For the past decade, Jose Luis Tejeda felt insulted every time he saw an Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District bus drive past his place of work.
Tejada, 60, starts his job at 5 o’clock every morning on the assembly line at Gillig, a bus manufacturer in Hayward that is known as the last 100 percent American-owned and -made bus company. But AC Transit officials, enamored with European public transit, have only bought buses from Van Hool, a Belgian company, since 2002.
“I felt kind of disappointed,” said Tejeda, whose two sons, Cesar and Adolfo, also work at the plant. “I felt underestimated about the quality of my job.”
Gillig finally won a contract last week from its hometown transportation agency when AC Transit agreed to buy 40 buses from the company for $16.4 million. With more than 100 buses rolling out of the Hayward plant every month, the order was relatively small, but it was a symbolic victory for Tejeda and other Gillig employees.
AC Transit had a change of heart after the Teamsters union, which represents most of Gillig’s 700 employees, flexed its political muscle in the down-ballot races for the agency’s board of directors. The Gillig order was also spurred by the public outcry over money that the cash-strapped agency spent to send its officials on regular trips to Europe, including the salary and expenses of a bus inspector who lived near the Van Hool plant in Belgium.
“We used to have some guy in Europe fully paid for by AC Transit keeping an eye on all the manufacturing. It just didn’t make sense,” said Elsa Ortiz, an agency director who pushed to buy buses from Gillig. “Now we’re buying from a company that’s in Hayward just 10 miles away. It’s local jobs; it’s improving the local economy.”
Gillig, which was founded in 1890 to build horse-drawn carriages, is a throwback to an era when manufacturing was king and American workers stayed in the same jobs for decades. Gillig employees earn an average of $40 an hour in salary and benefits. After 25 years, workers receive an all-expenses-paid Hawaiian vacation for themselves and their families.
Alameda County has lost 33,000 manufacturing jobs in the last decade, and it is still struggling to rebound from the recession, yet Gillig has continued to build buses without layoffs at its plant near the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge. Most bus companies in the United States have disappeared, and those that remain are foreign-owned or make only portions of their buses here. Gillig is the only remaining American-owned transit bus company that does all its manufacturing in the United States, according to company officials and industry experts.
But even as the loss of American manufacturing jobs has become an issue in the presidential election, political gridlock in Washington is threatening companies like Gillig. The federal transportation bill, which used to be routinely renewed every six years, has become a battleground as Republicans try to cut spending on public transit.
Although the Senate has passed a two-year transportation bill, the House, unable to settle its differences, has simply kicked the can down the road, extending financing for only a few months at a time, a path it took once again this week. The result is that transit agencies around the country, which depend on the federal government for most of the money they need to buy buses, cannot plan far enough in advance to place orders, said Joe Policarpio, vice president for sales and marketing at Gillig.
“It’s been very, very difficult for our customers to plan, and there is a decrease in market demand,” Policarpio said.