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NUMMI, five years later: A family reunion

Angela Johnston
Dennis Breckner sits next to another former NUMMI worker at the five year reunion in Tracy, CA.

On April 1st, the lunch line at the Golden Corral Buffet in Tracy snaked out the door. It was full of people who hadn’t seen each other in over five years.

This was a big reunion for people who worked together at the New United Motors Manufacturing plant in Fremont -- known as NUMMI for short. For 25 years the NUMMI factory made cars; every minute a car would come off the line. They were good, old-fashioned American cars like Chevy Novas, and Pontiac Vibes. But the people who were at the Golden Corral, also built Japanese cars, like Toyota Corollas, and Toyota Tacoma trucks.

It’s because NUMMI was a joint venture between two giant auto companies: Toyota and General Motors. It was something totally unheard of before. NUMMI took over an old GM factory that was notoriously bad. It closed, but when it reopened Toyota, turned it around overnight. More than 5,000 people from all around the Bay Area worked at the revamped plant.

But even this innovative partnership didn’t last forever. In 2009, GM declared bankruptcy, and Toyota didn’t want to keep running the plant. So the factory closed, and those workers lost their jobs.

This is the story of what they did afterwards -- how they picked up the pieces, and where they are now -- starting with the reunion at the Golden Corral buffet.

Credit Angela Johnston
Betty Sull catches up with fellow NUMMI worker Joe Nevarez at the Golden Corral Buffet in Tracy.

One big family

Mostly, the NUMMI reunion feels like a big family reunion. Old friends catch up while waiting in line for their food. They tell jokes as they shovel Tater tots and fried chicken onto their plates. Some have retired, others have taken up new jobs, new hobbies.

“I’m a fisherman, a songwriter, a musician. I just released a new CD, that’s something I’ve been wanting to do, but I was working all those hours,” says former NUMMI worker David Botello.

People are dressed in old NUMMI sweatshirts and ball caps.

“Some of us have lost weight, some of us have gained weight, some of us have gotten older, some of us look the same,” says Betty Sull. I ran into her at the chocolate fondue fountain, talking to another woman she hadn’t seen in years. Across the room, Tony Camillo says he keeps up with people.

“I myself have lunch or breakfast with a NUMMI employee every two weeks,” he says.

There’s one big absence today. Sara Rogers was a tour guide at NUMMI. She gave tours of the plant to people five days a week for 11 years. She couldn’t make the reunion, but people were asking for her, and she would have recognized them.

“It wasn’t just I’m a tour guide, you know ‘here’s a tire, here's an engine,’” she says. “It was more about ‘here's a tire and here's Bob working with the tire, here’s an engine, here’s Jason working with an engine.’”

A family with unique values

On her tours, Rogers started by telling people NUMMI’s key values.

She names a few:  kaizen, kanban, jidoka, muda, genchi genbutsu.

Those are Japanese terms that mean things like “quality of the workstation,” “suggestion programs,” and “learning by doing.” These principles came from Toyota after they reopened the GM plant, and they defined the culture at NUMMI.

Then she’d drive around the plant. If you were on her tour, you’d watch big weights clamp down on sheets of metal to cut out pieces of cars. She’d take you past a section called ‘body and weld,’ where those cookie-cutter car pieces were welded together. As you traveled along the mile-and-a-half long line, you’d hear bells, whistles, and music that played when people pulled cords for help. She’d point out the car doors hanging on rails from the ceiling, show you how the seats and carpet were put inside.

“I would tell them stories along the way about some of the people, we would sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to people on the line because those were the folks that I worked for,” she says.

When production slowed in 1988, and again in 2008, Rogers says NUMMI never laid anyone off. It was their policy. They scaled production down from two shifts a day to one. The other shift took classes.

“They would learn more about personal protective equipment, or sexual harassment. They would take every class,” says Rogers. “I got to teach the history of Toyota. I mean, I could not have come up with anything to teach people more about what we meant, [than the fact] that no one got laid off...until the plant closed and the dream ended.”


Credit Angela Johnston
Tony Camillo shakes the hand of a fellow NUMMI worker at the five year reunion at the Golden Corral in Tracy, California. Dennis Breckner, who is looking at the camera, organized the event.

After the dream

On April 1, 2010, the last car -- a red Toyota Corolla -- rolled off the line.

“I remember I just started bawling right then and there, because that was my life, you know, I wanted to be the oldest living tour guide. I was going be there until I was 90. I didn’t want to retire, I’d stay there forever. I loved my job,” Rogers remembers.

The emotional side was just one part of it. On that last day, Rogers was worried.

“I saw people leaving,” she says. “I thought, there’s families in here. There’s multi-generations here. There are dads and sons and daughters, and three generations walking out the door, and this has been their livelihood forever. What are they gonna do?”

This is Part 1 of a three-part series looking at what’s happened in the five years since theNUMMI auto plant closed. Read Part 2 and Part 3, or (we recommend) listen to the whole radio show!
This piece originally aired in June 2015. 

Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.