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Matt Wetherholt: working at a Chrysler plant and the UAW

Engineering Machine Employment Organist

Matt Wetherholt as interviewed by Jessie Eustice in 2009

Getting started

Jessie: When did you start at Chrysler?

September 11th, 1995. I was 28 years old, the same age my father was when I was born. I was hired in under the janitor classification because they had just shipped a series of large presses from Germany into the plant. These presses had come over on a ship, so they were coated with Cosmoline, a waxy rubbery tar substance that they brush on all the exposed metal surfaces to prevent corrosion. We were hired to clean that stuff off with spray cleaners, putty knives, rags and what-have-you.

I only did that for a little bit. They asked if anybody knew how to drive a Bobcat, a Skid-Steer. A Skid Steer is like a miniature bulldozer with a single seat and two steering levers: you pull back on the right one, you turn right, you pull back on the left one, you turn left, and foot pedals to raise and lower the hydraulic scoop on the front. When I used it on the farm I worked on, we would use it to scoop up cow manure for example. [I could drive one and stayed on.]

In a stamping facility, a panel starts off as a blank piece of steel and eventually comes out as a fender or a floor pan or a door or whatever at the other end. Along the way, the metal that gets trimmed off of it goes down a scrap chute into the basement. There are feeder conveyors that run under each press line that carry trimmed metal (scrap) to a main conveyor which goes out to the Baler House. The scrap goes into a big pile, is picked up and moved by a 10-foot-diameter magnet, then smashed into cubes and put on the rail cars to be taken away for recycling.

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The main conveyor was inoperable at that time, and they had the feeder conveyors running in reverse so nothing was feeding to the main conveyor, it was all just being dumped on the floor at the other end. There were several of us down there, and we would take the Bobcats and we would maneuver the scrap around; scooping it up, putting it into these big wire baskets that they had, and then the fork lift drivers, the "Hilo" drivers, would come along and replace the full basket with an empty one.

Once they got the main conveyor working again, I stayed in the basement as a janitor and I helped clean up stuff that fell off the line. Back then, and I can't even imagine what it was like when my dad first started there, the basement was a treacherous place, because the presses, probably the same ones that were there when they built the place, they leaked oil, and the oil came down through the floors. At any given time there was anywhere from ¼ to ½ an inch of oil on the floor. So they had guys down there with these squeegee things that you drove around on (like a street sweeper) that sucked up the oil. It was our job to clean up the excess scrap and stuff that fell off of the feeder conveyor line, and throw all of that onto the main conveyor, to help those guys that were running the scrubbers and the vacuums, to make their job easier.

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Eventually I was called up on to the main floor and I worked as a press operator. I worked in production, and I did just about every job in there. I was in production, I was a press operator, I was a conveyor loader, I drove a Hilo, I worked in assembly, I worked as a spot welder…. I mean I pretty much did everything in that place at one time or another.

So, this is 1995-96, and we were working a lot back then. This is before the Germans came in and did their "merger of equals." That was nothing more than a takeover because they wanted our minivans, trucks and Jeep in my opinion.

Back then you would work eight hours over in the press room (where a piece of raw steel would go to a door stamping) and then the assembly side. For example, on the assembly side, they would take an inner door which was stamped on one line, and an outer door which was stamped on another line in the pressroom, and it would all be put together on a door line on the assembly side. Then it would just be a raw door, with no paint, no windows or door handles or anything like that. Then you would have a rack of doors that would get loaded on to rail cars and go off to the assembly plant where they would put it on the car or the truck or whatever was being made on the line.

Back then you would work eight hours in the press room, and they would usually come around at lunch time and ask you if you wanted to work two hours over in assembly. They didn't really have a full third shift back then. The third shift pressroom always ran, but not so much over in assembly.

I'd go over there and I'd never turn over time down unless I had something going on. My philosophy was, and still is, that when they come up and ask you if you want to work overtime, it's like they're handing you money. So if you say "Nah, I don't really need that money," then they're just going to give it to the next guy. I wouldn't want them to do that under any other circumstances.

