Tesla Revives NUMMI Plant, But Will Workers of Color Benefit?

By Yvonne Yen Liu May 22, 2010

California’s only auto plant will reopen, this time producing electric cars. Tesla Motors announced yesterday that they purchased the shuttered NUMMI factory in Fremont, California with a $50 million investment from Toyota. Advocates for a green economy see this as a victory, an investment in manufacturing and job creation for the Bay Area. 50 new workers will be hired every month, adding up to 1,000 employed in green jobs at the end of a few years. Even if the plant rehired only from its former workforce, 3,500 would still be left unemployed. The closure of NUMMI was a blow to the 4,500 unionized autoworkers, many of whom are people of color — as well as to the surrounding communities, home to many South Asian, Afghani, and Latino families. For 25 years, the plant ran as a joint venture between GM and Toyota, producing 500,000 gas-powered Corollas and Tacomas a year, one percent of the total number of cars produced worldwide. That all ended on April 1, when GM went bankrupt and Toyota pulled out of the plant. The last red Toyota Corolla rolled off the assembly line, and the factory doors were closed. “It is so sad to see the plant closed, looking like a ghost house,” said Debbie Velarde, a 41-year old Latina, who’s a longtime resident of the Fremont area. Her uncle worked for the factory until his retirement, and her ex-husband was an employee for 23 years till its closure. “It impacted everyone, even the taco trucks outside NUMMI and the sports bar across the street that everyone went on the last day to say goodbye to each other.” Velarde is a member-organizer at LIFETIME, an organization based in Oakland, that helps single mothers on public assistance with access to higher education and employment. LIFETIME is embarking on a new campaign to ensure that low-income women of color have pathways to access good, green jobs. The NUMMI factory has been through many incarnations. GM built it in the 1960s, at the peak of our country’s obsession with automobiles. It closed briefly in the 1980s, when the domestic industry was challenged by cheaper imports, and reopened under the joint ownership with Toyota. The plant was cited for its innovative blend of American and Japanese production techniques. Tesla says that it plans to make its Model S in the plant, a $50,000 electric sedan, as well as develop other models with Toyota. Currently, they produce a high-end Roadster sports car, which sells for $109,000. The prices surprise Velarde. “Who can afford a $50,000 car?,” she asked. “It’s a recession now and no one can afford that, except the very rich.” It remains to be seen if the 1,000 jobs at the new Tesla-Toyota entity will be unionized. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk told the San Francisco Chronicle that "on the question of the union, we’re neutral” and the company would not encourage or oppose organizing by their workers. ColorLines couldn’t reach a representative of the United Auto Workers Local 2244 in Fremont for comment. Velarde doubts that the new green jobs at NUMMI will be unionized. “Why did they shut down the plant if they were going to reopen it?” she asked. “I think they’re going to bring in non-union workers; people are desperate and they’ll take any salary now.” Picture from a 2009 protest against NUMMI’s closure, by the California Labor Federation.