Interviewed by Jessie Eustice
Retired Chrysler autoworker Bill Wetherholt started working at the Twinsburg Stamping Plant in 1964. (See part 1)
I could bore you to death with the way I feel about Chrysler. It’s like when you were in college, that was your alma mater, and you would fight for it. When people would say something negative about your school, it would raise the hair up on your back; that’s how I feel about Chrysler.
I’ve always felt like that, as far as I was concerned, it was the best. I never looked at any other. Around here where I live, we have several General Motors plants and we have a big Ford Stamping plant, and an assembly plant in the city limits, an engine plant in Cleveland, and I guess Chrysler only has a stamping plant.
It’s funny that when I was a kid, I never cared for Chrysler products, for no reason other than my dad always bought General Motors. Before I went to work at Chrysler, I drove Fords. I wouldn’t have a Chrysler parked in my driveway. There’s one guy, who kept saying: there’s Chrysler this and Chrysler that, and I said “Ahh, that’s bull-crap.” And then once I started working there, I made the switch, automatically, I just felt that way you know, and since day-one, when I bought my first Chrysler product, I haven’t bought anything else, except that. I used to buy a new car every two years.
We were talking about when I first hired there, I was scared to death because of all those, of the noise, and the presses. It would be like you being dropped off in the middle of Manhattan, and not know where you were. Just, in a big city somewhere. They’ve got these big presses all over the place and these big dies, these things weighed anywhere from 1,000 pounds to over 100,000 pounds, and these big tools that were standing on doors and wheels and stuff like that. At that time when I hired in they would store them by stacking them on top of one another.
You’d use that and put them in the press, press the button. Sometimes they’d have five or six presses in a line. There are five or six steps or stages to produce the part that they needed at each stage. You would either punch holes in it, or you would trim the excess stock off; put a flange on it; bend it, or whatever, to make the part you needed.
Then they would just take it away. The inspectors would take it to quality-control, where they had fixtures. They would place fixtures over the part and get the holes lined up; get the pins were where they were supposed to be. Then they would take them and ship them to the plant that needed them. For example: the parts that went under the dash, or under the hood, or underneath the car somewhere, where it was welded to the frame.
Now, they have done away with most of that. They took those small presses out, and sent the work to small shops. The small shops ran the parts, and that’s when all the elimination of jobs started. I think that was back probably in 1985. They started adapting to the Japanese way of running things.
We started a reward program that was a lot like a quality-control thing. They wanted to hear what you had to say, you know, because they said workers knew how the parts are run, and they have a lot of input. They wanted to listen to people. They figured that the people that worked on the floor had a lot of knowledge as to how to make the work easier and safer. So they’d come around quite a bit.
They’d transfer big dies by overhead crane. They might be transferred from one end of the plant to the other end, and hit one of these dies that are stacked up and knock them over to another bunch of dies. No one would get hurt like that, but they could, you know.
I remember taking my mother and father to a place like that one time, and none of us could hear anything. You had to talk real loud; you just had to go close to someone’s ear. It isn’t like that today, but back then it was. Because the presses are coming down, and the air hoses are blowing all around.
Chrysler had this unibody which meant that the rails and the floor panels were all welded together. You ran these rails, a left rail and a right rail, and they had spot welders. (You sometimes see, on the news, these welders welding two pieces together; the sparks flying all over the place.)
Well, we were lined up, maybe a half a dozen guys, down in line, and there was a thing like a tray in front of us. You’d load this rail into the fixture, hit the button, weld a part, it’d come up, take it out, and slide it down to the next guy. We had to be real careful, if you had your arms in the way, because the metal was real sharp; even sharper than knives, because there was a jagged edge. It’d be easier to get cut by that than at home washing knives and forks.
Anyway, we would get on a roll. The standard at that time was about 230 rails an hour; something like that. You’d work your rear end off to get a 5 minute break, so you could at least stop and have a cigarette. But you’d get going on in your job and start hollering “Come on, what’s the wait here? Lets go, we’ve got to make standard!” And you just, you went crazy.
In that line of work, when you have fun where you work, some people don’t think you are doing your job. You’re not supposed to have fun at work. But when we worked in production we did have fun. I worked in this one assembly area. We were running rails. Rails were like, the frames of a car.
When you did eight hours there, I mean you worked your butt off.
The Barracuda and the Challenger, back in 1970, these were cars they came out with to compete with the Mustang and the Camaro. Of course they are very in-vogue today. (Every one of those cars is worth a lot of money now.)
