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Bill Wetherholt: 40-year Chrysler Autoworker

Interviewed by Jessie Eustice

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Retired Chrysler autoworker Bill Wetherholt started working at the Twinsburg Stamping Plant in 1964. In this interview, Mr. Wetherholt shared his thoughts on the dangers survived by workers at the Stamping Plant, cooperation between management and labor, and changing markets. In this first interview, it became clear that Chrysler was much more to Bill than just an employer. Throughout his life, Bill Wetherholt strongly connected the welfare of the company with the welfare of his family and friends.

Jessie: When did you start at Chrysler?

I started in 1964, September 28, 1964

Jessie: And was that your first job?

No, that was my second job. I was in the Navy for four years, I went in when I was 18, and then when I got out of the Navy I worked in a couple of places in West Virginia for a dollar an hour. Then I moved to Ohio and I got a job working in a plastic shop; I started working in quality control, and I really liked that because I thought I had a little clout but it wasn't paying any money. At that time Chrysler started hiring. They would hire a hundred guys at a time.

I worked midnight shift at the plastics plant. I worked three and a half years in that plastic shop. Then one day I said to myself "I gotta quit, there's no money here …there isn't any overtime …"

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So one night I went and I worked midnight, and when I had worked four hours, I went down to Chrysler, which was about 15 miles from where I lived. I stood in line from 4:00 am until the office opened up at 8:00 am. I was about 30 people from the door. There must have been about 150 guys there, and they hired a hundred guys that day. That was on a Monday. We started work on Wednesday I believe. We went in on Monday, we were interviewed and took a test, then on Tuesday we got a physical and on Wednesday we were hired in. They brought us into the shop in groups and counted 1, 2, 3, up to 10. They said "You guys work here, come on," and moved us down the aisle. They picked ten in each group and said "You go with this foreman" so we were picked like that at random for our jobs - induction. Pretty soon we were working 7 days a week.

Jessie: Seven days?

Bill: We worked seven days a week, yes. Back in '64 they were really starting to come alive again. They'd had some bad years there, in 60, 61, 62, and '63. They started building products that people wanted, and they started to emphasize performance. Pretty soon Chrysler was up there setting records with dragsters; they started putting some really nice cars out. I was making three times more money working for Chrysler; working seven days a week, than I had been at my other job. I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven.

Though his job at Chrysler paid well, it was not without its challenges.

Jessie: Can you tell me a little bit about your first experiences when you were hired at Chrysler?

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Being afraid. (Laughing) When I first started working there, we really worked hard, but you didn't think about working hard at that time. There were no filtration systems in the plant, there were no safety signs telling you to wear ear plugs and safety goggles. They didn't have covers over the presses and the gears were exposed, I mean there were so many hazards that you worked around that you never thought about it.

It was as though the foreman, the supervision, all they really cared about was numbers. You put the amount of parts in the bin, that's all they cared about. They didn't care how you went about doing it.

One guy had a hand button that you push to operate the press, and you had to use two hands. You had to make sure your hands weren't anywhere near the hazard area when your press would come down.

If you've never been around a factory, it's kind of hard to imagine what these presses are, but they're big and they're noisy, and they're kind of scary, especially when you first hire in.

This guy, he had one of the buttons taped up, and then he had a sponge taped to the other button, and he would use his hands to put these parts in the press, and punch the other button with his head.

He could run faster and make the number that he was required to make within the eight hours. Then once he got to his standard, he was done for the day. So he'd go upstairs; get off the manufacturing floor; and they would put another crew in there and start running the same job. For example if you were required to run 5000 parts for the day; for the eight hours and you could run 5000 parts in 5 or 6 hours, then they could put another guy on that particular press, and run another couple of thousand. So they were getting more than their standard while you were busting your butt to just get a couple of hours break, and get off the floor.

So what this guy did was he put the piece in the press, he pushed the button, and one of the pieces wasn't on gauge. So quickly he reached in to try to put it back where it was supposed to be, in position, and as he put his hand down there, the press went down, and he cut his hands off, up past his wrist.

Well this guy, he ended up committing suicide because he couldn't handle what had happened to his body.

That was happening, not every day, but it wouldn't be unusual to happen … an accident like that … once a month. Or somebody would get hit by a tow-motor because they were stepping out between boxes. Here comes a tow-motor down the aisle, carrying a couple of big beams, and they don't see the guy who stepped out, and they hit him; run over him, or back into him.

There was a girl, this happened about maybe about 4 or 5 years ago, you see. I retired in '04, and I was still there. She was an inspector, and she was off the line, I don't know if it was break time or what, but she was talking on a cell phone standing between two rows of these big metal boxes just stacked up, ready for shipping.
Trucks or box cars would come into the shop, and the high-lows or forklift would come in and pick these boxes up and take them out and load them.

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Well, this one guy, he had picked up a rack full of doors, and he went to put them in the aisle, where the storage bins were, and he bumped it forward. This woman was standing in between these two stacks of boxes, and he didn't know she was there. The accident just crushed her, you know, she died a couple of days later. You know, stuff like that would go on in the plant all the time


Bill: Of course, now, they have laid a lot of people off, and they have taken a lot of presses out of there.

