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NUMMI, five years later: Picking up the pieces

Angela Johnston
Maryo Mendez displays a newspaper clipping where made the front page of the San Jose Mercury News. He dressed up as Captain American to protest the factory's closure.

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

Sara Rogers says one of her best NUMMI memories was a funny little joke she and the NUMMI team members would play on the tour guests. It went something like this: Rogers would have about a dozen or so people on her tram, and she’d be pointing out these giant high-tech, frame-building robots...

“And there’s sparks flying, and kids were getting excited, and I go ‘well ladies and gentlemen, I have a treat for you today, you’re the first ones and only ones to see this ... we don’t have our special robots out on the line because they’re under wraps, you’re not supposed to see these ... so ladies and gentlemen, please look to your left …’”

At which point two of the workers, Willie Brown and Mario Perez, would stop whatever they were doing on the line, and start dancing “The Robot.”

“It was just so fun to have people react to them. That was what I wanted people to do, to see that these are human beings,” says Rogers. “These are not robots, these are real people and they live in your neighborhood, and you know, they get up every morning and they come to work.”

When the plant closed, Rogers was devastated, but she knew she’d be okay.

“I’m single. I have a dog. I knew that I didn’t need much money. I already paid off all my bills,” she says. “I had thought ahead about this.”

But she couldn’t stop thinking about Willie and Mario, and the others.

“Some people couldn’t even use a computer. They didn’t have to! But man they could put those doors on straight. Gosh, their pant jobs were excellent. Wow, the doors were shaped perfectly.”

And at NUMMI, people were rewarded for their hard work. They got great benefits. They never had to worry about doctors’ fees, job interviews, or making resumes. After the factory closed, they had to deal with all these real, human problems. And Rogers was tasked with helping them.

“I was just somebody to sit here and try and get people through some places that they’d never been before.”

Real people, not robots

Rogers and a few other workers were hired as peer counselors by the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board after the county banded together with eight other regions to open rapid response unemployment centers around the Bay Area. These were places where people could sift through job postings, find out where to learn new skills, apply for health care programs, and talk with counsellors. Rogers says, though, that her most important work happened outside of the center.

“We were like ‘24/7’ because when do you get most down? About 9 o’clock at night, laying in bed, things are rolling around in your head,” she says. “We would get calls in the middle of the night, and that’s what broke my heart, that’s when real people would come out.”

She got calls about overdue mortgages. One man needed a liver transplant and no longer had health insurance. She had to convince people not to spend their $50,000 retention packages overnight -- people got these so they wouldn’t quit before the factory closed. She’d call pharmacies all over the Bay Area trying to find the best deals on medications. She’d help people pay their bills.

“You’d see families fighting, and so families would get divorced. They thought they could only live and breathe and eat and walk and talk with that income at that place, with those people. And then you leave.”

“There were some suicides,” she says, after a pause. “What do you do with that information?”

She tried her best. These unemployment programs lasted almost three years; 5,380 people enrolled in the Alameda County one. Maryo Mendez was one of the first people Rogers saw.

Mendez was one of those guys whose whole family worked at NUMMI. “I started in the body shop working the night shift, and then I went to the line, and then I finally moved to conveyance, where you deliver all the parts to the line, that’s where my dad used to work,” he says.

When the plant closed, the very first thing he did was take a little vacation. But when he came back, it was go time. He started taking classes to get some new skills -- like a lot of other NUMMI workers, he got $10,000 from the state for new training.

“I learned how to do the computer stuff, learned how to look at jobs,” he says. “I was trying to find something special, something that same pay. But there's not that many that had that pay.”

“I started dropping off all my resumes. I started going all different directions every day. I kept going further and I go, ‘you know what? First place that calls, I'm done. I don't care who it is, I'm just going to do it.’’”

A year passed, and no one was biting. Mendez was 54, and couldn’t retire yet. For him and his family of four, time was running out.

“I used unemployment, and I was running everything out. We were in the medical COBRA program, and that was starting to run out, and I was going, ‘what am I going to do?’”

A system collapses

One of the reasons Mendez had such a hard time is that it wasn’t just NUMMI that shut down -- it was all the other businesses that supported it. At the time, there weren’t any other large auto manufacturing plants in the Bay Area. The factories that supported NUMMI were gone.

“That was their only account, and so when NUMMI shut down, they had no reason for being here,” says Bill Browne. He works at a consulting firm called Manex. When NUMMI closed, Browne and his team surveyed 38 businesses and factories in Alameda County to see if they could survive. Most of them worked exclusively for NUMMI. They looked at companies that made seats, door panels, instrument panels, and engines. They visited each one, and checked things off a list.

“How are they going to reposition themselves from being a seat manufacturer to ... something else,” Browne says.

Out of those 38 companies, only four are operating today. Take for example, Kennerley Spratling  -- KS Plastics for short. They call themselves an “injection molding assembly house.” Basically, they make plastic things, and they made plastic car parts for NUMMI.

Kevin Ahern, VP of Sales at KS Plastics, won’t tell me the exact numbers, but he says in the 2000s KS plastics was shipping seven or eight truckloads of equipment to NUMMI every single day. Once KS Plastics knew what was happening with NUMMI, they needed to make some changes.

“You do two things. You take your existing customer base and you see what else you can be doing for them. And then, number two: you look at outside. You go find new customers,” Ahern says.

They did both. They started making some car parts for plants in the Midwest. And then, the company started new contracts.

From car parts to toy cars

I put on a pair of safety goggles and Ahern takes me into the factory to show me what they’re making now. We walk past huge molds that are getting filled with hot plastic -- 700-ton machines.  Robots are moving these pieces of plastic up and down; forklifts are whizzing around.

When NUMMI closed, Ahern said it got really quiet in here. You could hear a pin drop. Now, it’s humming. They’re molding plastics for pools and hot tubs, biotech equipment, medical devices, and toys.

As we’re leaving the factory, we walk past a bin filled with pink plastic toy cars. They’re not exactly Toyota Corollas, but a nice nod to the past.

KS Plastics is doing well. They’ve actually expanded in the five years since NUMMI’s closure, opened another factory nearby. And Ahern tells me, they’ve managed to rehire some of the people they laid off.

“Seventy-five percent of the folks that were displaced were brought back,” he says. “And we could have brought back more.”

A new job

Even with the rehiring, though, there were still people left behind. NUMMI closed during the recession. Just over a year later, the Fremont solar panel factory Solyndra unexpectedly filed for bankruptcy, and laid off thousands of workers, some of whom had just come from NUMMI. Only about half of the 5,000 or so people in the county unemployment program had new jobs. And that was the environment Maryo Mendez found himself in, almost two years after he lost his job at NUMMI.

“The last couple weeks before employment ran out, I got desperate,” he tells me.

Finally, he got a call back from a Sears Automotive shop.

“I work on cars,” he says. “It's okay… it's not the same. You know, you get greasy and dirty and it's not NUMMI.”

Mendez works six days a week, for a lot less pay. And he only gets two days of vacation a year. But it’s work. In fact, he works on some of the cars he made.

“I'm doing oil changes on them, and replacing axles,” he says. “Some of the cars that we built, they got a lot of miles because the cars last forever. So, it's just it's funny, I just keep working on the same cars that I built or helped build."

This piece originally aired in June 2015.