Last California Auto Plant Awaits Its Fate

NUMMI workers protest Thursday across the plant in Fremont, Calif. i i

NUMMI workers demonstrate Thursday at the plant in Fremont, Calif. There are fears automaker Toyota may give up on California's last auto plant. Paul Sakuma/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Sakuma/AP
NUMMI workers protest Thursday across the plant in Fremont, Calif.

NUMMI workers demonstrate Thursday at the plant in Fremont, Calif. There are fears automaker Toyota may give up on California's last auto plant.

Paul Sakuma/AP

During the boom years of the U.S. car business, California was dotted with auto plants. Now the sole survivor may be on the verge of closing.

The New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., or NUMMI, was a unique joint venture between General Motors and Toyota, but the partnership is now history, and thousands of jobs are on the line in Fremont, which can't afford to lose them.

The NUMMI plant sits in the middle of Fremont, a bedroom suburb of San Francisco. It has cranked out cars such as the Toyota Corolla and, until recently, the Pontiac Vibe for the past 25 years.

A Unique Experiment

It is a point of pride among members of the United Auto Workers that their plant, which can produce abut 400,000 vehicles a year, is known for its high-quality cars. NUMMI began as an experiment tying unionized U.S. workers with Japanese management practices.

"It was a big question for both sides," says Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at University of California, Berkeley. "The result was NUMMI, and the result was an extraordinary success story."

Toyota could now decide, however, that the cost of going it alone is too much to bear.

Ever since GM went bankrupt, Toyota has been left negotiating with what's left of the U.S. automaker. News reports in Japan say that Toyota is ready to pull out, though the company insists no decision has been made.

NUMMI is Toyota's only unionized shop in the U.S., a fact that could affect the decision. Shaiken says, however, there is another reason why Toyota may decide to leave Fremont.

"Toyota has significant excess capacity in North America, including several plants that build similar vehicles: a truck plant that is brand new in San Antonio, Texas, a car plant in Canada," he says. "So there is the possibility that the car and truck production at NUMMI could be relocated to those other plants."

Economic Impact

Fremont would feel the impact and the economic ripples would radiate across the Bay Area, Fremont Mayor Bob Wasserman says.

"Equally important, you may even say more, is the multitude of suppliers," he says. "Anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 jobs; very, very significant and, of course, a huge loss."

State and local political and business leaders are rallying to the cause of the NUMMI workers.

At the UAW union hall Thursday, several hundred workers rallied in support of an incentive plan drawn up by local lawmakers and supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to persuade Toyota to stay in Fremont.

Uncertain Future

California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi fired up the crowd.

"Listen up Toyota! We know that you have a very tough, a very difficult divorce with old bankrupt General Motors," he said. "But we want you to know this, Toyota: Come out of that divorce and you'll have a new lover right here in Fremont!"

The cheers he received masked a sagging morale as workers face an uncertain future.

"It is a very family oriented plant," said 46-year-old Karen Connors, who has worked at NUMMI for 24 years along with her husband, Patrick. "My brother works there still. My father retired from there. This place goes down, it's going to cripple a lot of families; it really is."

A decision from Toyota about the fate of the plant could come as soon as the end of this month.

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