Maremont workers strike
By: Becky Blanton
Source: Loudon County News-Herald
02-07-2007

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 Model T.

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 said.

"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 barrel.

"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 11 years."

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 began.

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 happen.

"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 night."

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," Smallen explained.

"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 plant.

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 converter line."

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 vehicle.

Employment at the plant has continued to dwindle with temporary workers filling the busy gaps. Fifty-one people were reportedly laid off before the strike.

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."

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