by Bill Wetherholt • Interviewed by Jessie Eustice
A stamping press is like a sewing machine in that it goes up and down and up and down. A press runs like that, and it has a crankshaft, and it has a die, a boture plate that the dies are bolted to, and then when you open the press up, it opens the die up, top part and bottom part, and you lay a piece of metal in the die and it has gagues where it’s supposed to go, the location, and you just hit the button or foot pedal and it cycles it over, makes your part.
[Back then we built our own dies.] You have these big blueprints, and you start off with something that, depending on what size the die is, would start looking like a desk and you would take a piece of boiler plate metal, maybe 2”x4” or 3”x5” or whatever, on the printer would give you they dimensions of the die, and you start laying that out, and it had to be machined, perfectly parallel, top and bottom, machined, and holes are drilled in, where you are going to put the steels that signify the shape of the part, and you build these composites, or be like there’s water hard steel which has to be heat treated to give it the hard edge to be cut, and then it’s welded.
Plant managers change, it’s only like the change of the guard, every couple of years. They’ll come down here, and then go back to Detroit, or just to different places. But it’s not a permanent job to them. It’s the guys down the ladder that have the dedication. Like the line foreman, those guys have been on the job for quite a while.
Years ago if you were a foreman, you took so much abuse from your boss, the general foreman, all they knew what to do was just scream and cuss, they’d get right in your face and just call you some of the worst things that you’d ever hear. You wonder why a guy didn’t snap. And I guess some guys did, probably. But then, you know later, they started being more understanding, supposedly they learned that to holler and scream wasn’t getting the job done. So you’d get more flies with honey than you’d get with vinegar.
The plant manager was more educated than the foreman. But back then you didn’t need an education to put a white shirt on. All you needed was some initiative, or some drive, or maybe some guys were some real laid back, and they didn’t come in to work on time or, but they saw potential there, and they put them on supervision. That way, if they didn’t perform, they would fire them, more easily. With the unions, they couldn’t just fire them. That’s what is kind of wrong with the Union now, because you have got some dead-heads, that just take a walk. You don’t know where they are, they may be upstairs somewhere, and they don’t perform up to their job qualifications. And they can’t fire them. They might give them some time off, but they still get them back. Some of these guys that you have would just be worthless. Here they are, making the same amount of money as you are, and you are doing the work, and this guy is off somewhere.
Lee Iacocca came in 1978 I think, and he was the one who said that the workers have a lot to offer. So you should listen to the workers. We started forming these group meetings, product quality meetings, and you would mark down things that would make your job better, and they came in with ergonomics, and things like that and I guess that Iacocca may be the one who founded that, because he’d been overseas, to Europe and Japan, and knew how they worked, and how they operated, and he wanted to change the way we operated, you know, because we, they got things done better. It was a smoother operation then.
There was an awful lot of waste here. When they had a corporate meeting come down from Detroit, they wanted to clean house. They would take and put stuff in the back, or they would throw it away. When they had a part that had a hole missing, or something like that, or the punch was broken during production, and it wasn’t checked maybe for a couple of hours, they might run 4-500 parts. They would set up a temporary punch press to locate things, pierce that hole; I hated that kind of job, because there was no rhyme nor reason for setting it up, you just, it’s kind of like a kid, you just build something with Leggos, you know you just start putting stuff together, and you just make it work is what you get. So you have these kind of things and you weld it onto a plate, it would be like a fixture, or a jig, and then we had them on show, so if you had that job set up again and you already had the worst part of it done, you just clamp it down and you set your time after that.
Well, when we had Corporate coming down, these guys would come in, take this stuff, and junk it. They didn’t know what they were doing, all they wanted to do was clear out this litter, because company was coming over. Then you can never find it again.
Once, we were making brackets that supported the dash, there are a lot of little parts inside a car that no one ever sees: support brackets – you know like the legs of a table, but you can’t see them. Now, this was back in the late seventies, early eighties. They had a little two door front wheel drive car, Omni 024 and Plymouth Turismo, a nice little car, and it had a third window in the side, that was sort of a triangular shape, and they stamped out the whole side panel of a car, and this triangle was called an aperture. So when they would stamp this out, this particular blank, it would fall through the scrap shoot into a box or whatever.
I used one of those pieces of scrap, around 26”x 18”, and I started checking the die to see if I could make a panel from it, without doing any trim work or anything like that. It came out pretty good, and so I went to this engineer, Dick Riecholdt, and we started working together on the blanks for this pressline. You would only need one blank, because you could flip it over, back and forth for a right side and a left side. They estimated the cost of making the die in house — I think was $25,000 when you take everything into consideration, you build the die, and you set it up in the press, and it takes one operator, maybe two, it takes a high-low driver, a fork lift guy,to bring the steel in and set it up, they get the blank, and it goes down the slide on a conveyer belt into another operation and there’s two operations there, that die, it pierces, it puts holes in it, and it went to another set of tools and two more guys did that, and then it would like form it, and put flanges on it, and then it would go into; the last die would be called a re-strike.
