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Start the Presses!

Copyright 2017 - Checker Car Club of America, Inc.

When the last Checker car rolled off the assembly line on July 12, 1982, the deafening noise in the Plant 2 Press Room continued non-stop. Silence, after all, would have meant the death, not just of the cars, but also, of the Checker Motors Corporation. That day would not come until June 25, 2009. Those extra 17 years were very important to two Checker employees, Gwen Burnett and Jim Garrison.

Gwen’s neighbor, Helen, who lived in a townhouse nearby, worked at Checker and suggested that Gwen apply for a job, just to get her foot in the door. They had openings for Press Operators, something that was completely new to Gwen. She was about 22 at the time, March of 1977. She passed both the interview and physical, and was hired.

It took a few weeks to get the hang of factory production. As things settled down, she found she was able to spend a lot of time day-dreaming due to the monotony of the job. But, the more parts you made, the more money you were paid. On piece rate, if you move fast and made a lot of parts, you could actually make pretty good money in a single day. Then, on Friday, pay day, a lot of fellow employees went to the Red Barn Restaurant / Bar. You could go as early as 7 a.m., cash your pay check, and have breakfast while there. Like many other family-run businesses, that place is now gone.

Checker Motors was mostly a man’s world, but about 1 in 10 workers were women. Getting along and working with others was one way a woman could survive and thrive in the male dominated environment. As a press operator, many things could go wrong, up to and including ruining a die.

Gwen was one of the few women to be awarded Class A. She had to work harder to keep up with the guys. She worked 3rd shift, from 11 p.m. ‘til 7 a.m. five or six days a week. They were allowed two 15 minute breaks during an 8 hour shift. A neighbor took care of her daughter, Maria, at night while she was working. Gwen did this for seven years before bidding into a new classification as a Material Handler and getting on 1st shift for another seven years.

Gwen met Jim at Checker in the spring of 1979. They sat at the same table in the Press Room break area which seated about 70 people. Jim was an inspector at the time. The banter was mainly about the job, although many other topics came up as well. The crew and management mingled and got along pretty well. This was a great way to maintain high quality standards.

For Jim and Gwen, friendship led to courtship, and romance let to marriage a year-and-a-half later. They worked and lived together, sometimes 24x7. When the kids came along, they worked different shifts. Their son, Shawn, came along in April of 1983 and was named after a nice young man Jim had met a month earlier. Three years later, in October of ’86, their daughter Ariel arrived and was named after a character in the soap opera “As the World Turns.” With three kids at home and working different shifts, Gwen and Jim did not have much time to discuss things except for problems that came up. Things got a bit easier when the younger children went off to school. Life was generally good for the whole family.

Jim hired in as an inspector in August of 1977 and also worked as a press operator while going to school to become a Machinist and Tool & Die Maker. In 1983 he bid into the Tool Room where they work on die repair and maintenance. He was a Machinist for two years and in 1985 became a Tool & Die Maker. Metal stamping dies, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, require regular maintenance to keep making high quality parts. Jim felt fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of capable people. They did whatever was necessary to keep production going.

There were six lines in the Checker Press Room: A, B, C, D, E and Low Bay. Working in the Press Room was no cake walk. The noise was thunderous, powerful mechanisms were everywhere, and the sheet-metal stamped parts were like big razor blades. Safety glasses, ear plugs, Kevlar gloves and arm guards, steel-toed leather work boots, and proper clothing were mandatory. Safety was everyone’s concern.

Still, there were always risks. Most workers would get lacerations that Gwen calls “Checker Tattoos.” Though rare, there were occasional electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic, or human malfunctions which caused the presses or other equipment to operate improperly. On one occasion when Gwen was operating a press with four other people, she released the buttons to stop the press in order to reach in and reset a misgauged part, but the press didn’t stop because the buttons were improperly installed. She and the other operators noticed, and stopped the press. Accidents were often avoided by skilled and attentive operators.

Each line of presses was somewhat different. A and B lines were very large presses (300 to 1,000 tons) able to handle large dies and parts such as roofs, fenders, and hoods. D and E like were medium size presses which made tailgates and reinforcing component parts. Low Bay was small presses and handled small dies and parts. C line was small and medium automatic presses, and at the north end of D and E line there were large automatic presses for big progressive dies.

Sheet metal part production follows a typical pattern. A flat sheet of steel, called a blank, is first put into a draw die where it is impressed with the general form for the piece. The formed panel then goes to a trim die where excess metal is cut away. Usually there are a number of holes of various shapes that are put in by a pierce die. Then there are edges that need to be folded into place by a flange die. Sometimes there is a restrike die.

Diagram showing how a fender part is formed

through a sequence of moves from press #1 to press #6.

There can be more than one die with the same operation, or one die can perform several different operations. Generally there are from 4 to 7 dies in a line. When it got to the end of the line it was placed in a rack for transport. And, it had better be perfect, or it would be rejected by Checker’s outstanding Inspectors, who didn’t miss much.

All-together, everyone who worked at Checker contributed. Upper management, office staff, floor foremen, operators, assemblers, skilled trades, and even outside contractors, needed to do their part and work together. Of course, there were some differences between Management and the Union. But overall, Checker Motors Corp. was a good place to work. They had good pay, good benefits and good management. Most folks got along well.

Gwen left Checker in 1991 as part of a big lay-off. She went to school and earned a degree in Graphic Arts. Jim stayed at Checker ‘til the very last day. He drove out the main gate just a half hour before it was shut down for good on June 25, 2009. It was, for the most part, a good place to be.

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