July 17, 1957
With the cancellation of the Navaho cruise missile program, North American Aviation made plans to lay off 15,600 employees, nearly a third of the workforce at its plant in Downey.
Efforts were made to find jobs for some of the workers at other aerospace firms such as Douglas, which was making the DC-6 and DC-7, Hughes, Lockheed and Northrop. The State Department of Employment was also staying open in the evenings to help place workers, the Mirror said.
"But the consensus appears to be that only the engineers and some highly skilled types--such as machinists, tool designers and makers--will find it easy to get new jobs," the Mirror said. "For the ordinary aircraft worker, it will be tough sledding. And there is still the possibility that additional thousands will be laid off as the result of cancellation by NAA of more than $35,000,000 in orders placed with subcontractors."
The layoffs were difficult for all employees, but the California Eagle, a weekly newspaper serving the African American community, focused on about 800 black workers who lost their jobs. (And in case there is any doubt, the headline above is from the Eagle, certainly not any of the white newspapers in Los Angeles).
"Some of the laid-off Negro workers report that they have been offered jobs at other North American plants--as janitors," the Eagle said. "Some of the workers interviewed by the Eagle stated that Negro men and women who have been working in skilled jobs and who have seniority have been offered employment at other North American facilities through the Los Angeles area, but not at their customary skills.
"According to these reports, at least two of the very few Negro women employed as electronics assemblers have been asked to return as janitors--cleaning bathrooms, keeping areas clean, etc.
"These workers also say that at least one Negro engineer, one toolmaker and one friction tester have also been told they could be hired as janitors."
Workers harshly criticized the Eisenhower administration for scrapping the Navaho, the Eagle said. "Said one worker: 'There's not a Republican in this end of town.' "
Defense Secretary Charles Wilson, the former president of General Motors, was particularly disliked, the Eagle said, because a GM division near Milwaukee had been given a large missile contract.
"Most of the Negroes who worked in Downey lived in Watts and Compton, Downey being a lily-white town," the Eagle said, quoting Nate Brown, head of the United Auto Workers unit representing employees in the missile program.
Brown denied charges that there was discrimination in laying off black employees. "While some Negroes were hit as the 'last hired,' for the most part Negroes fared about the same as whites," Brown said.
"About 90% of the black employees at North American had been hired in the lowest-paying jobs as janitors, laborers and in the shipping and receiving departments. A number of these men, however, have been upgraded, largely as a result of union pressure," Brown said.
Although the Navaho missile was canceled, some of the rocket propulsion, supersonic airframe and guidance technology was used in later projects.
Note: North American eventually lowered the number of layoffs to 12,000.
Photograph courtesy of NASA.