It would make the angles more definite, more detailed, the corners were sharper, something like that, so I worked with this one, I worked about three months doing this, and fixed up some gauges where an operator could set it in a press and dot it long or something like that, the same fixed position every time, and you know, they cut panels out of it, and so it got over into Quality Control, and they bought it.
They eliminated three operations which were four, five, operators, and plus going to die which would be another three or four guys working on that, and so the engineers told me “I’ll make sure you get that award.” I had all these big expectations that I was going to get a new car in the driveway, or something like that, you know. But they gave me a $50 gift certificate to the Tangiers Restaurant in Akron. It was really nice, but I said “Well, you know what, any time that you need someone to work real hard on job elimination, get somebody else to do it. I'm not going to do it any more.”
That eliminated a half a dozen jobs, and saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars over a period of three or four years, and I got a $50 gift certificate, they heck with it. You know, they used to have a suggestions program, and paid up to $10,000 and you know some guys they’d turn in some really good suggestions, they might be denied the first time around, but if you resubmit it six months later, you might get something out of it. And they’ve put a stop to that. Every time you would get involved with the company, they would put a stop to it. There were too many average workers on the floor putting in too many ideas that were good, when they were paying engineers upstairs to come up with this and they couldn’t do it.
One time they were running a campaign, a suggestion program, and you’d got a belt buckle for any kind of a suggestion, and I suggest painting the presses pastel colors. In a plant, your machines are painted either hospital green, or gray, like a battleship gray. Now they’ve got red, yellow or blue, because a lot of robot stuff, but I suggested painting them pastel colors. Then it wouldn’t be so boring coming in to work in the morning. Folks were just like, they never heard of such a thing. So I got a belt buckle out of it.
When I first started working, there were a lot of hazards. They had open back presses, individual punching presses. They set up a stack of blanks, they might be two feet wide, and forty eight inches long. You run them through the press, with a foot pedal to cycle the press over, or hand punches, and we would punch out a half a dozen blanks, go to another part of the press room, flip it over , turn it around, and run the other side. Then what was left would be a webbing, like when you were cutting out biscuits, the little pieces that weren't cut out.
Well, when you turn that around, this press gets rolling, and you come real close if you’re not careful to getting one of these gears, which was very hazardous, and I suggested putting the covers over them. They said it wasn’t feasible at the time, and wasn’t a safety issue. Shortly after that, I was working with a guy and one of these thin webbings had broken loose, it was like a spear, and when he hit this switch, when he turned it around, he hit this gear, the momentum pushed it back, and drove this broken spear through his hand.
When accidents like that started to happen, they put up the screens on all these presses, this is before OSHA came in. OSHA would have never let that happen. I didn’t re-submit that idea, but they ran with it later. It wasn’t what they wanted [at the time], what they wanted was something to increase production.
Safety glasses were not mandatory, and you wore sleeves to prevent you from getting cut, and gloves and ear plugs came in. They used to have areas that were not as loud as other parts of the plant, they assigned the columns, like two-slash-eight, which signified that ear plugs were required at least two out of eight hours. Or it might be four-slash-eight, or in the real noisy area it might be an eight-slash-eight. But now it’s mandatory. Stamping is such a noisy activity. It isn’t as bad today as it was years ago, but the noise was so deafening, you could be talking to someone three feet away, and they couldn’t tell what you were saying, unless you screamed.
It used to be manpower going by a conveyer belt, you would run your part, and your particular die started to form, and as it went through the stages and it would come out finished. Now, they have presses set up so these dies are all in one big area, and it just runs on a conveyer belt, but rails they take up the part, raise it or hold the die, and move it to the next station, which is a couple of feet, and then the rail drops down out of sight, and it drops into that station, and there’s panels in all these stations. So every time it moves up, and moves forward, and drops down, one moves in, one moves over, and one moves out.
The K-Car was a big deal. So was the Omni and Horizon. Competitors tried to crush it, they came out with bad publicity, they said they’d taken the Dodge Omni out on an airfield, and they were going fifty miles an hour, and they had their hand on the top of the steering wheel, and at fifty miles an hour, jerked it down, to three o’clock, and then released the wheel. And that sudden jerk of the wheel got the tires going which way. They said that this was a hazard.
It wasn’t a hazard, it was somebody trying to put the kibosh on this car. But Iacocca made a remark that by 1982 or so, Chrysler was going to have 95% front wheel drive cars. And they did. The only rear-drive cars were the police cars, the trucks, and the big vans.
