Parts plant wraps it up in Merced

When the last muffler came off the line at Arvin Sango's auto parts plant Wednesday, 14-year employee Ruben Saldana and three of his colleagues signed what would be their ultimate creation for the company.

They scribbled their names on the side of the twisted pipe and then wrote "last piece" on one of the last car parts Arvin Sango will manufacture in Merced.

"It was kind of weird knowing that I'm not going to be doing this anymore,' said Saldana of the last day of production.

For nearly 15 years, Arvin Sango's plant in Merced has been supplying car and truck parts to the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont, a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota founded in 1984.

As recently as 2008, Arvin Sango made parts worth $20 million for NUMMI at its 63,000-square-foot operation.

The ripple effects of the March 26 closure of NUMMI have at last found their way to Merced. The last day for most of Arvin Sango's more than 60 employees came Friday.

"It's a tough situation to have to close the plant," said Scott Hubbard, Arvin Sango's director of operations.

NUMMI's demise came as a result of GM pulling out of the joint venture after filing bankruptcy protection in 2008. Without a partner, Toyota announced it would close California's last auto plant.

NUMMI's shuttering affected more than the plant's roughly 4,500 employees. Numerous parts suppliers across California who relied upon NUMMI as a customer have been hurt. Jeff Michael of the University of the Pacific estimates the total statewide job loss at 20,000, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee.

Arvin Sango, a joint venture between a French and Japanese company, announced it would shut its plant soon after Toyota declared NUMMI's closure in September. It no longer made any sense for Arvin Sango to make parts on the West Coast if its main customer here was shutting down, Hubbard said.

This week, the plant's workers began disassembling the operation and packing it up for shipment to Madison, Wis., where it will be put back on line to supply a Toyota factory in Texas, Hubbard said.

Extra inventory produced in the final days of operation will be shipped to several Toyota plants until the new operation is ready to go in May.

The building is for sale.

On Friday, the factory floor was almost clear of the production line that used to fill the building, only bits and pieces of machines and equipment remaining.

Much of the factory is crated and ready to ship. Pieces of machinery that are too big to crate, such as robotic arm units, were loaded onto the back of trucks Friday.

The only noise, aside from a couple forklifts, was of the chattering employees waiting for a farewell.

"We're going to have a little pizza party and tell everyone good luck and goodbye," said 46-year-old Joe Soto, who has worked at the plant for almost 15 years. "It's kind of sad. I helped put it all in, now I have to take it all out."

Although the company gave its employees a severance package -- one week of pay for every year of work -- and offered to transfer anyone who wanted to move, most won't. Few have ideas about where they'll work now.

"There's a lot of people that are going to be out of work," said Bill Bennison, 31, who worked at the plant for seven years. He understands why the plant is closing, but that doesn't make it any easier to take.

"You ain't going to find a job in this area with the rates of this place," he said of the pay and benefits at Arvin Sango.

Bennison doesn't expect it will be easy finding a new manufacturing job, what with the competition from all the other workers laid off because of NUMMI's closure.

For now, he may try to find a job in agriculture. "I'll do what I got to do to keep a roof over my kid's head," he said.