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Toyota-GM Joint Venture Now Shuttered, But Lessons Remain

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2010 Toyota Corolla

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NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.), the manufacturing plant set up in the 1980s as a revolutionary venture between GM and Toyota, has closed its doors, with the last vehicle, a Toyota Corolla, rolling off the line last week.

Over the years, the plant has assembled a number of vehicles, including the Corolla, the Toyota Tacoma, the Pontiac Vibe, the Chevrolet/Geo Prizm, and the Corolla-based Chevrolet Nova, which kicked off the venture's production in 1984.

While most of these vehicles were either Toyota-designed or very closely related to Toyota vehicles, all with well-respected quality and reliability records, it's not so much the cars themselves—or the plant's status as the last remaining auto-assembly plant on the West Coast—as the plant's history and the people who worked in it that make NUMMI such an interesting case in labor history—and a template for better labor relations for GM.

The two automakers formed the venture so that GM could learn from Toyota, while the Japanese company could begin setting up U.S. assembly facilities. Unfortunately, as a recent full-length report from Public Radio International's This American Life uncovers, GM never did fully follow the practices that made NUMMI such a success story.

It's a very compelling listen, and tells the story—through interviews with former company executives, union leaders, and line workers—about the plant's demise, followed by its rebirth with help from Toyota.

GM's Fremont plant, which preceded the NUMMI facility at the same location, assembled cars and later trucks and was one of the most problematic of any of GM's plants at the time, with a reputation for poor quality, poor workplace morale, and excessive absenteeism.

Former plant workers recall that alcohol, sex, and drugs were quite common, and the line wouldn't stop for anything. Engines were put in backwards, and cars made it to the end of the line with the front end from one 'badge-engineered' model and the body and trim of another.

The original GM plant had closed in 1982, but workers and the UAW were a little surprised when Toyota opted to rehire a significant portion of the former workforce, flying them to Japan for training and teaching them a completely different way of assembling vehicles. That included rewarding them for improving the process, and allowing them to stop the line when needed. The result, curiously to Detroit naysayers, was that Toyota built more vehicles, with higher quality, than had ever been built at the Fremont plant. Annual production at the plant peaked in 2006, at 428,632 vehicles.

NUMMI plant in Fremont, California

NUMMI plant in Fremont, California

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Although largely a casualty of GM's bankruptcy last year combined with the sustained slump in auto sales (its closure was announced last July), NUMMI is the first Toyota assembly plant ever to be shut down. A total of 4,700 workers will lose their jobs, each receiving about $50,000 in severance. The plant remained until the end Toyota's only U.S. plant with UAW workers.

[San Francisco Chronicle; NPR]

 
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Comments (6)
  1. And the lessons would be....???
     
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  2. It's a teaser to listen to the radio report... But among the lessons are that GM didn't change its core management structure and the way it dealt with labor at its plants quickly enough. The comparisons/contrasts to GM's other West Coast plant at Van Nuys are particularly interesting.
     
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  3. How is it possible that GM caused this plant to close according to your article? GM accounted for less than 20% for the production! This was all about toyota wanting to stop having to deal with the UAW which is really sad for toyota in the long run as they shift production to other plants with the same high quality product being produced!
     
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  4. You got it, Jay. Also, the location is a very expensive one from a tax and wages standpoint. California is also a hotbed of aggresive trial lawyers.
     
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  5. "The plant remained until the end Toyota's only U.S. plant with UAW workers"
    Well......DUH!!!
     
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  6. "reputation for poor quality, poor workplace morale, and excessive absenteeism". That is what you get when you pay people 5 times what they are worth, and you can not even fire the worst of the bunch due to the union contract. You can train a person to work the line in an hour, yet the UAW members complain about 30 dollar an hour jobs! Factory jobs should be minimum wage. Bring the factory back to the USA, offer 8 bucks an hour. There would be a line around the block of applicants. Cars would be about half the price of current levels. People would buy more if they were not so expensive. It has gotten out of hand the price we pay for automobiles so the workers can have the cottage, boat, blah blah blah. If you want to start and raise a family, get an education and use your mind, or get used to the fact you will have a long hard life. Good Luck!
     
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