When the minivan and the K-Car came out in 1981, their market share went up to 16%. It’s only around 10-11% now. But you know, everybody’s copying Chrysler. Chrysler was the first one to come out with the minivan. Soon everybody had a van. They’re still holding their own, they still have the best SUV I think, but that’s a biased opinion.
Cars stay the same now for five or six years, and that was another thing that was ruining the reputation of the U.S. makers, because foreign cars, they kept the same car for ten years, and you can’t tell the difference, [and we had our annual model year styling changes]. So then we started that too, like the Dodge Omni and Horizon; I bought a new one in 1985, and I bought later bought two used ones, for work cars. They were great little cars, but they didn’t change it for ten or twelve years. They came out in 1978, and 1990 was the last one. They finally came out with the new Neon [in December 1993] that replaced the Omni. That was a great car, but they didn’t refine it and make it better. They just used the same dies and stuff, you know, it’s like they just wore-it-out. They wanted to get as much money out of their investment as they could. When the Dodge had already been paid for, they invest $400-500 million dollars, and so it takes them several years to make that money back. Get to a break-even-point. That little Omni was making them money.
In Detroit they made concept cars, to show the public what they had in the pipeline and to get feedback. Jim Whipple would call this guy in Human Resources and say, “you know Don, and call so-and-so and see if we could get these concept cars down here.”
It would cost about $5,000 and so we’d put up the driver and usually another guy, a helper, his wife, or something, in a hotel, treat him for the weekend, and help him unload or load the cars in, and he did that for the benefit of everybody. The public came in too, we have a huge summer twins event in Twinsburg with entertainment and rides for the kids and crafts, at a big park, with twins coming in from as far as Europe, and we'd all see the concept cars.
When you get a job there, unless you’re on supervision, you’re in a union. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that because of what the union have done for the country, but they have kind of overstepped their boundaries to an extent. I am a Union member, but I ride the fence. My dad was an area manager in Huntington, and when they would have breakdowns, and had to get these jobs running again, Dad would say, “So and so is up there in the crapper, and he was reading a book.” My dad was pretty good with people, he didn’t lose his cool, where I would get angry at some guy whose doing what he’s not supposed to be doing.
I remember when I went into the apprenticeship, the first foreman that I worked for, he took me over to the side and he talked to me, and he complimented me on my work, and he said “You have a real good attitude.” And I hope that your attitude never changes, because I like the way you are.
My son, my oldest boy, he gets really bent-out-of-shape when the Cleveland Browns are losing. And I say, you know man, pay-day’s Friday! (laughing.) It makes no difference. What those players are making gets me aggravated. Those guys are making a lot of money, they should perform better, but if they don’t, you know, blow them off.
I think the union has gotten to the point over the years, that there wasn’t anything to bargain for anymore. We had decent wages, we had ample holiday pay, our fringe benefits were really good, you know, we had dental, we had eye care, we had good hospitalization, and drugs. So there wasn’t really a whole lot to ask for. And, and of course then the union leader in the 1970s was awarded a seat on the board, so he sat in with management in negotiations, or or, preceding negotiations, about things that were going on with the corporation. When the contract would expire, they would give you a 3% raise over the next three years, like that, or they might fight for a cost-of-living increase.
You know back in the eighties, the way the cost-of-living was going, you had to have some kind of protection. Of course, every time the cost of living went up, wages went up, and then the cost of living would go up. The cost of living would go up, and it would affect the price of cars, and because the price of living went up, you know to cover the the get the same profit margin, then the steel would go up, and transportation would go up, and the oil went up, and every time it went up a certain point on the index, we would get another 5, 6, 7, 10 cents and hour. And it was paid every quarter.
It used to be, instead of paying our check weekly, they paid us a cost of living quarterly, and you might get a check for 6 or 7 hundred dollars, $1000, $1500 dollars, depending on how much time you worked. They wanted that money added to their paycheck, so then you got that once a week. Well, when you get maybe an extra twenty dollars a week, that doesn’t mean anything. You know, twenty bucks, you can go out to dinner. If you got it every three months, then you got a nice chunk of change. It’s almost like the union outlived used their usefulness.
Another thing about the Union, we don’t have that “right-to-work-law.” When you went in the plant, you were automatically in the union. You didn’t have a choice. Course, back then, the unions were really good. You needed them because the company would take advantage of you. It’s what they do in some of these small shops.
Mercedes is a union shop in Germany. In fact, they are very staunch union members. Their pay scale is way higher than ours. They don’t say anything about that, but it is. Now the shops that they’re building in Alabama, are not union. The Toyota shops, and Honda, Nissan, those are not union factories.
Also see: First interview | Bill’s 1966 Charger | Twinsburg Car Show | Factories | Other interviews
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