Coet Combs Interview

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RACHEL BERNSTEIN: --Green light, which we've got, and I'm going to say hello again.


BERNSTEIN: I'm Rachel Bernstein and tell me about your name. Coet, is that exactly how to say it?

COMBS: Rachel, my name is Coet, first name, and people say what is your middle name and I say with a first name like that you don’t get a middle name. That name came out of eastern Kentucky. Had an uncle named Coet and I had one other distant relative, like a second cousin, whose name was Coet and I've seen it one other time since that, but they all came out of eastern Kentucky. I've never seen it anywhere else.

BERNSTEIN: How interesting.

COMBS: So that's where it came from. I was the third child of ten children my mom and dad raised in eastern Kentucky. He was a coal miner and my dad had only gone to the fourth grade in elementary school, dropped out, had to farm, had to work on the farm, wasn't able to go to school. My mother had completed the eighth grade and that's as far as they ever got in school. But my dad, even though he worked manual labor all of his life in the coal mines and some other 1:00jobs, but he insisted that his children get an education so we all went to high school and only me and my oldest brother out of ten, there's only two of us that did not go to college and that was me and my oldest brother.


COMBS: So we got eight out of the ten to go to college and --

BERNSTEIN: That's very determined.

COMBS: He was. He just said you've got to have an education. Children, he said, you've got have an education because in the future it's going to be much more needful than it is today. He says you've got to have an education. So I did not go to college but the school teacher where I lived in Kentucky, he talked me into, he said if you're not going to go into college he said go into the service, they will teach you a trade and it’ll be good for you. So I was going to go in the Marine Corps and he said no, he was in the Marines on Iwo Jima during the war and he said the Marines, he said it's dirty, in the gutter all 2:00the time fighting, he says go in the Air Force or the Navy one, he says they've got good schools, they’ll train you. So I joined the Navy and they trained me to be an aircraft electrician and it worked well for me.

BERNSTEIN: Pretty skilled. So before we get to that just tell me a little more about when you were growing up one of ten kids and a coal miner father in Tennessee?

COMBS: Yes, Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky, yes.

BERNSTEIN: Sorry, I was looking at --

COMBS: Decoy, Kentucky. Little small community. And we were so far back in the community the only road we had was like a dirt road for miles and then it would go to a gravel road and then finally you’d get to the blacktop just before you’d get to town but it was like two and a half, three hours drive to get to the closest town where there was a high school. So while we had an elementary school in our community of Decoy there was no high school that we could go to. Had two teachers for all eight grades, a man and his wife, wonderful people, 3:00good teachers and they’d have a row of students in each grade and they would be teaching one row of students fourth or fifth grade or whatever, the sixth grade, all be teaching different things, different subjects and he’d just talk to that row while the others were doing their work and it worked out great.

BERNSTEIN: Must have been a very special teacher to be able to --

COMBS: They were. Both of them, this man and his wife, and they were just wonderful people, Mr. and Mrs. Lionel Dove. And anyway in order to go to high school, of course my dad was insistent that we get an education, we had to go to a boarding school in Hindman, Kentucky which by car was like two and a half hours drive away. Couldn't ride a bus, they had no bus service in there. So we stayed at this boarding school called the Hindman Settlement School and we boarded out there. We would work there, like we had to work 50 minutes a day and then you had to work a half a day on Saturday, and we would board out at that 4:00school. They had the boys’ dorm, the girls’ dorm.

BERNSTEIN: And your parents didn't have to pay because your work --

COMBS: They had to pay a little something, but it was very little, just a very minor amount and my dad could afford that. You know, it wasn't much. But since we worked there that paid for our room and board and of course my parents had to buy some of the books that we had. Most of the books were provided but they had to buy some of them. It was mostly they cost them very little because we worked there. And then we’d work a month during the summer. We were out of school for three months, June, July and August, and we had to sign up to work one of those three months at the school to help pay for our boarding costs when we came back to school. So it worked good for us and --

BERNSTEIN: So that's amazing. So your father, even though they didn't have a lot of money they were able to send all of you to high school.


BERNSTEIN: To this boarding school?

COMBS: Yes. And all ten of us went to that. The one oldest brother did not graduate from high school but all the other nine graduated from high school and 5:00eight of the nine, all but me, went on to college, and so it worked out great.

BERNSTEIN: Must have been a decent high school.

COMBS: It was. It was a good school. Small school but it was a very good school and worked well, yeah. But I had wonderful parents.

BERNSTEIN: And somebody took you under their wing and advised you to go --

COMBS: Yes, that was my school teacher. When he found out that I was thinking about going in the Marines, he said Coet, you really don’t want to do that. He said you need to go either in the Air Force or the Navy one, because he knew the background and he said they have really got some good schools and he said they will teach you a trade and if you're not going to go to college you're going to need a trade. And sure enough, he was absolutely right and when I went off to the Navy after I got out of high school -- actually I worked for like six months up in Indiana, lived with my brother and sister-in-law. Because there was no jobs in Kentucky. Of course, my dad wouldn't even think of us going working in the coal mines.