I watched my father work the whole time I was growing up, learning his work ethic … I wasn't conscious of it, I just learned it by osmosis. You just absorb it, and you're not even aware of it. There are a million other things you could be out doing that'd be getting you into trouble, but working, I was making good money; more than I had ever made in my life. So I worked a couple of hours over in assembly, and you could work ten hours a day every day, if you wanted to. There was a point there where they would come around, my shift was 4:00 to 12:00, and usually around 1:00 or 1:30 and say "can you stay until 4:00?" And of course, most of the time, 99% of the time, I would say "yes, sure, I'll stay" And then, beyond that, there was a point where they would come by around 3:00 or 3:30, and say "Can you stay until 8:00?" and you'd end up working sixteen hours; a double.

At one point I worked 19 doubles in a row; 19 days in a row, and then I took a weekend off, and I took a Monday off. I got home at 9:00 in the morning on a Saturday morning, and I think I slept until about 6:00 Sunday, and I had people that come over to my apartment, you know my door was always open because I lived out in the country. They tried to wake me, they thought I was dead. (Laughs) I was breathing, but I was just out cold, what with 19 consecutive 16 hour workdays, driving 1/2 an hour to work, 1/2 an hour home, and sleeping maybe 4-5 hours, and getting up and going to work again. But, like I said, the checks were rolling in and it was more money than I'd ever made in my life. The more of it I had, the better off I was. That was the way I felt then, and the way I still feel today - The way everybody feels I guess.

Jessie: How did you learn to do all the various jobs that you learned to do? Did you learn them just by doing them?

Most of the time, yes. Because there were so many people in the plant at that time, more than there are now, (although a whole lot less than when my dad started) basically they just put you up on a machine, and if they had a floor man; the senior man in whatever area you were in, he'd show you how. If he was available, he would come over and show you how to do what it was you were doing. He'd do that for maybe a minute, because a lot of it wasn't rocket-science, but if you didn't know what you were doing on certain jobs in there, you could get really hurt, or damage the equipment. For the most part the training was "Here, watch me. This is how you do it. Okay, here you go." And they'd turn you loose and you'd just do it.

I guess I was fortunate in the sense that anything they ever asked me to do, I was fairly proficient at it. In almost 14 years there, I've never been disciplined or anything like that. Some people are just not trainable, though, unfortunately.

Cleaning the presses

Jessie: About the machines you were cleaning off when you first started, were those Schuler presses? was a Schuler press line. It's still there today, but not running. Not due to mechanical problems or anything; but we aren't running any product on that particular line. It's "27-Line", a transfer press line. They are incredibly huge presses. What we were cleaning for the most part were the press beds, which have T-slots in them. Whenever you set a die down on a bolster, the die has little "feet", half round cut outs, maybe 3,4, or 5 inches into the casting of the die when you sit it down, where it lines up with the T-slots and you put a bolt in there, upside down where the head of the bolt is a square, and it goes in the t-slot and you slide it in and use a large, square washer or two and a nut to tie it down to the bolster. Same for the upper die, only instead of "bolster", that's called the ram.

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That's what we were cleaning, were those, and they were a real pain to clean because of the T-slot itself. That's why I jumped at a chance to get on a Bobcat and go down and work in the basement. I certainly wasn't opposed or afraid to do any kind of work they had, but given my choice between sitting working in a Bobcat all day long, or lying on my back on a piece of cardboard all day cleaning out those T-slots, it's pretty easy to figure out which one I was going to pick.

Jessie: So you were lying down, facing up, sort of like working under a car?

Sometimes, yes. Because they put those things on steel horses, and that was really the only way you could clean them. You could squat down and clean back as far as your arm would go, but eventually you'd have to get underneath there, unless you were lucky enough to get the ones that were parts of the press itself. Some parts were just long, continuous, flat exposed surfaces that were very easy to clean. The T-slots were the worst. There was a whole group of us newbies, and newbies got the worst work there was. That's just the way it works, the way it was...seniority, you know? We had none.

Jessie: Did you want to say anything about confined space training?

Matt: Well in my trade, we don't really have C.S.T., but as an Alternate union steward, I'm aware of it, and basically what that is, is if you have to go into what is considered to be a confined space, you can't go into it by yourself, you have to have someone with you ... you have to go with a partner, so you might have one guy.

