Workers lose fight to keep NUMMI open

 FREMONT, Calif. – The United Auto Workers’ campaign to keep the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) plant open has ended in defeat: Toyota held fast in its decision to stop using the plant, and the union is now resigned to severance. Toyota took the decision despite a report by a “Blue Ribbon Commission” appointed by California state Treasurer Bill Lockyer and chaired by University of California-Berkeley economics professor Harley Shaiken, showing the company’s stated reasons for the closure are unfounded.

Community leaders had fought alongside the union. They realized the closure will be a disaster for California, with 4,700 workers at the plant and tens of thousands more at parts suppliers losing work. Lockyer’s commission says the closure will cost California taxpayers $2.3 billion and cripple the state’s economy.

It was apparent Toyota didn’t care about that. Many believe the real reason is union-busting. NUMMI is Toyota’s only unionized plant in North America.

On March 17 workers gathered at the UAW hall across the street from the plant to vote on the severance package negotiated by the union. It was a painful scene. “Twenty five years and this is what we get. Great fight. Great job,” one man shouted from his car to a nearby union official as he turned out of the lot.

There was no doubt the deal would be accepted, and not because it was some kind of golden parachute. While the union won modest improvements to Toyota’s initial offer, the average is around $53,500 and workers on disability were left behind with a severance slightly over $21,000. “As soon as NUMMI found a loophole to screw people, that’s just what they did,” Sal Gomez, who went on disability last September after a knee replacement, told the San Jose Mercury News. The deal also leaves a $131 million pension shortfall.

“For the world’s most profitable automaker to walk away from a pension covering people who, in some cases, worked for more than a quarter of a century doesn’t look good,” Shaiken told the Detroit Free Press.

The workers were nonetheless expected to ratify the agreement. The union argued the impending closure would make NUMMI less interested in negotiating, and warned that if NUMMI declared bankruptcy the workers might lose severance altogether.

Juan Carrera, NUMMI worker since 1985, told reporters: “there was no other choice … It’s like take it or leave it.”

When votes were tallied the agreement won by 90 percent.

The package contains a clause that gags the union and stipulates they should not engage in activities that might be harmful to Toyota, including “informational picketing.”

Before the vote, Sergio Santos, president of the NUMMI workers’ union, UAW Local 2244, said imposing the restrictions “violates our First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution and our rights to freedom of association under the labor rights conventions of the United Nations International Labor Organization.” Despite his views, he said, he would comply with the restrictions.

Recapping the Lockyer Commission’s findings that Toyota could have produced more Corollas and started making hybrids and plug-ins at NUMMI, Santos said of the closure’s consequences. “… as we lose our homes, our health benefits, and ultimately our health, the true toll of Toyota’s decision to abandon vehicle production in California will become clear to everyone.”

The closure is also a loss for all of the nation’s auto workers. The other Toyota plants had been able to use the threat of unionization to force management to keep their wages in line with those of unionized NUMMI. No longer. More, it is likely that GM will try to peg its wages to Toyota’s in the name of competition.

Meanwhile, area labor councils and elected officials are working to help the displaced auto workers and seeking new manufacturing uses for the NUMMI facility.

Photo: David Bester