BERNSTEIN: I was just going to ask you, did he have a strong feeling about that?


COMBS: Yeah. He said no, you can do better than that. So he said --

BERNSTEIN: Was he in a union?

COMBS: He helped get a union in where he worked there, and this was probably in the late 40s, early 50s, but I remember he helped get the -- organize the United Mine Workers at the coal mine where he was working where they processed the coal. He helped get the union in there. And he was always grateful for the union and he thought that John L. Lewis was the greatest thing ever coming down the turnpike, you know. And I asked him later on after I got involved in the union, years later when I became a union representative, I asked dad later on, I said dad, what did you like best about the union? He said son, he said the pay got much better. He said I really liked that. He said the benefits, he to be able to have a paid vacation and some other benefits that we got, health care and some things, he said that was wonderful. He said you know what I liked most about it? I said tell me. He said, what I liked most about it, he said for the first time 7:00in my adult life, and he’s like 40 years old, maybe a little over 40 at that time, in his 40s when he helped organize and get the union in, he said for the first time in my adult life I was treated like a human being. He said that up ‘til that time, he said in the coal mines, he said slate would fall in and crush a man, he said they’d just wheel him out and bring another person in. They didn't care about safety. He said the union helped bring in safety. But he said the dignity, them treating us like human beings, was the greatest thing about the union. He said I loved it. So he was grateful for that. He was a wonderful man. Good parents, just taught us to work hard and to love our country and treat people right, you know, like you want to be treated, and --

BERNSTEIN: Did they stay in --

COMBS: They lived there all their lives. It’s the only place they ever lived was right there at Decoy.



BERNSTEIN: And any of their kids end up there?


COMBS: One younger brother is living there now in the old home place but all the others are outside. Some still live in Kentucky but they're all over, different states, you know. And the one younger brother, just younger than me, he was in Vietnam during the war and flying as a mechanic on helicopters and he’s now flying as a corporate, he’s the chief pilot for a company up in Minnesota, flies a corporate jet all around the world and doing great.

BERNSTEIN: So flying, the flying bug --

COMBS: Yes. And I flew --

BERNSTEIN: -- must be in there.

COMBS: I said in there that I flew, after I got out of the Navy and went to work I flew long enough to get a private license and then I went under the GI Bill and flew under the old Piedmont and got my commercial rating to fly commercial. But I never did anything with it. It was just – it got so expensive and we were sending our kids to a Christian school and I had to make a choice, keep 9:00flying or send my kids to a good school, and I chose to send my children to a good school and gave up flying.

BERNSTEIN: Before we get there, you don’t have the children yet, you've just gone into the Navy and immediately signed up to be trained as a --

COMBS: Yes. I really wanted to be a pilot and they said you really didn't score high enough on your ARI and your GCT test or whatever, you know, so I said well, what do you suggest? They said you qualify to be a, we think you would make a good aircraft electrician and we'll train you to do that. I said let’s get on with it. So that's when they, after boot camp up in Illinois, Great Lakes, Illinois, they sent me to Jacksonville, Florida, to train to be an aircraft electrician and they trained me to do that and they shipped me from Jacksonville, Florida, to NAS Oceania at Virginia Beach and I stayed there for 10:00the other three years, almost three years I had left in the Navy. I stayed there at Virginia Beach and worked on airplanes until I got my four years in and then I got out of the Navy. I lived --

BERNSTEIN: Were you tempted to stay in?

COMBS: Never.

BERNSTEIN: To re-up?

COMBS: Never.

BERNSTEIN: Not a scrap?

COMBS: The Navy was great, I loved it because of the training that I got, and they tried to get me to re-up. They said you know you've advanced from boot camp to an airman to a third class petty officer to a second class petty officer and they said we want you to stay in the Navy and I said no way. It’s not me, it's not my life, I just don’t like it, you know. I like what the Navy’s doing but it's not me, I just don’t like the Navy. And the recruiter says you'll have to talk to the commanding officer. I said fine, I'll talk to the commanding officer and tell him the same thing and sure enough, he had me come in. He said, Combs, he said you're a good man, why don’t you stay in the Navy? I said ‘cause I don’t like the Navy. I mean it's good for me, I've done good and 11:00it's -- he said, yeah, he said you don’t have one single mark in your record, not a single bad mark in your record, you know, and he said you've done good, you're a second class petty officer and he said we’d like to keep men like you in the Navy. I said no, thank you, it's just not my thing and I will be getting out as soon as my time is up. And he said well I guess it's no good for me to talk to you and I said, captain, you're right. I admire you for what you do but this is not my life so I will be getting out when my four years is up. And I met my wife while I was in the Navy. I met her at Virginia Beach, 1962, April of 1962 and we got married in April of 1963 and I had two years left in the Navy before I would be discharged. I told my wife Linda, I said you cannot get pregnant because I don’t want anything keeping me in this Navy and if I have one or two children I said that may tempt me to stay in where I've got a job rather than get out and find another job. So I said you cannot get pregnant till 12:00I get out of the Navy, so we made that happen and she didn't get pregnant till I was out of the Navy for about a year and a half or so.