These doors weighed eighty seven pounds, and they didn’t have any hardware on them, they didn’t have any glass, they were just an inner and an outer door, with an impact bar for safety; for side impact. These suckers weighed eighty seven pounds. They had little cranes overhead that had hooks, where you could pick up the door, and maneuver it into the rack. Well they didn’t work at the time, so when you got to work, you had to pick them up by hand, and I mean these things were … and you didn’t get any breaks, other than your normal scheduled breaks for lunch, or every 2 hours.
Today, when the doors come off the line, they have automation; no one ever handles a door any more, they’re set down on rollers. The operator just pushes the door into the rack. So I say to these guys, you don’t know what it was like. Besides that, when I was first starting, when the metal was .042 thick, now it’s .028. You know, years ago when a car got into a little fender-bender, it didn’t get hurt. The cars would just bounce back, and go on. The accident might scratch your paint, but today if you hit somebody at five miles an hour, and you’ve done one or two thousand dollars worth of damage. It was the metal. Back when I was running quarter panels and hoods and stuff like that, you had to take these suckers up yourself. (Laughing).
When I was a kid, the older guys used to say “you young puppies don’t know what work is.” Well, it’s true, because back then, they dug ditches, and they laid bricks for streets, and that kind of thing. They built everything by hand.
It wasn’t a fun place to be, but that’s the way it was in manufacturing.
They don’t do that today. You know, I have a hard enough time picking my own stuff up here, bad shoulder, I have got a rotator cuff torn before. But anyway, that’s the way it was then.
It’s not like that today. They rotate on the job now. They have a team of maybe five people, and they rotate so everyone knows each job. Back then we had a crew on each line. You had maybe ten or fifteen guys. I know the one line where I worked, the rails would come out of a big press and slide down a bar, and a friend and I; we worked together and stacked five together and scooted them out and some other guys dragged them away. We worked so good together, that I could read a lot when I was working. While I was on the job I had a pocket-book in my hand reading all the time. The guys would be saying “You know you shouldn’t be reading on the job!” But the guy that I worked with, we worked so good together that I didn’t even have to see what he was doing. He picked up one end, I picked up the other end, and we just dropped it. It was just like dancing with somebody. You know there are some people you can dance with, and some people you can’t dance with.
You know there are some people that don’t know how or they’re in between beats or rhythm. But then you can dance with somebody that you know their every move, that’s the way it was with this guy. So like I was saying, “I’m not going to come in tomorrow.” And he would say “Oh, Man.” (disappointed) Maybe we were working seven days, and I wanted to take a day off, and he would ask me not to do that because he would have to work with someone that he didn’t work with before, and when you do that, when you work with someone like that, it just makes your day harder. It makes your job harder, because they don’t know how to… it’s a rhythm I guess, or a timing thing.
When I worked in shipping in the plastics shop, we had to load this pipe on the truck, see, and I’m short, I’m only about 5’7”. I worked with a guy who’s about 6’1”. Well some of these pipes, they’d be like 4” pipe and they were put in a rack. There were eight or ten pipes and they’d band them up. You’d load them on your shoulder and take off and load them on this truck. This guy worked behind me, so I went up to the truck first, up the ramp first, so the pipe stayed straight. That made it easy to carry. If you worked with someone who was the same height as you, then when you went up the ramp to load the pipe, the pipe tipped on you and it was harder. You got more of the weight.
Same thing happened when I was dropping these rails, as I was telling you, I worked with a big black guy, and we threw these rails up on a platform, that was six or seven feet high. We’d slide them down to these other guys who would drop them into another press operation and this black guy, he just came over, and, we just worked well together. The height difference, he was tall and I was short, but I had a smaller end than he did. The way we rolled together, everything just went smooth. So you work with somebody (laughing) some new guy, you would work your rear end off. It was as if you were working against each other.
I want to ask you about the US government policies. It’s my understanding that by keeping gas prices low, there continued to be a market for cars that didn’t get good gas mileage. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Well, it makes you wonder, but the advocates for the hybrid cars said that the people don’t want the cars the US Auto industry makes. Well, that’s not true. Because, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, they make trucks, vans, and big cars with V-8.
It was the price of gas. Up until last year, people were buying vans and pick-up-trucks, and getting pretty good gas mileage because gas was reasonably priced, around $2.00 a gallon, so they could sacrifice a little mileage. When gas went up to $4.00 a gallon, people started buying these foreign cars because they thought they got better gas mileage. Yet, look at US automotive companies: they have cars the get good gas mileage too. For some reason, they don’t advertise it. Chrysler has got a couple of cars, this little Dodge Caliber, that took the place of the Neon, and it gets 40 miles a gallon! But they don’t advertise that!