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Imagine a manhole cover. You move the manhole cover out of the way, and the guy that's going to go down in there has a harness on, with a rope, and he goes down into the hole while the guy at the top maintains verbal communication with him. It's for safety. Because you could go down there, and a lot of times there's oil and grease, and stuff and it produces gas. It could be a toxic gas. You don't know. You go into a confined space and you have no idea what you're going to encounter in there. So that's why you have to have two people minimum. You might have two or three people go down there, but you always have to have somebody in the good environment for backup.

Jessie: How do they measure the gas, if there is some down in there? Do they have gauges?

Matt: Yes, they have meters, and they have ways to gauge that, but also if you start to feel strange, dizzy, maybe, a lot of it is just instinct. If you go down there and you start to feel light headed or whatever, you immediately let your partner know that. Then, you come out of there, reassess the situation, basically.

Jessie: You just mentioned that you're an alternate Union Steward; can you tell me what that means?

Matt: A guy by the name of Doug Rice was Union Steward for six years from May of 2002 until May of 2008, and I was his alternate. That means that whenever he needed to be away from the job for whatever reason, I would work for him. He's our Local President now. He left the Steward's office and ran for Local Union President, and won. The guy that ran for his job, a guy by the name of John Bistok, he asked me to stay on as Alternate. He could have picked whoever he wanted to, but …

I had run for an elected position as well, Tool & Die Committeeman, and I didn't win. Early in the campaign period, John had asked me, "if for some reason you don't win, would you still want to be my alternate?" and I said that I would. While I was hoping to win the office I was running for, it was flattering that I would be asked for my services to be retained.

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As the Steward (and as an Alternate), you are responsible for handling differences out on the floor: between the hourly guys and management. For the most part, the hourly people run the plant. Salaried personnel tend to think that they are more important than they really are sometimes. They are important, I don't mean to say they aren't; they have a place. But for the most part, salaried people are not the ones making the presses go up and down, and putting parts out the door. They're just kind of like cracking the whip, so to speak. Sometimes they misstep; they overstep their boundaries. Sometimes they do things that they're not supposed to do, and you know, that's when a guy on the floor calls the Union Office, and I go out and take care of the problem as diplomatically as I can.

Jessie: I was going to say you must have a lot of diplomatic skill to do that.

Matt: I like to think so. You know, I can get along with everybody. You just have to try and handle conflict and reach a resolution as peacefully as you can. Because the boss that you shout down on Monday, you might need his help on Tuesday. And he's not going to forget the dressing down he got, and he's not going to help you when you need it, so you have to try and handle everything as diplomatically as possible. That's not to say that the hourly guys are always innocent. Sometimes it's like being a defense lawyer. In fact, that's pretty much what it is, like being a defense lawyer.

In addition to that, we are responsible for recording who worked what hours, if there was any overtime worked, you have to charge the appropriate number of hours, that dictates where they are on the overtime list, and make sure that people are asked to work overtime, in the proper order. I'm just the Alternate, but you know, sometimes I've been on for weeks at a time, when Doug was the Steward.

It's a rewarding job, but it's definitely got it's trying moments also. It's gotten worse over the years because of the revolving door on the lower end management side of it and the higher end management side of it too. The people that you have to deal with, the employment office, the payroll department...actually we don't have a payroll department any more. That got shipped off to Jamaica. The girl who used to be our payroll clerk who could handle any problem you had, was let go. She was, at first, laid off, but has since been reassigned, but they replaced her with some company in Jamaica. And that's not Jamaica, Queens, that's Jamaica the country.

There's been such a high turnover of Personnel "up front" as we say, you know, in the offices, that when you go up to deal with somebody, you might be used to dealing with one person for something specific in Labor Relations, and you go up there, and there's somebody new up there, and they don't know the job, because they're just promoted to that job without any real working knowledge of it.

When I was in production, they'd say, "Here's how you do this, okay, good luck." And then that's it. It's not the people up front's fault, but I just think that you would want to put the most qualified people in certain jobs. But you know, it doesn't always work out that way.

Being a Union Steward can be very rewarding, and I enjoy it quite a bit. There are some times when I don't think I would want that job full time. I enjoy being the Alternate. I like to be needed, if I'm needed, if I'm called on, I like to respond.

Jessie: Does it take extra time?