BERNSTEIN: So when you got out did you want to stay in that neck of the woods?

COMBS: No. We liked the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area. My wife had family there and I had parents still living in Kentucky so we kind of went in between. We went to Roanoke, Virginia and I put in an application at the General Electric Company and got a job as a wireman working at General Electric and I worked there for about a year and a half, and that’s -- uh I, uh, I joined the union there, represented by the International Union of Electrical Workers, the IUE. And just after a few months, three or four months, five months, I was elected as a shop steward and I worked there as a shop steward. And at that time it was --


BERNSTEIN: Was it a closed shop?


BERNSTEIN: I wouldn't think so.

COMBS: In Virginia you could not negotiate closed shops because you could have people working in there but in Virginia which was a right to work, what we call a right to work for less state, you could not have the shops where everybody had to be a member. But I joined immediately because that was just my style. When I first got out of high school I went to work up in Indiana at this little plant, (inaudible) plant, and I joined the union there and we had a sit down strike while I was there to resolve some grievances. And I worked on the night shift and the manager would not talk to us about these problems so my brother and my uncle were representatives of the local union there, and they said we know how to get them to talk to us, we'll shut the plant down and we'll sit in the plant till they come and resolve the problems. So sure enough, one night at a given point in time they shut down all the lines, production lines where we were making these products, roofing and housing products, and we went in the break 14:00room and sat down, probably 7,500 men, and we told the superintendent we're not going to work until the plant manager comes in here and resolves the grievances. And he came in mad as he could be and finally things got calmed down and he started talking and our guys started talking and they resolved all the issues.


COMBS: And after a few hours we went back to work and resumed things like nothing had ever happened and worked good, you know. So we got problems resolved there. So later on when I went to work at GE I was already, the union was in my background. There was no problem so I joined the union there and became a shop steward for the IUE and we had, one of the funniest stories was we had a little, I had a supervisor, really a good guy but we had like two grievances against him. So it wasn't any big things, it was just a couple of small problems that we had, we thought were violations of the contract and I had written grievances against this supervisor and they were going to transfer him to another 15:00department. So I got a new supervisor that came in out of engineering, he was about my age, and um, I guess early 20s, and he was really a no good person because the first day he came in he found out I was the shop steward so he calls me into his office and he said, Combs, he said, I hear that you've got some grievances against [Lincus], the other foreman. I said yeah, there's a couple in the system. And he said I'm going to tell you right now, he said my position is going to be the same as his on those issues. I said that's OK, we'll just let them go to the hearing and we'll try to get them resolved so it's no big deal. And then he leaned across the desk to me, he’s smoking one of those big old long crooked cigars, he leaned across the desk to me and he said I'll tell you what too, he said I'm going to go to the top in this organization and I don’t care who I have to step on to get there. I was fresh out of the Navy and I used language then that I don’t use now. I looked back at him and I said you sorry 16:00SOB, and I didn't abbreviate, and I said I'm going to do everything I can to keep you from making it to the top. So I made it my purpose for the next 30 days every night when I’d get off work I’d go home and before I’d go to bed I’d write a grievance on some issue that was going on and for 30 days we had grievances against this guy. So it was getting a bottleneck in the grievance, because you had to hear them every so often. I think we had three different levels in the plant. And at that time you could not go to arbitration on a grievance because GE wouldn't agree to it but we could strike on the issue. So at that time --

BERNSTEIN: You didn't have to manufacture them, I guess he did enough?

COMBS: Oh yeah, there was enough going on --

BERNSTEIN: There was enough cause?

COMBS: I could always find things to write a griev-- no, this was not just fabricated things. This was things that he would do that would happen in the shop that wasn't in accordance with the contract and so I would charge him with 17:00violating a certain section or article of the contract and write it up on a piece of paper and present it to him, you know. And then we couldn't resolve it, it had to go to a superintendent and then it had to go to the plant manager to be resolved you know. And the system was getting kind of bogged down with all these grievances and once it went to the plant superintendent if we didn't get it resolved then it was assigned a docket number and you could strike on that issue. You couldn't go to arbitration because if they -- if GE says no, we're not going to resolve that matter, you know, then we had the option to either let it die or we could strike on it.