I’m saying that because I was listening to a radio show one day, it might have been on Saturday, it might have been “Click and Clack”, and this fellow was talking about how he bought his first Chrysler product. He said that at first he wouldn’t have a Chrysler in his driveway, but he didn’t know why. He thought it was just because the family always drove Ford or GM, or something like that. Then he said he went out looking for a car; the best car he could buy for his money, and he found this Dodge Caliber. He says: “it gets forty miles to the gallon,” he says, and “why don’t they advertise that car? Because it’s one of the best cars I’ve ever had!”
He says “It’s comfortable, it gets good gas mileage, it’s roomy for the family, and it has seats that fold down so you can carry groceries or whatever you want to haul.” I have a friend who has one, and told me the same. He says it gets 40 miles to the gallon! But they never advertise it.
And the mid-size cars, I have a Chrysler Sebring, and I drive it down to Florida, and I get good mileage, about 28 miles to the gallon, but they don’t advertise that either. They advertise the SUVs that get 14 – 15 MPG.
Now I have a Jeep. And if I drive it half way decently, I get about 20 MPG, but most of the time I get about 18 on this Grand Cherokee.
They advertise the trucks, which do not get good gas mileage. The small cars, they’ll show you, they have a bunch of cars on the floor, but they don’t give you the significance, or tell you about the advantages of each vehicle. They don’t talk about what the family needs, or help the customer with what they’re looking for, like entry level cars. They’re reasonably priced, these Calibers are around $15,000.00, you get 35 plus MPG, but you never see a Caliber advertised.
And Chrysler has a Dodge Journey, it’s a new car, they came out last year, it’s like a crossover type car, but you never see them advertised. They get about 25 or 26 MPG, because they’re a pretty good sized car, and they’re a good looking car. My wife said “Why don’t they ever advertise that car?” and I said “I don’t know.” Nobody knows it’s out there. The dealer, he’s got several out in the back of his lot, and he should put them out in the front.
Things went from bad to worse. I used to get irritated about it. For example, my wife and I were sitting in a Chinese restaurant one day, and there were several people coming in at lunchtime. They were talking; this is when Daimler bought Chrysler, which was a shady deal.
Bobby Eaton, who was the president and CEO of Chrysler, he and the president of Daimler were making these decisions without anyone else knowing about it. Bobby Eaton would fly there to Stuttgart, and make these decisions with the president of Daimler. In fact, they were going back and forth and no one knew what was going on until the deal was done. Then they issued a news release that Daimler was buying Chrysler. That’s what changed Chrysler.
The guy, Bob Lutz, who went to General Motors, and this guy Tom Gale who was one of the chief design engineers, he quit, but supposedly retired. Bob Lutz was picked up by General Motors right away, and he’s the president of General Motors today. He’s coming out with these new products. Tom Gale works as a consultant now.
When all this took place, everyone thought “Oh great deal, Daimler’s really going to do great things for Chrysler.” But it was just in reverse. Chrysler, at that time, when Iacocca was running the show, he had made Bob Lutz president and he made Bob Eaton CEO. Now, with Iacocca running the show, Chrysler had $9 billion or $10 billion in cash for slow downs in the automotive industry. Iacocca always said, businesses run in cycles -every few years they’ll have a slow period.
So Iacocca made Bob Eaton CEO, and Bob Lutz president. It should have been the other way around. So Daimler, when they bought Chrysler, had access to that money, and they used up all that money. They bought Freightliner, they bought a company, and they used a lot of the money for engineering on their Smart Car (which was a failure).
The Smart Car, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of them, but they look like golf carts. You see them every once in awhile now. People use them in gated communities, and I’ve seen a few on the highway, but very few of them.
Then Daimler, they started talking, bad-mouthing Chrysler about holding Daimler down to their level when it was the other way around. They wanted to get rid of Chrysler.
In the dependability and the quality in the parts per million that fail, Chrysler was up there in the top, and Daimler was on the bottom of the list. They said that Chrysler was pulling Daimler down because it would get Daimler Chrysler to buy them.
That was 1998 when the sale took place. Well, we celebrated that, there was a celebration at the plant, and it was like a morgue; it was like a funeral. They had all the Daimler cars there, and they had our cars there and it was supposed to have been a good time, but we just didn’t like what had happened. It was a surprise that they were doing this without telling anybody. What made it worse was Bob Eaton stepped down with, I don’t know how many, $200 million and no one has ever heard of him since. He’s off somewhere; I don’t know what he’s doing now. He just took his money and fled; threw the chips up and let them fall where they may.
Then this Cerberus came in, and they’re not car people. That’s another problem. They’re just people who come in and try to get a plant back into a profitable position, and then they sell them again. Now it’s like they want to get rid of it.
[Cerberus] buys, I don’t want to say failing, manufacturing, because you know Chrysler wasn’t failing, at that time, but they buy, companies when they’re losing money. They come in and clean house, they start cutting jobs and closing plants until they get where they are showing a profit. Then they put them on the block to sell again, and then they move on to something else.
