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State panel delays vote on automaker's request for training pay

A decision hinges on the details of New United Motor's planned closure, panel members say.

September 26, 2009|Marc Lifsher

SACRAMENTO — A state panel that hands out worker training funds to employers delayed voting on a $2-million request from a soon-to-close Bay Area automaker that builds Toyotas.

Panel members said Friday that before agreeing to reimburse the factory for training autoworkers, they wanted to know more about when the plant's partners knew they were closing the last automobile factory in California.

The factory, New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Fremont, is a joint venture between Toyota Motor Corp. of Toyota City, Japan, and the Detroit-based bankrupt company holding the bad assets of the former General Motors Corp.

Known as NUMMI, it is scheduled to close March 31, putting about 4,700 people out of work.

New United Motor is not backing down from its request for the money. In a statement, it said it hopes "the state will now fulfill its commitment to NUMMI" because the company has "provided training that will continue to benefit team members throughout their careers."

But Barry Broad, a labor union lobbyist and acting chairman of the California Employment Training Panel, said he was skeptical.

"If I had known you were going to shut the plant, I would not have funded workers [for training] on how to build cars when no one is going to build cars in California again," he said.

"If somebody in Detroit or Tokyo knew and let this go forward, I say shame on them. . . . The question remains in my mind of when did the parent companies know" that New United Motor would close.

The facility's fate was sealed Aug. 27 when Toyota's board of directors announced it would no longer make cars there. In July, General Motors elected to pull out of the partnership, leaving it behind in bankruptcy.

Motors Liquidation Co., which holds GM's old assets, technically owns a 50% stake in NUMMI.

During Friday's contentious hearing, Pamela Fong, the plant's assistant general manager for human resources, contended that the decision to seek reimbursement of the $2 million was made by New United Motor.

She described the company as independent with a board of directors comprising Toyota and General Motors representatives.

Under questioning, she said the current chief executive and, indeed, all the chief executives over the last 25 years were from Toyota.

Broad dismissed the claim of independence as "a distinction without a difference."

At the time the company applied for the training money in December 2008, neither its managers nor its board knew that Toyota or General Motors might stop making cars in Northern California, Fong said.

"We were very hopeful we could have a future," she said.

The $2 million, she said, was spent on a variety of programs to make workers more efficient and the company more competitive.

Laid-off workers could apply many of those skills, such as communications and problem-solving, at new jobs, Fong said.

The request for the $2 million, if approved by the panel, would reimburse the company for wages paid to in-house trainers, Fong said.

Some of the money also could be used to help workers make a transition to finding new jobs.

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ken Bensinger contributed to this report.

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