Maremont workers strike
By: Becky Blanton
Loudon County News-Herald
For the first time in its 130-year history, Maremont workers have gone
on strike, the plant is down to one shift and plant owners may be
looking at not being able to fulfill orders, union members said.
Maremont, an aftermarket auto parts manufacturing and
distribution center in the City of Loudon, is one of the countryís
leading manufacturers of exhaust systems and parts. It sells to
businesses in the U.S. and Canada, including customers such as AutoZone,
PepBoys and Meineke.
According to the corporate Web site, the relationship between Maremont
and transportation traces to its beginning in 1877 when it manufactured
parts for wagons, stagecoaches and some of Chicagoís first street cars.
The companyís history with automobiles goes all the way back to the
Maremont is one of a dozen transportation-related industries in Loudon
County and workers said they believe the strike at Maremont could affect
the entire county. What happens to employees there will set the tone for
other industries in the area, strikers claimed.
"If (Maremont owner Ken) Banks can get away with lowering wages, doing
away with seniority and bringing in a Mexican workforce, then other
companies in the area will follow," striker Ed Nelson said.
Nelson and other workers who gathered around burn barrels outside the
plant early Monday morning said theyíre striking to get their health
benefits back without having to pay a 350 percent increase in premiums.
They said they want to have their wages stabilized and to keep their
seniority and their 401K plans - basically the same concessions they
reportedly won in their last contract. But itís not happening, they
"Weíre decent, hardworking folks and a lot of people have been here for
30 years or longer," Nelson said as he warmed himself around a burn
"This man (Kenneth Banks) wants to come in here with a blatant disregard
for seniority and do away with our benefits," he said. Nelson admited
heís a "low man on the totem pole, having only worked at the plant for
Less than three hours into the strike, some said they were wondering if
they would still have a job when all is said and done. Union President
Dale Smallen said rumors of an outside workforce are just that at this
point - rumors.
"I havenít heard anything about that but rumors and I donít listen to
rumors," Smallen said early Monday morning only hours after the strike
The half dozen men and women standing around him in the darkness,
warming themselves at the fire, have all worked at Maremont for 30 years
or more. Many are pushing retirement age, others will be eligible for
retirement in a few years if they stay at Maremont. All are worried.
Maremont striker Joe Fanger stepped out of the shadows to stand beside
Nelson, his hands stretched out towards the burn barrel. Heís worked at
the plant for 35 years.
"Other people whoíve been here 35 years have lost their jobs," he said.
"I donít want to. Iíd a whole lot rather be home asleep right now and
come into work in the morning than to be here now."
Itís a theme heard from many workers who claimed all they want is the
living wage theyíre earning - about $12.53 on average for most - and
health benefits they can afford to pay the premiums on each month. They
also said they want to keep their seniority when theyíre laid off.
Itís a contract Maremont owner Kenneth Banks, a nationally renowned
horse breeder from Schulenberg, Texas, reportedly wonít sign. "He
rejected that, basically," said Smallen. "So we voted to strike."
The unionís rejection of Maremontís offer meant that when the unionís
contract expired at midnight Sunday so did the protections and benefits
it offered more than 264 Local Lodge 2545 members. While nationwide the
company employs approximately 900 people, not all of them work in
Loudon. Last year, Maremont officials reported the company had 407
employees in Loudon.
Since it is reportedly the first time in the companyís history that
employees have actually gone on strike itís becoming a learning
experience for them all.
"Itís my first time doing this," Smallen said of the strike a little
after 2 a.m. Monday morning.
"I donít have it all down yet," he joked. He drummed his fingers on the
table lightly as he talked about what might happen and what could
"Iím like everybody else. Iíd rather be working, not sitting here," he
said. "I donít think Iíve ever been in here (Union Hall) this late at
It was the first time in 40 years the lights in the Union Hall had
burned past midnight as far as he could remember.
Inside the hall, the smell of woodsmoke wafted through the warm room.
Dozens of chairs sat empty.
Smallen shifted uncomfortably in a folding chair made for enduring short
meetings, not all-night vigils.
"I got my reading," Smallen said, placing one hand on the magazines in
front of him. "But I didnít think about getting a comfortable chair," he
added with a smile. "Iíll get that next time."
A box of doughnuts, paper cups and supplies for the long haul had been
brought in earlier in the evening. A jug-sized traveling coffee mug sat
on the table in front of him. He leaned forward in his chair, arms
resting on the table.
"We negotiated in good faith for two days, then all five working days,"
"The last and final offer we got was rejected by the lodge. Thatís when
we voted. Two-thirds of us voted to strike." Thatís why he was there all
alone at two in the morning.