Of course when they did that, they brought in Nardelli. He was canned from Home Depot, and was given a severance package that was two hundred some million dollars when he left Home Depot, and came into our plant. He got a guy [Jim Press, from] Toyota, that’s working under him, and he tried, he’s trying to apply things that worked for Toyota that just don’t work here. Right now we have new cars in the wings, though they’re not fully developed. I guess, there’s no money now, so …
Jessie: You sent me some articles. One of them talks about foreign auto plants, about how they’re competing in the south.
Well, yes, that was in Alabama, Alabama was competing with Tennessee to get a Mercedes Plant. Alabama was offering all kinds of tax concessions, and buying the property for them.
The property that Alabama bought for Mercedes was worth more than the plant that they built there. Alabama also built roads, put in rail lines, electricity, and they would buy 2,500 of their vehicles for the state. I forget how many millions of dollars the state of Alabama spent to get the Mercedes plant, but it’s taking a toll on the schools and the homeowners, because they’ve got these taxes.
When these plants came into the states, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, it was like Appalachia, you know, there was just no work there. The new employees would be young people, so the manufacturers could get by with paying them less. People they were hiring were just out of high school. In fact kids were quitting school, and going to work in these plants. They start them the off at $12.80 an hour, and they work up to $14.00 an hour, and they pay them no pensions, they have no hospitalization …
Labor costs are a lot lower with young people than the choice of the “Big Three” where guys have been there for years; older people and families that have medical problems and other things. So they bring these young people in and hire them. I think the Mercedes plant had about 27000 applicants for 2,000 jobs, something like that.
What happens is, with the big three, well I can only talk about Chrysler but, they offer to buy people out. Now, when I retired, they paid me $70,000. I had forty years in that plant. I was going to retire at the end of the year, and at that time I was 66 years old. I told the wife, “You know I can’t make any more money if I work to the end of the year. I think I’ll just take the buy-out.”
So I just took the buy-out, but a few years ago I found out that all of this money for the buyout was coming from our UAW retirement fund. I found out that it didn’t come from the company; it came from the UAW Retirement Fund. Now I don’t know the benefit to that, it’s kind of like UAW and the company worked out some kind of a deal here: when they get rid of all the old people, in the next couple of years, they can hire new people, to replace those that they bought out, hire them at $12 an hour.
See that’s where they’re going to compete with the Japanese again. They were talking about how they would be profitable by 2012, and be able to compete better with the Japanese. That’s because they were getting rid of all the old people.
Now, when I retired, my base rate was $30 an hour. That’s for skilled trades, and I got a 5% shift bonus, which amounts to a dollar and a half. We got a cost of living supplement which was another dollar and a half. So I was making about $33.00/hour.
When you read the papers, they’re telling you that the auto workers were getting $70/hour, which is so far from true. The average pay for production is about $28/hour, that’s what it is. They figure in your hospitalization, benefits, cafeteria, parking lot, all that is factored in to your fringe benefits, your insurance, your holiday pay, you know, and it comes out to around $65/ hour.
The other plant, if they factored in their fringe benefits, would be a lot more than $12. - $14. /hour, but it’s like, those stories don’t come out. And especially, I don’t know if it’s just government, or what, but it’s like they have a blind eye to what’s really going on.
I found out that the Republicans who were putting the kibosh on this loan thing were the ones who support these southern states that have these foreign companies in there, producing automobiles. You see, if the US Automakers went belly-up, that would eliminate some competition, is what it amounts to.
Hopefully, it won’t happen, because if it does happen, it’ll trickle down. There are so many people associated with automobiles you know: dealers, garages, and you know, it’s going to affect a lot of people. I was just listening to the news tonight and that Kennedy woman was saying that she wants $200 million for the schools. So I said to my wife, “where in the devil does she think that money is going to come from?” You know, it comes from the people. There were over 500 million guys [note: hyperbole] that just applied for unemployment last month, and the more people they lay off, the more strain it’s going to be on the state.
Almost every car I have owned had well over 100,000 miles [when I sold it]. The last new car I owned
is an 2004 Sebring LXi Sedan, I have put it away every year , usually by December,
and bring it out the 1st of May and it has 84,000 on the odometer. I have had
very few troubles with any of my cars all bunched together, imagine, having
a Chrysler product trouble free. To some people that would be a blatant lie.
My Sebring has never had a brake job. I had new tires installed when I
brought the car out of storage last May and I checked the brakes while the
car was on the lift and I couldn't believe it when I checked the rotors and
pads, they looked almost new.
Also see: First interview | Bill’s 1966 Charger | Twinsburg Car Show | Factories | Other interviews
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