Pending closure of Toyota plant in California protested

National labor union officials, community leaders and politicians stepped up their efforts to pressure embattled Toyota Motor Corp. to reverse its decision to stop making cars in Northern California.

Seeking to piggyback on bad publicity generated by Toyota’s massive safety recalls, the United Auto Workers union held a rally Friday outside the quarter-century-old New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. factory in Fremont, 40 miles southeast of San Francisco.

The rally protested the planned March 31 closure of the plant, which would put 4,700 union members out of work.

Friday’s protest was only the start, said UAW national Vice President Bob King. The union and backers from consumer and environmental groups launched a rolling campaign that over the coming weeks will dispatch squads of protesters carrying signs and handing out leaflets at 50 Toyota dealerships in California and 50 more across the country.

“We had some divine intervention when all these safety problems opened up, and the whole world started saying ‘What’s wrong here [with Toyota]?’ ” King said. The company has made “a number of bad decisions,” he said, “and we’re saying that the worst one is to close” New United Motor, known popularly as NUMMI.

Toyota dealers say they don’t like the idea of having protesters outside their lots at a time when their hands are full fielding inquiries from customers and fixing millions of cars recalled for acceleration and braking problems.

“I wouldn’t welcome it,” said Don Mushin, general manager of Toyota of Hollywood. “It would just add to the mayhem that’s going on at the dealerships right now with the recalls.”

Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said the company was “disappointed” by the picketing plans “because the decision about NUMMI was one without a choice.”

New United Motor was a joint venture between Toyota and the now-bankrupt General Motors Corp. and is governed by an independent board. After General Motors abandoned the venture last July, Toyota had no choice but to announce in August that it too was pulling out, Michels said.

Keeping the plant open no longer makes sense financially, Michels said. He stressed that the decision to close the plant rested with the New United Motor board, which operated as an independent company supplying vehicles to both Toyota and General Motors.

“The union’s frustration is understandable but is misdirected because there was another partner in that joint venture, and the dealers have nothing to do with it,” he said.

Protesting outside Toyota dealerships may be an effective public relations tactic at a time when the giant automaker is under scrutiny from Congress, federal regulators, the media and consumers, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara.

“This is the moment to do it,” he said. The message is that “here’s a big company, and it makes mistakes. It made a mistake on engineering the [gas] pedal, and it can make a mistake on closing the NUMMI plant. It puts it on the political agenda, both in Congress and on the talk shows.”

The campaign to get Toyota to reverse itself is “probably a long shot,” state Treasurer Bill Lockyer said, “but you have to take every shot possible.” Lockyer, who lives near the New United Motor plant, is creating a commission to study the economic consequences of closing it.

With all its other image problems, Toyota should be concerned about how it’s perceived in top-selling California, he said. “Any company that sells a fourth of its U.S. production in one state ought to be concerned about its reputation in that state.”

Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch contributed to this report.