Nummi workers demand action by union leaders

Nummi workers demand action by union leaders

Sunday, January 31, 2010

(01-30) 14:40 PST FREMONT — Leaders of a United Auto Workers local answered questions from skeptical members Saturday about why it was taking so long to negotiate the final payments to the 4,700 people who will lose their jobs when New United Motor Manufacturing in Fremont shuts down April 1.

The atmosphere in the packed union hall across from the Nummi plant was calm, in contrast to the anger that erupted into cursing and shoving last Sunday. Rank-and-file members harangued leaders that day for conducting a campaign against Toyota over the impending closure while not going after General Motors, which jointly operated the plant with the Japanese automaker from 1984 to last year.

GM set the stage for the shutdown in June when it abruptly withdrew from the Nummi partnership as part of its bankruptcy filing. Toyota sealed the plant’s fate when it announced in August that it would also halt production at the end of March.

UAW Local 2244 President Sergio Santos heard speakers during Saturday’s two-hour meeting demand that the union finalize negotiations on what Nummi management calls a "retention agreement" rather than a severance package.

The proposal would link workers’ departure payouts to the continued, smooth operation of the factory through its closing.

Santos said the local is holding out for more than the roughly $50,000 to $60,000 maximum that the company is offering based on length of service, and hopes to secure medical coverage for those laid off.

But union official Juan Castillo, a member of the local’s executive committee who is critical of Santos, said the delay weakens workers’ bargaining position as the closure date draws near.

It also prolongs the uncertainty about how much support workers can expect when the plant does close, Castillo said.

Nummi Vice President Tetsuro Hitoshi turned up the pressure in a memo to employees Friday, saying that "as time passes, it becomes more difficult to justify a significant payment" to retain plant workers until the last car rolls off the line.

Santos dismissed the implied threat that Nummi will withdraw its offer, saying it "would be a slap in the face to American workers" for the company to shut the factory without a severance deal.

But 17-year-plant veteran Jerrie Clemens said union leaders had kept rank-in-file in the dark and made it harder for people to plan their next moves by stringing out the negotiations.

Union member Maria Gregg, a 20-year Nummi employee, said many workers felt Toyota had acted far more responsibly than GM in how it handled the shutdown.

"Toyota gave us eight months’ notice," Gregg said. "GM was out in two or three weeks."

Dan Johnson, a union member with 15 years at the plant, said many workers felt the UAW was soft-pedaling criticism of GM because the union, through its health fund, now owns 17.5 percent of the U.S. automaker.

But Santos insisted that the UAW had to target Toyota because GM had legally insulated itself from responsibility for the shutdown costs through its bankruptcy filing.

"There will be a time to go after GM," he said.

E-mail Tom Abate at tabate@sfchronicle.com.

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