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When I was working full time, first I worked in production, there were about 4200 people working at the plant I think. Now there are about a thousand people working there. They have automated so much, and now there aren't so many forklift drivers. Back then it was like a freeway.

Now they have programmed vehicles that stay in one place; they have a high-low driver pick up the parts, that are loaded on the end of a line and it's kind of like a train, So they're all automatic now. If you get anywhere near one of these things, it stops right there, so they have really cleaned up the floor, as far as people being hit and injured. They have really done a good job on that. And of course, now you have to wear ear plugs and safety glasses, and you have to wear gloves and sleeves, all of these things that make it safer for the workers.

You didn't get any breaks, other than your regularly scheduled break for lunch. 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 onto the rack. So I say to these guys, you don't know what it was like.

Besides that, when I was first starting, the metal was .042 inches 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, you hit somebody at 5 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)

Working in manufacturing 7 days a week during the afternoon or night shift was a challenge for family life. As Mr. Wetherholt talks, it becomes clear that he distinguished himself in his first years at the Stamping Plant, and with the encouragement of his father, he negotiated with his supervisors so that he could thrive as a provider for his family.

Bill: I never got laid off, although they were laying people off, off-and-on. I never got laid off, and then in 1972, I went into the skilled trades; into the apprenticeship program. In fact, I nearly quit Chrysler one time, because I needed to work day shift.

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After my first wife and I divorced, in '65 and I remarried, a kid came along; Our first boy. It was imperative that I stay on day shift. Working the way I was, they kept putting me on second or third shift, I'd work the afternoon or midnight, and so I started downgrading and stuff. I'd go to a lower paying job, to make sure I'd stay on day shift. One time they weren't going to transfer me, so I said, "I'm going to have to quit."

The plant manager talked me into staying. "Stay with your own job right now, until after the holidays" So I talked with the shift committeemen and we got together with the superintendent of my department, and I transferred again from one department to another so that I managed to stay on day shift.

However, at that time I had taken a test for the apprenticeship, and when I told my dad I was going to quit, and he said, "Well, what about your apprenticeship program?"

I said "Well, dad, it's just not going to work out, I have to be on day shift." And yet, he acted as though he did not hear me.

"What about your apprenticeship program? What are you going to do about that? Can you get back into that?"

I said "well, no, once I quit, that's it."

So I finally managed to stay at the plant, on day shift. Everything got back on-course again, and that made dad and my wife happy, and it made me happy too.

After that it was just full speed ahead, an 8,000 hour program, just like going to college. I would go to night classes, and come home with a headache because it had been twenty years since I'd been in school. I was trying to get back into algebra and trig, geometry, and my brain had to work. But you know, I did okay, and … it worked out real great.

Mr. Wetherholt has a special capacity for self sacrifice and humility. In contrast to the extreme positions often heard in contemporary media, Mr. Wetherholt makes it clear that he understands the business cycle, and was always willing to make compromises in order to help his company and protect his job.

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Bill: You know, they innovated a lot. Chrysler was ahead of styling and engineering. I mean they were going like gangbusters. They had some down years you know, like in the 70s when Iacocca went to the government for a signature on a loan, because we were having some hard times.

In 1974 we had some hard times. We came out with new cars in '74, and they were full sized cars, and that was when we had the oil crisis. It was just bad timing on Chrysler's part. They laid-off a bunch of people, but it was never a permanent lay-off.

Me, I was in the apprenticeship at that time, and they hired one apprentice for every ten journeymen. There were 14 apprentices in the program I was in so they laid-off 40 to 50 die makers, and of course, that was 4 or 5 apprentices that went out the door. I was the next guy to go, and managed to hang onto the job there. Most guys were laid-off for sixteen or seventeen months, and then we got back into going great guns again.

Then in the late seventies, everybody was shifting to front-wheel-drive cars and economy cars. We had front-wheel-drive - the Omni/Horizon and the van - that were about ready to debut, and Chrysler needed money to get by until these new vehicles came out.

So I used to say: "you know, if it would help the plant, I would be willing to take a couple of dollar an hour cut,"

Some of the other guys would say "Oh man, you're crazy!"

I would say "This is our livelihood here; we need to protect this place."

And these guys would say, "Oh I think we should just let it go belly-up - they have money they're just not telling us about it."

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Well they didn't, and as it turns out, the union negotiated with the plant, and we took a three dollar an hour cut in pay. It didn't bother me any, I mean a lot of guys it didn't bother. There were some guys that complained about it, but, once we put cars on the road we paid back a billion dollars in two years, In cash! I think we had 15 years to pay back that loan.

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The government never handed out any money; they just co-signed with the bank. Iacocca, he ran the company at that time, this was his success, the vans and some of the other cars were his success. We got going and we were going like gangbusters again. You know, it's kind of like an oscilloscope, it's just up and down, and up and down, but we were always hanging in there, with new products in the wings, ready to come back out again, Chrysler always seemed to be heading in the right direction you know, going forward. It seems like we always had products that people wanted.

In our next segment, the conversation continues, covering more experiences over the years, collecting, maintaining, and showing cars.

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Also see: Second interview | Bill's 1966 Charger | Twinsburg Car Show | Factories | Other interviews

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