"According to our charter thereís got to be a union officer here 24/7
for the duration of the strike," he explained.
Two miles up the road from the Union Hall in front of the plant,
television news crews had already come and gone, not lingering in the
bitterly cold air after interviewing strikers.
They were expected to be back at dawn when the strikerís numbers swell
into the hundreds and managers must cross picket lines to enter the
Emotions are running high, but so are fears. "Weíre committed to obeying
the law," he said when asked if he expects any trouble.
"Theyíre calm. Theyíre venting their frustration in a positive way," he
said of the strikers.
Back at the plant strikers are still discussing the contract as they
struggle to stay warm.
The bottom line has nothing to do with people and everything to do with
money, they said. "He (Banks) just gave $1-million to the quarterhorse
foundation," Nelson said. Two voices speak up out of the darkness:
"Thatís our money heís giving away."
Banks is a council and committee member of The American Quarter Horse
Foundation. His $1-million donation will contribute to the all-new
American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum, which is expected to
open in early 2007.
Banks, a 10-year horse breeder, serves on the Foundation's Campaign
Cabinet as leadership gifts committee chairman.
An avid competitor, he has had several World Show qualifiers, including
reserve world champions in working cow horse, reining and western
pleasure and a world champion in western pleasure.
Itís Banksí perceived life of leisure that has some workers angry.
"He just bought a $3.4-million home in Louisville, (TN) and he said he
wanted to invite us over there to see how he lives. I want him to come
over to my house and see how Iím trying to live," said Nelson.
Another striker shrugs his shoulders at the mention of the gift to the
American Quarterhorse Foundation. He is wearing a four-foot-high sign
that expresses his feelings about Texas: "If it werenít for Tennessee
there wouldnít be a Texas."
Banks acquired Maremont in April 2006, but heís also president of
International Muffler Company or IMCO, a muffler parts manufacturer with
325 employees in Schulenberg, Texas. He also owns and operates Banks
Ranch in Schulenburg. Banks has two sons, Russell and Paul, who are also
involved in IMCO.
When their contract ended at midnight only a few workers, perhaps a
dozen or more, had begun to line up in the darkness outside the plant.
A dozen members appeared at the gates holding signs that read "I am
local 2545 On Strike" and waving at passersby as news crews set up
cameras and interviewed strikers. Horns honked as cars drove by.
Stiff winds cut through the camouflaged coveralls and snowmobile suits
the strikers wore to keep warm.
"You warm enough?" the men joked with each other as they walked in pairs
and in small groups of three and four up and down the narrow road in
front of the plant to stay warm.
"Itís gonna get colder," they both assured and warned each other.
By 5 a.m. Monday morning their ranks had swelled to more than 100
strikers as co-workers began to arrive with signs and emotional support.
Non-union members such as the salaried and maintenance workers began
arriving, too, crossing picket lines to get to the plantís parking lots.
Smallen said he is hoping the company and the negotiators can come to
some kind of agreement about the contract, but he has his doubts.
"He (Banks) said heíd be in Tuesday, but I donít know what heís going to
do," Smallen said.
Despite repeated telephone calls, Banks could not be reached for
comment. His Web site, www.imcoweb.com, tells visitors that Banks and
his managers favor a "family friendly" workforce and that Banks has
"been quoted as saying one of the main reasons for the company's growth
is the people...the most important aspect of hiring an individual is not
job knowledge - it is attitude."
But heís not practicing what he preaches, workers claimed. The economy
may be a factor, they said.
In its heyday during the 1980s, the plant employed as many as 1,200
people. Now it employs about a third of that.
"We make aftermarket mufflers, tailpipes and catalytic converters,"
Smallen said. "Of the three weíre only seeing growth in the catalytic
The "aftermarket" line means parts for cars that need repairs or parts
after theyíve been on the road - not new installation. Demand for
mufflers has fallen, Smallen said.
Employment numbers have dwindled too - not because of working
conditions, but because of better technology. Workers pointed out better
technology means better mufflers - and mufflers and tailpipes that last
longer means less demand for new exhaust systems. Thatís great for
consumers, but bad for the muffler business.
"Of the three of those, catalytic converters are most likely the part to
go bad in a carís exhaust system now," Smallen explained. Bad gas and
other issues can destroy the $150 part - sometimes several times on one
Employment at the plant has continued to dwindle with temporary workers
filling the busy gaps. Fifty-one people were reportedly laid off before
For people like Dean Bandy thatís quite a blow.
"I started working here in August of 1972," Bandy said. "Iíve been here
over two-thirds of my life. I want to retire here."