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Workers bracing to say goodbye to Toyota auto plant

Most industry analysts believe it's a foregone conclusion that the Japanese automaker will shut California's last remaining auto plant. That leaves 3,600 union workers to hope against enormous odds.

August 17, 2009|Ken Bensinger

FREMONT, CALIF. — As Mae Fisher sees it, the union has given her a good life.

She's spent more than half her 62 years as a dues-paying member of the United Auto Workers, on the line in the hulking gray auto factory here where Toyota Corp. and General Motors Co. make Tacomas, Corollas and Pontiac Vibes. She credits her union salary for her home, her security and the prospect of a comfortable retirement. Fisher can afford a vacation every year, and her household budget can easily absorb the occasional night on the town.

It's been good to her family too; three of her sisters, two nephews and a grandson all work at the factory, which is half an hour south of Oakland.

But with the auto industry struggling through its worst year in three decades, the smart money is betting that the plant here will be shut down. That would be a devastating blow to Fisher and the 3,600 other union workers she calls her sisters and brothers.

"We're used to making a certain amount of money and living a certain lifestyle, and now they might not want to give that to us," Fisher said, peering out from big, round glasses beneath a permanent wave. "It's a shock."

On a recent Sunday morning, Fisher and hundreds of other anxious members of UAW Local 2244 shuffled into the union hall across the street from the factory to hear from their leaders. Many seemed prepared for the worst.

Inside the hall, union members stood shoulder to shoulder in jeans, Raiders jerseys and UAW caps. Men pushing 70, their thick hands crooked from years on the line, young women barely out of high school, leather-clad bikers and churchgoers dressed in Sunday finery, they all waited to hear what their leaders would say, hoping for a shred of good news.

In June, GM said it would use bankruptcy to pull out of the plant it has operated as a joint venture with Toyota since 1984, and where it makes the Pontiac Vibe.

That left the Japanese automaker, which still makes Corolla sedans and Tacoma pickups here, to ponder the future of the plant, New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., or Nummi for short.

On this hot August morning, there was one question on everyone's mind: Would Toyota pull the plug too?

With tension heavy in the crowded hall, Local 2244 President Sergio Santos spoke into the microphone, reminding his members that their current contract would soon expire and that he was doing all he could to hammer out a new one to save their jobs.

"Nothing has been decided yet," said Santos, exhausted after countless hours at the negotiating table with factory management. Talks aside, he urged everyone to write to their representatives in Washington and Sacramento on behalf of the factory. "We need all the help we can get," he said.

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A way of life

Most auto industry analysts believe it's a foregone conclusion that Toyota will pull out of Fremont, given the auto industry's deep woes. On Saturday a Japanese newspaper citing unnamed sources said that Toyota was considering ending production next year. If so, it would spell the end for California's last remaining auto plant.

The factory, opened as an experiment to implement Japanese manufacturing techniques with American workers, was the first and only one of its kind. Using mostly former GM employees, the factory seemed, for some time, a model for the future of American carmaking.

Its successes emboldened Toyota to open more factories in the U.S. But unlike Nummi, they were not unionized. Toyota has worked hard to keep the UAW out of those plants, where it pays lower wages, doesn't offer a pension and provides benefits that are decidedly less generous.

If Toyota decides to shutter the Bay Area plant, it not only would mean more painful layoffs in the region but also would reflect the end of a way of life, a factory union life in which people with a high school education who are willing to tough it out in the repetitive, grinding jobs on a factory floor could earn as much as $29 an hour and climb into the middle class without ever having to put on a necktie.

"This is about the decline of good manufacturing jobs in America," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "These people thought that the plant would always be there and their children would work there. They had it made and they can't make it anymore."

The autoworkers drinking beers and shooting pool at Kirby's, the union hangout just up the road from the plant, know that Toyota's decision will be guided by arcane factors such as foreign exchange rates, tax incentives and supply lines.

But to the men at the bar, there's a feeling that the whole process is a referendum on the union and, by extension, their jobs.

"People have died for what we have," said Robert Moreno, downing the last dregs of his beer as an Oakland A's game flickered on a TV over the bar.

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