Little attention was paid last week when the last auto assembly plant in California closed, apparently forever.
A red Toyota Corolla sedan was the last vehicle produced at the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) plant in Fremont, a sprawling San Francisco Bay suburb located between Oakland and Silicon Valley. A week earlier, the last Tacoma pickup truck produced for Toyota Motor rolled off the assembly line at NUMMI.
Those events marked the end of good-paying jobs for some 4,700 people at the massive plant, and for more than 20,000 others who worked at NUMMI suppliers in the area. The UAW employees of NUMMI received severance payments from Toyota and other benefits from their union and the federal government. The remainder got a handshake and a goodbye, if that.
The big headlines were made last year, when the bankrupt General Motors said it would pull out of the NUMMI joint venture with Toyota, leaving the plant’s fate in the hands of the Japanese carmaker. Akio Toyoda, grandson of Toyota Motor’s founder and the president of the company, once was the general manager of NUMMI, yet he made the unsentimental decision last summer to close the facility. That last Corolla came out of the factory on April Fools’ Day.
Toyota, of course, was reeling at the time from the worst downturn in the automotive industry since the Great Depression. Now, it’s struggling to rebuild its public image as a manufacturer of reliable, safe vehicles. On Monday the US Department of Transportation proposed to fine Toyota $16.4 million for failing to notify the federal government of reported problems with its accelerator pedals on a timely basis.
The end of NUMMI was reminiscent of the 2008 shutdown of GM’s SUV plant in Moraine, Ohio, an event documented in the elegiac film The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, which was nominated this year for an Academy Award. Say what you will about SUVs (you won’t hear a good word from me) and GM — what the film shows are the very personal losses when such factories close. Not just incomes and jobs, but also friendships, built over decades and now fraying, and manufacturing expertise, scattered to the wind.
Once the tears dry, the City of Fremont will have to work on what to do with the 380-acre site, which lies in a prime location between two interstate highways. The Oakland Athletics last year gave up on their plan to relocate to a new ballpark in Fremont.
This is the face of creative destruction in the automotive industry. Economists may argue that such moves are necessary in rebuilding the worldwide car business. Those economists, however, still have jobs as the worst recession in decades painfully winds up.