The Community Shares Stories about Working at GM

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| by Krista Madsen | 

Signs from the United Auto Workers building on Beek- man Avenue
Signs from the United Auto Workers building on Beek- man Avenue

For longtime workers at North Tarrytown’s General Motors plant, the 100-acre wasteland that defines the riverfront of what is now called Sleepy Hollow smarts like an open wound.

While recounting the end of his 32-year history with GM when the site closed for good on June 28, 1996 – “I recall the date” – Elias Tsekeri got choked up with tears. “That Friday was the worst day of my life. When we left the plant, it was like a funeral. We just could not talk to each other. I looked back and that was it. It’s one thing to be able to retire and be able to go back and see the workers left to visit. We have nothing. That’s really hard, I still really feel it.”

Three men who worked for decades at the plant, one who worked three consecutive college summers in the ‘50s and had many stories from his father’s time as well, and three women tangentially connected to the operation – through working at one family’s luncheonette on Beekman Avenue or seeing the shift-change traffic clogging the H-bridge – gathered to tell stories at the first themed session of a new Warner Library initiative to record local and topical oral histories.

Library director Maureen Petry introduced the session by explaining that they were about to participate in the “oldest type of historical inquiry.” A handy recording device resting on a stand allowed her to move to each speaker; the device was donated through funding from the Rotary Club. Once edited, the sessions will live online and be accessible to the public via Dropbox. Petry guided the speakers with questions – the only real rule being not to talk over each other. The group easily filled a fast and fascinating hour.

The New York Public Library’s Alexandra Kelly had led a conference on recording such stories, based on a program that the city library is doing neighborhood by neighborhood. This and the national success of StoryCorps, where two people enter a room and record an intimate conversation, point, perhaps, to a wider societal need to simply hear good stories from real people. “The stories are so humane,” Petry said. “You feel like we are hungry for this.”

Former GM workers share stories at Warner Library, from left to right: Elias Tsekeri, Frank Cofone, and John A. Inzar.
Former GM workers share stories at Warner Library, from left to right: Elias Tsekeri, Frank Cofone, and John A. Inzar.

“You have to get these stories before they are gone,” Petry said, easily landing on the first topic of working at GM. “There’s surprisingly few people left around here who worked there.” Petry’s husband did, as did her father, a plumber. By 2016, 20 years after the plant closed, developers plan to have shovels in the ground for Edge-on-Hudson; the lighthouse has been relit as a beacon of renewed hope for the village. “The community right now still hurts from that plant being closed,” Inzar said.

The men described really hard work, but they spoke of it with fondness and pride, recalling positive relations between management and the union and how they felt respected.

Manuel Arbelaez did every kind of job there was during his 31-year career, from the body shop to welding to quality control. When computers came along, he learned to install those too. “At the end of the line, it doesn’t have to be perfect but the best you can do it,” he said.

Tsekeri reminded everyone that GM was only great to work for because of what the union brought. “They didn’t give us anything we didn’t negotiate for.”

Before unions – a time Cofone recalled from his father’s career – the conditions were rough. With the unemployment rate at 24 percent in the 1920s, there were lines of men down Beekman eager to replace you if you didn’t like it. “The demands they put on people were tremendous,” he said. “There was pressure.”

Several of the men had worked “relief duty,” taking over for someone who needed a restroom break. These breaks grew through the years from under ten minutes to 23. Time went fast when it was usually quite a hike to get to the restrooms, and you couldn’t return late. At a pace of 400 cars completed in a shift, the line didn’t stop. The place was so vast, men would bike to get around inside.

Inzar drove cars around the factory, bringing ones in need of fixes back and forth to the “big room” repair shop.

The men drove their own GM-made cars. They seemed to agree that the best car that came out of the place was the 1957 two-door Chevy coupe.

The worst – at least for Inzar – was the Buick Century. It was tough for him to fit the roof on the body without messing up, which he did often. “I didn’t do right but I did my best.”

There is still a sign in the front of the United Auto Workers building on Beekman that says you can’t park in the lot without an American-made car, a credo these men live by. “When you buy something not made here, you put your neighbor out of work,” Tsekeri said.

The plant closing during what some would say was its resurgence after recovering from layoffs in the mid-‘70s took everyone by surprise. It was so “ideally located,” said Cofone, with the river, train lines and major highways so close. But despite the tax breaks that then-Governor Mario Cuomo had granted the plant, lowering electricity and gas rates, it was cheaper to move operations south.

Inzar spent one of his nearly 43 years at the plant staying on after the closure for the clean up before he went to work for eight years in Linden, New Jersey. “It was a great place to work,” citing, as did Arbelaez, being able to buy a home and put two kids through college.

“We made a good living there,” Inzar said, likening the team spirit to a very large football team. “We did it, we got the job done, and we built better cars in the end because we put our hearts in it.”

The men also recalled a bit of comic relief during three days in the ‘80s when the Disney characters came in costume to work with them as thousands of school children looked on. Five years prior Disney made a similar visit and a lawsuit ensued: one kid was apparently traumatized in the car plant when a character took the head off his costume to get to work.

The library is interested in finding more volunteers to help collect – and someday transcribe – these oral histories. To learn more, contact Maureen Petry at (914) 631-7734, director@warnerlibrary.org.

Note: “The Oral History Circles” project will be an ongoing collaboration between Warner Library and The Hudson Independent. Are you living with a ghost in your house? On Friday, Sept. 11 at 2 p.m. at Warner Library, Krista Madsen will be recording stories of the real ghost of Sleepy Hollow. To sign up, email krista@sleepyhollowink.com or visit/call the Reference Desk at the Library, 914-631-7734.

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