Business & Economy

UAW votes on agreement to shut down Calif. plant

For 25 years, Juan Carrera has worked at a sprawling auto plant on the edge of Silicon Valley helping produce Toyota cars and trucks. His son works there too. So does his son-in-law.

But on April 1, they and 4,600 other workers at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., known as Nummi, will be out of work.

On Wednesday, they voted on a deal that will help keep them afloat until something new comes up.

"It's sad. We're family. But I'd say people in the plant are relieved they'll get something. Of course, we all wish we could get more. We all wish we could keep our jobs even more than that," said Carrera, 61.

Leaders of the local United Auto Workers chapter said they encouraged members to ratify the agreement despite being disappointed at aspects of the deal. They wouldn't discuss the proposal in detail, though they did say it includes a minimum payout of $21,175 per worker. Results of the vote weren't expected until late Wednesday or Thursday.

The facility, California's sole remaining automobile assembly plant, started 25 years ago as a joint venture between Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Co. The goal was to let the Detroit automaker observe the Japanese car-making system up close, and let Toyota test its production model on U.S. workers.

GM pulled out last year and is liquidating its stake. Toyota announced in August that without GM, it could not sustain the factory and it would halt production at the plant, which makes the Corolla sedan and Tacoma pickup.

Over the past several weeks, state officials and union leaders have pressed Toyota to keep the plant open. They've said its closure would be devastating to California's economy, already hit hard by the global downturn, and have a ripple effect on job losses throughout the state. A recent report prepared for a commission set up by State Treasurer Bill Lockyer said about 25,000 people, including suppliers, could lose their jobs as a result of the plant closing.

Officials have also tried to appeal to the public relations aspect. They've said as Toyota looks to rebuild consumer confidence after several recalls, the worst thing the company could do is move production elsewhere.

Union leaders blasted Toyota again on Wednesday.

"We brought them success and now we have been betrayed," said Sergio Santos, president of UAW Local 2244.

Mike Goss, a spokesman for Toyota, said he wouldn't comment while workers were still voting on the agreement.

A message left for Lance Tomasu, a Nummi spokesman, wasn't immediately returned.

At the union office, about a block from the plant, workers streamed in and out to vote.

Melanie Smith, who has worked as a quality control inspector at Nummi for 21 years, said she voted for the agreement because she didn't feel like she had a choice. She said she stands to get a lump sum of about $65,000 based on her years of service. She also said she was eligible to collect unemployment and apply for retraining opportunities.

"I think it's pretty fair," she said. She was upset, however, that some people who can't finish out the month, due to disability, will be denied some benefits.

One of those people is 54-year-old Gary Sewell, who has worked at Nummi for 15 years but has been on disability since August due to a leg injury he suffered away from work.

"I'll get about half of what I should be getting," he said. "But worst, I'm going to be in my mid-50s without a job."

Standing next to Sewell, Carrera agreed it's tougher for those in the middle. He said he's close to retirement so he'll be OK and has prepared to be out of the work force; his son and son-in-law are just starting out, so they'll "bounce back."

"But again, we're all family and just leaving this place will be hard," he said. "It's been most of our lives."

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.