By Poornima Gupta
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - For more than two decades, Frank Ramirez has made a living working an unusual job in Silicon Valley: assembling cars and trucks for Toyota Motor Corp and General Motor Co.
Ramirez, 49, had planned to continue working for the foreseeable future at the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc, or NUMMI, plant in Fremont, a place that is better known for being home to many technology companies.
But he and about 4,500 other union workers at NUMMI are now facing unemployment following Toyota's decision last week to end production at the plant, a joint venture between Toyota and GM, and the only U.S. auto plant west of Texas.
"We are hoping Toyota will reconsider. Or, someone else will pick up our plant." he said at a rally organized by the United Auto Workers union in the city on Saturday.
NUMMI, which began as a ground-breaking experiment in industrial cooperation that opened in 1984, came into focus after GM withdrew from the joint-venture in June as part of its bankruptcy reorganization.
Toyota also decided to abandon the plant and shift production of its vehicles to other facilities in the South.
Sergio Santos, the president of UAW local 2244 that represents workers at NUMMI, said the plant is in a messy situation.
"Toyota and General Motors are going through a divorce," Santos said. "(Toyota) doesn't want to pick up General Motors' residue.
"They're dividing the house. Who gets the dog, who gets the doghouse, who gets the bumper in the backyard," he said.
Santos was leading the rally in San Francisco where about 100 UAW members and their families and friends urged Toyota to reconsider its decision to stop building vehicles in California, the biggest car market in North America.
NUMMI is the only Toyota assembly plant in the United States that is represented by the United Auto Workers union.
James Carroll, 58, another NUMMI worker who attended the rally, said he would lose his home if the plant closes.
"The future of auto workers in California is pretty grim right now," Carroll said.
OPEN TO OTHER POSSIBILITIES
California, the world's fifth largest economy and home to some of the biggest names in the technology sector, has watched Detroit's auto woes from far until now.
Toyota's decision is forcing the state, which is to deal with the fallout of massive U.S. auto bankruptcies that has bumped up auto-heavy Michigan's unemployment numbers, depressed home values and depleted the state's coffers.
California has been suffering its own economic hangover hemorrhaging jobs, and is trying to fund its budget in a number of ways including holding online and onsite auctions of surplus equipment and unclaimed property.
Officials say up to 35,000 supplier and other jobs in California are indirectly related to the NUMMI's operations. California's unemployment rate was 11.9 percent in July, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said efforts were underway to transform the site to alternative uses. Toyota has been offered a package of tax breaks and other business enhancements to continue production.
State Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico said he would continue to work to keep the plant open.
"I have not given up hope and I will continue working with state and local officials to pursue Toyota or other auto manufacturers for the plant," he said in a statement.
Santos and lawmakers are hoping to pressure Toyota, which was the biggest beneficiary of the $3 billion U.S. government "cash for clunkers" incentive program designed to jump-start industry sales, to reconsider.
Labor law professor Harley Shaiken of the University of California at Berkeley said Toyota cannot ignore the demands.
"Any consumer company is impacted by how people feel about it," Shaiken said. "There is a lot of things that Toyota may consider. There are pressures that will likely be brought to bear. There are changes in the economy and the auto market that could take place between now and March."
Other parts and automakers may be interested in acquiring the plant, Santos said, naming Subaru, Penske and Tesla.
Tesla, a California-based electric carmaker, has said it is hunting for a site within the state to set up its manufacturing facility.
"We'll build cars for anybody who wants to step in front," said Santos.
(Reporting by Poornima Gupta, editing by Leslie Gevirtz)