Matt: Yes, sometimes. Like doing the overtime. The Steward is responsible for recording his constituents' overtime hours for a list for each individual trade (like being a time clerk). The second shift Union Steward is responsible for Electricians, Millwrights, Pipe Fitters, Die Makers, Welder Repairmen, Machinists, automation guys, other production workers and maintenance trades, so you're talking about well over two hundred people, at least, that you represent. It was a lot more than that at one time, but the numbers have gone down over the years. At one time the Steward's Office that I represent had more people than anyone else in the region. But the numbers have gone down because of reduction in manpower, job cuts, buyouts, general attrition, and everything else.

It's still a very trying job because of all the rumors and falsehoods that make their way onto the shop floor. There's either "Have you heard anything?" or "What do you know?" or, as I like to say it, the two most spoken words at Chrysler: "I heard …" People always want answers I don't have, to questions that are steeped in ridiculousness. It's just a crazy job.

Jessie: Do you have to prioritize and put out some fires?

Matt: Mmm, yes. Sometimes there's information that needs to go out to the people that the Steward's Office won't get word of until well into the shift. John and I will, most times, put that information on the overtime sheet if it's something we receive early in the week for the following week. (Overtime sheets get hung up throughout the plant Sunday night or at the beginning of the shift Monday). But, if something comes up, we're just presented with information and we're in the middle of a week, the overtime sheet is already out, and it's eight o'clock in the evening, and you've only got a half a shift to get the information out to basically everyone that you represent, if not everyone in the plant, then you know, you've got to make up a flyer to hand out as people are leaving at the end of the shift. I'll stand at one gate, and John will go stand at the other gate, and we'll hand these out at the end of the night. Sometimes, even if it's something important, people will just throw it right in the trash.

There are so many layers to the job every day. Every day is the same, but every day is different.

Jessie: Can you talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the "Japanese way?"

Matt: Well back in the '60s and the '70's the Japanese used to tour the American auto plants. And they benchmarked what we did, just like everything else. And then they took all that back and they improved upon it. [See the origin of the Toyota manufacturing system]

I don't know if their way of doing business is better or not. Maybe it's all hype, I don't know. The world that we live in is so full of people who are so quick to believe anything...P.T. Barnum was on to something … Is the Japanese way better than the American way? I don't know, but if you look at car sales, which is, in my industry, what people go by, the Toyota, the Camry is the best selling car in the United States. Which to me, is a crime. It's an indictment of the sheep mentality of most American consumers that have been led to believe that Japanese cars are better than American cars.

This in turn is reflected on sales sheets, which are in turn looked at in board rooms in Detroit that makes them ask "Hey what are they doing that we're not doing?" And that's where it all starts, I think. I don't know who is to blame, or who should get a pat on the back, or what. I just don't necessarily buy into the "Japanese way of doing things." I don't necessarily think that their way is better.

I think that we could learn a lot, but I think that perhaps their jobs aren't as secure as our jobs are, and depending on who you talk to that's a good thing or a bad thing. You know, that they have to look over their shoulder, and they're expecting the other shoe to's all about results. Basically I think that people in this country, the United States of America, have been brainwashed. That's why the American car companies are in the shape that they are in. You go anywhere on the east coast, or the west coast, or the south, pretty much anywhere, and just stand on a street corner and watch the number of foreign vehicles that go by, you know, the KIAs and the Hyundais and the Toyotas, and the Hondas and these people will tell you that "Oh well, they're made in the U.S.A. and I say "No they're not made here, nothing is made here. They're assembled here."

I'm a die-maker, I work with my hands, I make things, I make tools that make something that goes on a car. The people that work in Akron, Ohio that still have jobs, make tires that go on cars. But the tires that go on those Camrys, they're not made in Georgetown, Kentucky, they're made in Japan. As are the fenders, and the doors, and the glass, its all just shipped here, and assembled here. I could run down to Wal-Mart (even though I never set foot in one if I can help it) and buy a model of a '69 Charger that was made in China, bring it home and assemble it in my kitchen, but it doesn't mean it was made in America. It was just put together here.

At the end of business every day, the profits of Toyota, Hyundai, etc., is wired right back to home base, that's where that money goes. They pay their workers; don't have to worry about paying taxes, because when they build plants here, they get twenty-twenty five year tax abatement. They don't have to pay any taxes. They have no legacy costs. Everything's profit.

