MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
And now across the country to California, where the last remaining auto plant on the West Coast is shutting down today. It was a unique operation run jointly by Toyota and General Motors, until GM went broke and pulled out. Now Toyota's pulling the plug on New United Motor Manufacturing, better known by its nickname, NUMMI.
NPR's Richard Gonzales says nearly 5,000 workers in the Fremont, California plant are about to be jobless.
RICHARD GONZALES: The end of NUMMI really started late last week. That's when the company released about a thousand workers who built Tacoma trucks. Some gathered in a local restaurant just an hour or so after they had filed out of the plant for the last time. They included 17-year veteran Curt Sanders.
Mr. CURT SANDERS (Former Employee, NUMMI): My daughter texted me earlier this morning. I lost it. That just kind of set it off. You know, I was good until then, and then as soon as my daughter texted me, you know, everything's going to be fine. We'll be okay, and this and that, I just - that's when the river started.
GONZALES: There were hugs, tears and more than a few beers as workers traded phone numbers and email addresses.
Lisa Wilmer spent almost 18 years on the assembly line.
Ms. LISA WILMER (Former Assembly Line Worker, NUMMI): Well, there's some people that you'll stay in touch with. There's some that you don't care to stay in touch with. The hardest part is the ones that you really like and you know that you're never going to see again. That's the part that's really hard to deal with.
GONZALES: Many of the workers still wonder why Toyota is closing NUMMI. It opened in 1984 as an experiment to see whether unionized American workers could adapt to Japanese management practices. They did. But more than two decades of building high-quality cars wasn't enough to convince Toyota to keep the plant open after GM pulled out.
Toyota officials say NUMMI simply wasn't economically viable, but many workers suspect that it may have something to do with their union. This was Toyota's only unionized workforce. Ann Ezra worked for NUMMI for more than two decades.
Ms. ANN EZRA (Former Employee, NUMMI): Toyota has never shut a plant down in 73 years, and we were the only plant to get a zero-defect audit, ever, in the Toyota history. Only another Lexus plant has ever done it, and they're going to shut us down? Why? So yeah, it's because of the unions.
GONZALES: Ezra stopped short of saying more. Workers have agreed not to denigrate the company in exchange for a severance package, averaging about $50,000, depending on years of service. Forty-seven hundred workers will lose their jobs, and U.C. Berkeley labor expert Harley Shaiken says the NUMMI closure will have a spillover effect on scores of other businesses.
Professor HARLEY SHAIKEN (Labor Expert, University of California-Berkeley): The 20,000 workers who will be impacted by the NUMMI closure work in direct suppliers, some of which who will be totally closed. They also are related workers, the people in the restaurants down the street, the schoolteachers and nurses in hospitals and schools where NUMMI workers live. The impact of this is going to be felt deeply.
GONZALES: Some local leaders hope to recruit another carmaker to Fremont, but Mayor Bob Wasserman says he foresees housing and retail development, perhaps even a ballpark, on the 380-acre site.
Mayor BOB WASSERMAN (Fremont, California): If Toyota's the biggest and best automaker in the world, if they can't make a profit there, who in the world can? So its future as being as it was in the past is not likely.
GONZALES: NUMMI worker Johnny Rowe has a piece of the past he'll hang onto. Back at the restaurant saying his goodbyes, Rowe stands next to a late model Tacoma truck.
Mr. JOHNNY ROWE: Oh, man, the truck I drive, I actually saw it get built. So there's some pride in what we drive. There really is. When I leave the plant, I'm actually sitting in - I'm still sitting in the plant. You know, driving every day, I'm kind of bringing a piece of NUMMI with me.
GONZALES: The last NUMMI-made Toyota Tacoma truck rolled out last Friday. Today, the last Toyota Corolla will leave the plant, and the workers who made it will file out to a final round of farewells.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Fremont, California.
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