Last week, officials from Toyota Motor Corporation confirmed what tens of thousands of East Bay residents had feared. Next March they will be closing the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. auto plant in Fremont, throwing 4,600 autoworkers out of jobs and threatening the jobs of tens of thousands of others who work for companies dependent upon the facility.
People have spent their lives in the NUMMI plant, probably logging more time with the compressed-air tools at their workstations than with their families at home. The plant is like a city, thousands of jobs and thousands of people working in a complicated dance in which each one's contribution makes possible that of the next person down the line. And like a city, it supports the people who work in it.
A NUMMI job brings the paycheck that pays the mortgage and the now astronomical tuition for kids in college. A NUMMI job makes possible the friendships that grow over years laboring in the same workplace. Working at NUMMI means being part of the union, with all the frustrations and infighting, but also the ability to pull together to get the contract that makes an industrial job bearable and ensures that a kid's visit to a doctor or dentist doesn't bottom out the family bank account.
General Motors used to run this plant by itself, back in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was GM Fremont. It was a feisty plant with a feisty union, and a linchpin for years in the movement to stop concessions in union bargaining. When GM closed the plant the first time, in the early 1980s, many thought it was revenge. Afterward, autoworkers from Fremont became migrants. Many lived a lonely existence in motels in Oklahoma City or Texas, trying to hold onto seniority in a union auto job, sending money back home to families in California. Others lost their homes, and worse. In the wave of plant closures of the early 1980s, the Department of Commerce even kept a statistic of how many people committed suicide for every thousand who lost jobs when their plant shut down. No one in Washington has the courage to face that number anymore.
When GM and Toyota announced their partnership to reopen the plant, desperation was so great that people to agreed to a union contract outside the national pattern before the lines even started moving. Big concessions to the "Japanese style of management" often pitted workers against one another and their union, too. It took years to fight those problems out with management.
When General Motors announced in June that it would withdraw from its partnership with Toyota, everyone knew that spelled trouble. What sense did it make for GM to withdraw from a plant that consistently made vehicles that sold well, at a profit? But the GM bailout put the company under managers with more apparent concern for the company's bankers and investors than for its employees and suppliers. Keeping production going at low-cost plants outside the United States may return the company to profitability, but at the cost of the jobs and welfare of tens of thousands of people. Whose interest was our government serving with such a bailout? Even in France, the conservative Sarkozy government told French automakers they had to keep their factories running if they wanted a government subsidy. But here in the United States, who was bailed out, and who wasn't?
Without a GM partner, Toyota is moving to close its only American auto plant with a union. And the company just got a big taxpayer-funded gift, too. More vehicles sold under the Cash for Clunkers program were Corollas made at the NUMMI plant than any other model. The administration and Congress threw $3 billion at Toyota and the other auto giants to reduce car prices and increase sales. But there was no requirement that the subsidy come with a commitment to keep the people who made those cars working.
Look at the photographs of the people of NUMMI. These experienced and talented people could make anything. If Toyota doesn't want to make cars in Fremont, why not put the plant to use making buses or railcars for BART and other local transit systems for which taxpayers have already agreed to give up billions of dollars? And if Toyota and GM don't want to give up the plant or put it to that use, then a true government commitment would be to use its power of eminent domain to take it over and ensure that the abilities of its workers don't go to waste — and that their families and the others depending on continued production there aren't plunged into poverty and despair.
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