That's a sore spot with me. There are guys that work at Twinsburg Stamping Plant that have actually gone out and bought brand new Japanese cars. It's unbelievable that somebody could do that, it's just like you're talking about - loyalty. You know, your check says "Chrysler" on it. If you want your neighbor to go out and buy one, to keep your job, why is your neighbor going to go out and buy a Chrysler product if you have a Taurus parked in your driveway, a Chevy truck, or a Honda Civic. Why would your neighbor go out and buy a Chrysler product knowing you work there, and you don't even drive what you make?

We have sold our sold our souls in this country for the almighty dollar. We've sold ourselves down the river. Like that bumper sticker says, "Hungry? Eat your Import." If we continue to buy imports where will our children work? Not everybody can work at a hospital, or work at Wal-Mart, or McDonalds. The middle class is being eliminated. Because people are not aware when they make purchases what they're doing. They have no idea, and the market, the American market is just flooded with imports. What do we make here anymore? Car companies are the last bastion of American manufacturing. And they're even trying to destroy that. So I don't know. It's depressing. For God's sake, we created the Middle Class.

Jessie: Do you have any favorite components or vehicles that you would like to talk about?

Matt: Do you mean current favorites, or all time favorites? I mean I have so many! Like I said, I grew up around MoPars. If I go to a car show now, it's usually with my dad if I go, but now I have a family now, and it's not like it used to be. I can't just pick up and go now. I have responsibilities here. But when I go, I go with my dad, and I can appreciate an old Camaro, or an old Ford Gran Torino or whatever. I can appreciate those.

Jessie: Do you have a special sense of understanding between you and other MoPar guys?

Matt: Well, yeah, because we know that MoPars are the best. You can go down to Wal-Mart and buy Camaro fenders. Those are a dime-a-dozen, why do you think MoPars get the most money at Barret-Jackson? Because they're the rarest, they are the best, they are the best looking, of course, I'm not biased. There's nothing like a '64 Polara or a '65 Dodge 440, or a '68 Charger or a '69 Charger, or a '71 SuperBee or a Superbird or a Charger 500, I mean, there's nothing like an old MoPar. I don't care what you say. Of course you'll notice I didn't say a '66 Charger. But I love my dad's car and I love the old '66 Chargers. But if I had to have one car that I could own, boy it'd be hard to pick. Because I like convertibles, and they don't make a Charger convertible. Unless you make one yourself. But I'd probably go with a '68 or '69 Charger. If I had to pick my all-time favorite.

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One more thing I want tell you about is how I ended up being a die maker like my father. When I was in production back in 1996, they had what was called a STEPP Class. It's an acronym for something, but basically it's just a class that the company offered in order to take the apprenticeship test. They don't even administer it any more. Now, because of the numbers they just hire Journeymen from off the street, if they hire at all.

But I took this STEPP Class, it included algebra, and it started off with basic math and worked its way up to how to read a scale, by scale I mean a ruler, a measuring instrument, algebra, a little trig. Then you took the apprenticeship test and then I took the apprenticeship test, and I guess I'll pat myself on the back. I scored very high, in the top five. I didn't score number one, but I was top five. And I could pick whatever trade I wanted.

You could pick three trades, I picked a diemaker, and number two I picked electrician, and number three I picked pipe fitter. I got in as a die maker. And on August 4th of 1997 I was in Detroit for five weeks for an induction period. Basically you go up there and they kind of ease you in, like at a new job. You do generic study, a broad view of Skilled Trades, and then after lunch they would break off Tool and Die, and Toolmakers, and Machinists, and this group, electricians, you go over here, where it was more trade specific, and orientation. And you do that for five weeks.

You could go home on the weekends if you wanted to. I never did because the hotel was free and I didn't have a girlfriend or a family to go home to at that time, so I just stayed there. And then I came back to the plant, and I served an eight thousand hour apprenticeship which lasted four years, and I graduated in July of 2001, and became a Journeyman and die maker.

It was pretty rough. It sucks to be an apprentice because it's you're like you're getting hazed. You're a go-fer, you're trying to learn, you're scared you're going to make mistakes, you don't know how to do anything, but you don't want to mess up what you are doing. It's kind of crazy. Like wanting to go out and hit a fast-ball by a major league pitcher, when you know you really can't do it, but if you tried long enough you might be able to.

