Last California Auto Plant Awaits Its Fate Toyota reportedly is on the verge of closing a plant it had jointly run with now-bankrupt GM in Fremont, Calif. The plant has turned out thousands of vehicles and supported about 5,000 factory jobs over the past two decades.
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Last California Auto Plant Awaits Its Fate

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Last California Auto Plant Awaits Its Fate

Last California Auto Plant Awaits Its Fate

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

During the boom years of the American car business, California was dotted with auto plants. Now it has just one, which may be on the verge of closing. The plant 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 the California town that cannot afford to lose them.

NPR's Richard Gonzales has the story.

RICHARD GONZALES: Fremont, California is a bedroom suburb of San Francisco, filled mostly with strip malls. But in the middle of the community sits the NUMMI plant, which has been cranking out cars for the past 25 years, like the Toyota Corolla, Tacoma truck and until recently, the Pontiac Vibe. One of the workers who is trying to save NUMMI is 52-year-old Helen Williams.

Ms. HELEN WILLIAMS: A windproof the car, that little annoying noise you hear in the car when it's brand new, you won't hear it all (unintelligible) 'cause I make sure I put everything where it's supposed to be, so you will not get that annoying little wind noise.

GONZALES: It's a point of pride among UAW workers like Williams, that their plant, which can produce about 400,000 vehicles a year, is known for its high-quality cars. NUMMI stands for New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. It started as an experiment tying unionized American workers with Japanese management practices.

Professor HARLEY SHAIKEN (Labor Expert, University of California, Berkeley): It was a big question mark for both sides.

GONZALES: Harley Shaiken is a labor expert at UC Berkeley.

Prof. SHAIKEN: The result was NUMMI, and the result was an extraordinary industrial success story.

GONZALES: But now Toyota could decide that the cost of going at it alone is too much to bear. Ever since GM went bankrupt, Toyota has been left negotiating with what's left of the American automaker. News reports in Japan say that Toyota is ready to pull out, even though the company insists that no decision has been made.

Possibly affecting Toyota's decision, NUMMI is the company's only unionized shop in the United States. But Harley Shaiken says there's another reason why Toyota may decide to leave Fremont.

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

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

Mayor BOB WASSERMAN (Fremont, California): Equally important, or it may - you could even say more, is the multitude of suppliers anywhere between 20 and 30,000 jobs. Very, very significant and, of course, a huge loss.

GONZALES: Which explains why state and local political and business leaders are rallying to the NUMMI workers' cause.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Woman: We are NUMMI.

Unidentified People: We are NUMMI.

Unidentified Woman: Mighty, mighty NUMMI.

Unidentified People: Mighty, mighty NUMMI.

GONZALES: Yesterday at the UAW union hall, several hundred workers rallied in support of an incentive plan drawn up by local lawmakers and supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to convince Toyota to stay in Fremont.

California Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi fired up the crowd.

Lieutenant Governor JOHN GARAMENDI (Democratic, California): Listen up, Toyota. We know that you've a very tough, a very difficult divorce with old bankrupt General Motors. But we want you to know this, Toyota: Come out of that divorce and you'll have a new lover right here in Fremont.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONZALES: But the cheers mask a sagging morale as workers face an uncertain future. Forty-six-year-old Karen Connors has worked at NUMMI for 24 years, along with her husband, Patrick.

Ms. KAREN CONNORS: It is a very, very family-oriented plant. Yeah, 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.

GONZALES: A decision from Toyota about the fate of the NUMMI plant could come by the end of this month.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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