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Barbara Lopez and husband Ron Lopez are longtime employees at the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. auto plant in Fremont, where they met.

FREMONT — Ron Lopez will believe the NUMMI auto factory is closing only when the last Toyota rolls off the assembly line March 31, in what looms as a bitter spring for 4,700 workers at the plant.

"As long as we are still building cars in that plant, I have to think there is still hope," said Lopez, an ergonomics and truck paint shop veteran at the plant who lives in San Jose. "I always believe it's not over until it's over. But we are preparing for the worst."

Even worse, NUMMI workers must confront an additional bit of cruel fortune. Unlike other members of the United Auto Workers nationwide, the Fremont union workers have no rights to transfer to other General Motors or Toyota vehicle factories.

That's because of the status of NUMMI as a joint venture of General Motors and Toyota. NUMMI is outside the General Motors network of union plants. Toyota doesn't employ union workers, other than at NUMMI.

The UAW hopes for a transfer deal with Toyota, but it's an "uphill fight" like everything else for the workers now, said Sergio Santos, president of UAW Local 2244, which represents NUMMI's union members.

"This is one blow that's coming before the big blow when the plant closes, although the workers knew they wouldn't be part of the national agreement," Santos said.

End of an era

Amid the travails, a number of employees cling to the hope of a last-minute reprieve for the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant, due to close after a quarter-century of operation.

"A lot of other people at the plant don't have hope, but I still have hope," said Maricela Alvarez, a Ceres resident and quality control worker at NUMMI. "There is still hope until we come in one day and the doors are shut."

Nevertheless, it appears the end of the line beckons for a bold experiment in American manufacturing.

General Motors and Toyota both abandoned the factory this summer. That will force the plant's shutdown by April 1, 2010.

"I had tears in my eyes when I heard the plant was closing," said Rosemary Montiel, a NUMMI production worker and San Jose resident. "For a while, my reaction was: 'Wow, what am I going to do?' But as April gets closer and closer, it's starting to hit me harder."

The workers helped the factory become a milestone for Corporate America as the nation's first automaking joint venture. The NUMMI way was deemed cutting-edge.

General Motors hoped it could learn new tricks from Toyota and revive GM's ossified procedures. Toyota wanted a factory beachhead in America.

Now, NUMMI is an emblem of the wreckage from The Great Recession that has unleashed job cuts, foreclosures, factory shutdowns, bank failures and market meltdowns.

A series of setbacks this year coalesced into the factory's demise.

In April, General Motors announced it would terminate the Pontiac brand. In August, NUMMI halted production of the Pontiac Vibe. In July, General Motors emerged from bankruptcy and said it would exit the NUMMI venture.

At the end of August, Toyota delivered the death blow: The Japanese auto giant said it would cease making the Tacoma truck and Corolla compact car at NUMMI.

"When they told us the plant was closing, that was like a slap in the face," said Theresa Powell, a paint department worker and Pittsburg resident. "I love my job; it's a great job. I was very upset and shocked."

'It's a family'

The shutdown imperils thousands of workers. Some families will lose multiple salaries.

"My wife and I both work at the plant," said Jaime Ochoa, a Manteca resident who works in the final inspections department. "We thought our future would be in Fremont for years and years and years. This is pretty devastating. We don't know exactly what we're going to do."

Ochoa's family has a long history at the Fremont factory, which General Motors opened in 1962 and closed in 1982.

Ochoa was born and raised in Fremont and knew the factory as a youth. His father worked at the plant from 1968 to the 1982 closure. NUMMI rehired his father.

"I'm going to miss a lot of people there," said Paula Ochoa, a NUMMI stamping worker and Jaime's wife. "It's a family. We've made a lot of friends. Everybody gets along really well. I can't imagine what the final weeks will be like."

Jaime met Paula when she worked as a supplier for the factory. A few years later, she got a job at the plant.

"We're like a lot of couples who met there and wanted to spend our career there," Jaime said.

Ron Lopez and his wife, Barbara, are longtime NUMMI workers. The good wages helped the Lopezes build a comfortable life together.

"Barbara and I have a house in San Jose, in the hills near Mount Hamilton," Ron said. "We love our home. If we lose our jobs, we have to sell. We can't make that note."

The Lopezes are far from the only NUMMI employees being hammered by the multiple blows of job loss, foreclosure threats and a lack of transfer rights.

"People are losing their homes, their cars. They will lose a lot of things," Powell said. "You are used to working a well-paying job. You think you have job security. Then you wake up and there's nothing."

Looking to future

Workers have begun to ponder life after NUMMI.

"I will be taking retraining," said Powell, the paint department worker from Pittsburg. "We have a union hall that will be converted into a training facility. I will take classes and enroll in community college."

Montiel, the production worker from San Jose, has taken in younger relatives who were wards of the court and helped raise them. Montiel's interest in children is spurring her to take law classes that specialize in probation skills so she can work with teenage children.

"I want to see if there are programs to help establish teenage kids in life so they can move forward," Montiel said. "I may also take up music as a hobby, writing music, playing the piano like I used to do."

Local groups offer some help.

"NUMMI has asked us to work with Ohlone College to provide curriculum about job changes," said Dorothy Chen, executive director of the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board.

"We are setting up a career center, a transition center, for the workers," said Leta Stagnaro, an Ohlone College associate vice president.

The work force board is also arranging for stress counseling.

"We just can't imagine NUMMI being closed. It was so much of our life," Paula Ochoa said. "But there was a life before NUMMI and there will be a life after NUMMI. We'll do it."

Paula will fall back on her experience as a day care provider. Jaime's future work plans are more hazy.

The Lopezes may sell their dream home in the San Jose hills and use the proceeds to pay cash for a house in a less expensive location.

"Financially it's going to be challenging," Lopez said. "But the world is not going to come to an end."

Some workers were bitter about being shoved out the door after they expended so much effort on building vehicles for General Motors and Toyota.

"We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it," Jaime Ochoa said. "To repay us by shutting it down is pretty terrible."

He then quickly recounted the benefits of working at NUMMI.

"It's very frustrating and you want to curse them out," Jaime Ochoa said. "But we were blessed with 17 years and 14 years of employment. We can't get too upset. We got a house. We had vacations."

Despite the mixed emotions, a common attitude emerged: The workers believe they helped improve the way America makes cars.

"This car I'm making is my car and I'm going to buy this car," Montiel said. "And if it's not good enough for me, it's not good enough for my customers. We built these vehicles as if they were ours."

Reach George Avalos at 925-977-8477.