When the General Motors factory in Fremont closed in 1982, Debbie Williams grieved with her brothers and sisters in the United Auto Workers. The daughter of GM's first African American electrician at Oakland's Eastmont Fisher Body Plant, she had been through prior plant closings – and re-openings.
“Nummi was a fresh start, a new way of doing things,” she said proudly. But now the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant – known as Nummi – is closed, too, despite producing cars that led the J.D. Power quality ratings with zero defects.
Beyond its immediate economic impact, Nummi's April 1 closure poses a larger threat – the dissipation of a manufacturing sector anchored in the Bay Area and critical to the future economic success of the region and the nation.
As Ro Khanna, a deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, points out -although manufacturing has slipped from 28 percent of our economy in the 1950s to 11.5 percent today, U.S. manufacturing output is still greater than China's, or any other nation's.
The ingredients for manufacturing success – workers with Williams' level of skills and dedication, and infrastructure like the Fremont plant – are precious and perishable. Unless a way is found to preserve them, and thus produce the goods necessary to improve international trade balances, renew the middle class and build a stable economy, the recipe will be lost.
President Obama recognized the importance of manufacturing in his State of the Union speech in creating the National Export Initiative and the White House Council on Automotive Communities and Workers.
Tomorrow's manufacturing industries offer the robust economic benefits of the past along with essential new technologies. The Bay Area nurtures specialized manufacturing connected to research and development. New industries in energy generation, transportation (where will we build those high-speed rail cars?) and clean tech offer environmental advantages, family-sustaining jobs and more robust collateral job creation.
Business, local government and families all benefit from a strong manufacturing base. Here's how we derive success from Nummi's loss:
- Hold Toyota to its commitments in environmental stewardship, and demand that it pay its fair share to clean up the land.
- Create new partnerships that include labor, business and stakeholders, and engage these leaders throughout the planning process. The size of the property means that finding one ready-to-go replacement employer is unlikely. It's going to take synergy between government and business, labor, planners and residents to succeed.
- Prioritize middle-class jobs that truly add value. Shortsighted leadership looking for quick fixes needs to recognize the value of manufacturing and technology for tomorrow's economy.
Neither the Bay Area nor the nation can afford to miss this opportunity to build American manufacturing into a world-class competitive sector of our economy.
This story also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.