laid-off workers. The union is helping. The Ford plant here has been turned into a school and work area, with teachers and job-placement people coexisting with the noise and fumes from the factory floor.
"We're closing down, but we're trying to do it with class," said Hal Axtell, industrial relations manager at the local Ford plant. "We're not going to just dump our people in the street."
"I think they're doing it right," Local 560 Chairman Stan Jones said of the extended shutdown operation. "Ford's always had a better attitude towards its people. If we have to do this, it's better to do it this way than it is to do it the way they did it down the road."
"Down the road" refers to Fremont, about seven miles away, and "they" refers to GM. GM only gave two weeks' notice when it shut down its plant in Fremont last spring, and many of the people in the town are still angry about that.
"I don't know. I just don't know how two companies in the same industry seven miles apart could be so different," said John P. Scrempos, vice president of UAW Local 1364 at the Fremont plant. "Ford seems to have gone all out for its people, from the beginning. But GM, hell, they just shut the place."
However, GM has contributed $4 million to a $10 million training fund -- $6 million of which comes from the state -- to help its former workers. And the company has been talking with Toyota about the possibility of using the Fremont plant to coproduce a front-wheel-drive car.
But those talks have been going on for a year or so, and they are beginning to boomerang on unemployed GM/Fremont workers looking for jobs.
"God, I wish they would just stop talking about it. I wish they would either just shut the damned place for good or do whatever they're going to do with Toyota and get back to work," said Tony Mendonca, a skilled tradesman at the GM/Fremont plant for 20 years.
"Every time I apply for a job, the employer asks me if I worked for GM. I say: 'Yeah, I worked there.' And he says: "Well, hell, man, you got all these years in there and I hear they're going to open up again. I can't hire you.'
"But that place isn't going to open up again. Not anytime, soon, anyway. Nobody's buying the cars," Mendonca said.