Workers At California Auto Plant Left In Limbo

Now that California's sole auto assembly plant is definitely closing, workers there are wondering where that leaves them. The NUMMI plant, a partnership between GM and Toyota, offers no clear answers yet on what happens to workers' pensions and other benefits. About 5,000 assembly jobs are disappearing.

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In Freemont, California, thousands of autoworkers are facing an uncertain future. Toyota has announced it will shutter the plant called NUMMI. It was a unique joint venture, a partnership between Toyota and General Motors, but GM pulled out this past summer.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, widespread layoffs will aggravate an already painful job market in Freemont and beyond.

RICHARD GONZALES: At the union hall of UAW Local 2244, a meeting of retired workers is breaking up. The hottest topic of conversation is the impending closure of NUMMI in March of next year. What does it mean for retirees' pensions and health benefits, not to mention the workers who are still on the job? So far, there are more questions than answers. Seventy-five-year-old Willy King worked for NUMMI for 20 years.

Mr. Willy King (Member, UAW Local 2244): We should be sitting down with the company, working out each issue so that the employees would know exactly what they've got coming, based on what they're entitled to.

GONZALES: People don't have that information right now?

Mr. KING: No, they don't have that information right now.

GONZALES: Ever since Toyota announced in late August that it will shutter the Freemont plant, an air of uncertainty descended over its workforce. Neither Toyota nor the union has said much about how the shutdown will be handled.

What is certain is that some 4,700 autoworkers will be unemployed, including 46-year-old Karen Connors. She's worked at NUMMI for more than two decades.

Ms. KAREN CONNORS (Employee, New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.): My husband works here, too. This plant goes down, both incomes are gone. So basically my son's college fund...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CONNORS: ...is going to pay our mortgage.

GONZALES: The impact of a NUMMI will likely be felt all over the San Francisco Bay Area, especially by an estimated 20,000 workers employed by local parts suppliers. That's why the state legislature still hopes to convince Toyota to change its mind and stay open. Lawmakers are offering Toyota or any other automaker tax cuts and other incentives to manufacture cars in Freemont, but it's probably too late.

Michelle Krebs, an auto industry analyst for edmonds.com, says NUMMI's shutdown makes economic sense.

Ms. MICHELLE KREBS (Auto Analyst, Edmonds.com): It has to ship a lot of the parts that are made in the Midwest out to California. A lot of its vehicles are sold in California, so you don't have trucks and rail cars coming back loaded with vehicles that can return for the parts. So the logistics of it are expensive.

GONZALES: Krebs says another strike against the NUMMI plant is its age. It originally opened under GM's management in 1962. She says the closure is a sign that Toyota simply expanded production too fast, and wound up with excess capacity when car sales tanked. Others say NUMMI's closure is a wakeup call for California.

Mr. GINO DICARO (Spokesman, California Manufacturers and Technology Association): Really, it proves what many have been saying about California over the past few years, and that is that California is just not a competitive place to do business.

GONZALES: Gino DiCaro is a spokesman for the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. He says high energy cost, taxes, and a heavy regulatory environment all make California a very tough place for manufacturers.

Mr. DICARO: Since January of 2001, California has lost 580,000 manufacturing jobs. That's 30 percent of the state's industrial base.

GONZALES: Back the union hall, retiree Willy King shakes his head at the thought of how the NUMMI autoworkers will fair in a job market where unemployment is running at around 12 percent. But he says he likes to stay optimistic.

Mr. KING: My concern is for the people. Hope the people realize that before NUMMI existed, they survived. And that once NUMMI no longer exists, they still will survive. And you made NUMMI. NUMMI didn't make you.

GONZALES: And King says he holds no ill feelings towards Toyota. After all, it's a business, he says, and if they can't make money they won't be here.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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