I was always very, and still am, proud of my father, my father is at least, I don't want to say hero, but he's definitely my role model, my hero, my dad is the man that taught me everything I know about life, and you know, whooped my [I should have my mouth washed out with soap for using such terms] when I needed it. Which, as a teenager was quite a bit, as I recall.

My dad was a die maker. I actually got to work side by side with my dad, which a lot of guys can't say. I worked with him on the Durango door lines. The new style Durango. Those door lines, he bid on the job because he had seniority, and then I bid on the job and I had the second most seniority of all those who bid on the job, so it was a two man job, and my dad and I got it, and I had the privilege to work along side my father. And I still miss him at work. I miss him every day that I'm there. I think about him, and I wish he was still there, but you know, if he was there he'd be resented because he'd be one of those guys that'd been there more than 40 years. You know, "Why don't you retire already?" That kind of sentiment.

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My seventeen to his forty five has become my forty two to his seventy. And we don't always get along, but I wouldn't be who I am today if it wasn't for my father. And this is the only place I ever wanted to work and I'm blessed enough to work here. I hope that this Fiat thing that's going on turns out good. I just hope that I get to retire from here like my dad did, and continue to provide a good living and a good standard of living for my daughters and my wife. We have a real good standard of living and I owe everything to Chrysler. Everything that I have, I have because of the UAW, Chrysler, and Twinsburg Stamping.

My father was never soft on me. Sometimes he says he feels guilty about how he used to discipline me. He didn't ever abuse me or anything. In the Seventies, things were way different than the way they are now, you know, as far as child rearing, but I was a bad kid; I was a handful. And like I told you, I'm getting paid back with my eight year old now. I love her so much it's insane. Only a parent knows the love that they have for their children. But you know, she's my "me." My dad, of course, thinks it's hilarious.

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I think that it's kind of a pay back. It's not malicious, it's God's way of letting me know, it's helping me be a better parent. It's because of the way I was when I was a child, and I think I turned out all right. Even though my dad thinks that he was too hard on me, if my dad hadn't been hard on me, I wouldn't be the person I am today. And, my dad was always there to back me up, he always had my back when I needed it, and he always had his foot in my rear end when I needed it. I've never had a bigger supporter than my dad. And you know, I know that he's not going to be around forever. You get to this point in your life when you realize he's not going to be here forever. I watched him lose his dad; he was a toolmaker, so this kind of runs in our family. And if it wasn't for him I wouldn't be who I am today. I hope that my children turn out okay.

So, like I said, everything that I am, everything that I have, it's all because of Chrysler. I fret and I worry, when I hear the doom and gloom that the media puts out there for the general public. This certainly doesn't help our auto sales. You know about Chrysler, "They're as good as done," and this is an actual quote from the Cleveland Plain Dealer "If you went out and bought Chrysler you're a fool because it's not going to be here in a year." This is what I have to deal with. I try to shield my wife from it as much as I can, but when I do that, I'm not being honest with her because this is her life too.

This is what you have to deal with and I know that if I ever lost my job at Chrysler I'd lose my standard of living. I'd never find another job providing me the opportunities or benefits that Chrysler has since 1964. They've always been there for me and my family. Everything that I have in my life that's good is because of the UAW and Chrysler.

You know, of course you know my wife and children are not because of Chrysler but because of Chrysler I'm able to provide them with a sense of security and my wife doesn't have to go out and break her hump, which is the way I like it. I like her to be home with our children.

Jessie: I guess you must be following what's going on with Chrysler as much as you can.

Matt: As much as I can, yes. I'm not as much of a news-hound as some guys are, because I've found that when I immerse myself with what's going on pertaining to this industry, it can tend to make me goofy, for lack of a better word. I'm not sticking my head in the sand, by any means, but it can get overwhelming at times.

My attitude is basically up to me, and some guys choose to go the doom and gloom, glass-half-empty route. I don't. I'm not a doom and gloom guy...I'm a glass-half-full guy. Even if I am confronted by something that seems completely insurmountable, I just have to … it's almost like pretending the elephant in the room is not there sometimes, but that's just me. You can make yourself miserable, or you can drive on.

See Part II.

Also see: Matt on efficiency and working at the plant | Bill Wetherholt |Factories | Other interviews

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