On March 31st, the New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI) plant in Fremont, California -- a 25-year joint venture between GM and Toyota -- will shut down. Last June, GM pulled the plug. In August, Toyota warned it would do the same. NUMMI and UAW Local leaders are hashing out a severance package – or “retention agreement” as management likes to call it. But there’s no deal yet, and some of NUMMI’s 4,700 employees are anxious and angry.
Two weeks ago, the chairman of the union’s bargaining committee, Javier Contreras, found himself yelling to be heard at a meeting with the membership. Contreras told the crowd: "At the end of the day, when April 1st comes, everybody that’s in this room here will not have a job, OK?"
"No kidding!" yelled back 20-year NUMMI veteran Maria Gregg.
Gregg was one of a few people to capture the heated exchange on a cell-phone camera. The videos ended up on YouTube. [Attention: This video contains language that may be offensive.]
Last week, Maria Gregg gathered with some of her colleagues at a McDonald's down the street from the union hall to talk about what’s going on. For one thing, they want union leaders to stop traveling to auto shows, collecting signatures. The leaders are trying to pressure Toyota to change its mind by threatening a boycott. But maintenance worker Steve Richmond says it’s way past time the union’s leadership accepted the inevitable.
"They’re wasting too much time going to Palm Springs, going to Detroit, going to Los Angeles, getting signatures! What percentage of your manpower and resources should you spend on something that’s extremely unlikely to happen? And what percentage of your resources should you spend on what’s gonna happen?" Richmond said.
Juan Castillo is a member of the local's executive committee, but he’s not on board with their strategy. He says at the end of the day, Local 2244 is going to make a deal with NUMMI. Not GM. Not Toyota.
"We don’t have benefits that General Motors have. We cannot transfer to a Toyota plant. That’s the reality. So when we’re at the bargaining table right now, fighting for a retention package? We’re dealing with NUMMI. It’s a different budget," Castillo explained.
NUMMI is offering severance packages up to $60,000 per employee maximum, depending on the length of service. The UAW is pushing for more, plus medical benefits. In the meantime, two job centers offer training and support specifically for employees of NUMMI and its suppliers. Steve Richmond has taken a couple of classes to brush up his job-hunting skills after 21 years off the market.
"I understand that a lot of people in lot of companies, they don’t get that. So I’m trying to utilize it and I appreciate it, you know," said Richmond.
Federal Trade Adjustment Assistance offers Richmond a lot more than classes. He also gets $10,000 worth of retraining, COBRA subsidies, and a relocation allowance if he moves to get a new job.
"I don’t plan on moving out of the state, but maybe in the future I have to consider it. Because there’s going to be such a glut of people, basically, trying to apply for the same types of positions around here, I may have to consider it."
Not everyone can pick up and leave easily. And the NUMMI closure forces far more than the plant’s 4700 employees out of work. A network of more than 1,000 suppliers services NUMMI. The prospect of an estimated 30,000 people all jumping into the job market at once has local government agencies bracing for the impact.
"It’s a bolder falling into a pond," says Tony Castillo, the NUMMI point person for the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board. He says eight counties in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley will be hit hard. Even though this kind of thing has happened before.
At least one labor economist argues NUMMI’s closure is far from a done deal. Or should be, given how much state and federal governments are willing to spend to create new jobs and how much they’re going to spend responding to the plant’s closure. Harley Shaiken, professor at UC Berkeley, says one phone call from President Obama could change Toyota’s mind.
"We tend to think of the decline of manufacturing as a natural phenomenon. We may not like it but it’s going to happen. That’s in fact not the case. It’s much more like climate change. In fact, it is made by the decisions that people take," says Shaiken.
There are a lot of people mobilizing to save the NUMMI jobs -- or replace them. There are two task forces, including one in Washington DC, led by Senator Diane Feinstein. Behind the scenes, policy makers at all levels are pursuing several strategies: trying to win back GM or Toyota; trying to replace them with another auto maker; luring in a different industry; and encouraging companies of all kinds to make use of NUMMI’s supplier network. In the meantime, tens of thousands of people are going over their household finances and figuring out how to survive the next year.
You can listen below to my radio report, which aired this morning on The California Report.