Toyota-GM Joint Venture Now Shuttered, But Lessons Remain

April 6, 2010
2010 Toyota Corolla

2010 Toyota Corolla

2009 Pontiac Vibe

2009 Pontiac Vibe

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

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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