BERNSTEIN: Those were your only options.

COMBS: So from that point on every time he would come in there, and he just notorious for giving our people a hard time. You know, we had -- in my department we had a paint shop and we had assemblymen that worked on assembling the control units and we had wiremen like myself that would wire these industrial control units and then we’d move them on down the line for another department to do something and so on till it went all the way through the plant. 18:00And he was just notorious for coming in there, because he wanted to get to the top and he thought if he whipped everybody in shape and really cracked the whip, that he could get to the top real fast, you know. And so when he did these types of things I would find some article or section of the contract that he had violated and I would file a grievance against him. And the system was getting bogged down and when the grievances got to the top they’d be assigned a docket number and the guys knew what we could do then. If there was some issue come up that we didn't like, he was doing something, we would give him a docket number and we’d go out on strike. Just maybe for a half a shift. We’d maybe come in at time for lunch at 7:30, 8:00 in the evening and the guys would come to me and they’d say did you see what he did over in the assembly area, what he did to those guys over there tonight? So they’d tell me about it and they’d say can 19:00we go on strike? They said have you got a docket number? I said oh yeah, in my tool box I have several docket numbers. So we’d have a little meeting among ourselves as we're getting ready to go to lunch and we would vote in our shop to go on strike. So I’d go back and tell my supervisor --

BERNSTEIN: You didn't have to go any further up in the union?


BERNSTEIN: That was just --

COMBS: We could do it right there.

BERNSTEIN: Right there on the spot.

COMBS: Since it was our issue and our department we could do it ourselves, you know. So I’d go by and tell him. I’d say hey, boss, I said docket number 3127, or whatever it was, we're on strike. He’d say what's the problem? I’d say docket number 3127. That’s all I had to tell him. We're all clocking out and so he’s coming and everything. He was trying to find out what the problem is because he’s got to go tell somebody my group is on strike. And we’d leave the plant and when you do that you shut down the whole assembly line process because it bottlenecks right there. And we’d come back the next day like nothing had happened and go back to work. Because we’d missed a half a shift’s work, we've lost pay. And we kept doing that week after week, we would 20:00do that. Every few --

BERNSTEIN: You didn't get punished?

COMBS: No. They can't do anything to you.

BERNSTEIN: They couldn't?

COMBS: No, it's a legitimate strike. They don’t resolve the issue you have a right to strike on that issue, you know. Or you just let it die. Couldn't do anything to you. And we drove them nuts and after six months they put him back in engineering because they said he’s not suitable to be a supervisor. I said if you had asked me that I could have told you that on day one because he’s a fruitcake, he’s a nut. (Laughter) Anyway but I enjoyed my time with the union there. It was a good bunch of people to work with. But GE was tough. Of course we were tough too. We had to be tough to put up with their shenanigans, you know.

BERNSTEIN: It sounds like they came to realize you were right and he wasn't.

COMBS: Yes. Yeah.

BERNSTEIN: So it may have been tough but they weren't all crazy.

COMBS: Right. I don’t know whatever happened to this guy but he wasn't suitable to be a supervisor. He wanted to get to the top and he didn't care who he had to step on to get there and I wanted to make sure that he didn't get 21:00there on my watch.

BERNSTEIN: And what percent organized was this plant or your section of it?

COMBS: I think in our particular department I think everyone in there was a union member. There were some departments that maybe just had a few stragglers that would not join but it was almost, I’d say for that plant we probably had 90, 95% of the people were union members in there.


COMBS: Yeah, so it was only a few people for whatever reason, they had had a bad experience somewhere with a union, they wouldn't join, you know, but it was 90, 99, 95% union guys in there. Good solid people.

BERNSTEIN: And you were the shop steward there?



COMBS: International Union of Electrical Workers, IUE.

BERNSTEIN: For ’65 and ’66?


BERNSTEIN: Is where we are.

COMBS: Yeah, and after about a year and a half there was an opening came for a 22:00job down in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. This was in late 1966 and my wife and I, we had our first child born there in Salem, Virginia, our oldest daughter, and but we really wanted to get back close to her family down in the Virginia Beach, Norfolk/Virginia Beach area, so there was openings coming, they were hiring people -- civil service was hiring a lot of people because of the Vietnam buildup and they had to fix a lot of ships. So they was hiring people and I went and put my application in to be an electrician in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. And with my background being trained in the Navy and of course my wiring experience there at the GE plant they hired me in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard as a journeyman marine electrician. I’d never been a marine electrician in my life. So I was hired in there and when I got in the shipyard there it came under the metal trades department. We had like 16 different unions in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and they were all under the metal trades council which was part 23:00of the metal trades department. In our union at that time I was in the electrical shop and it come under the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers so I immediately joined the IBEW and became one of their members. I was not real active in the union while I was there in the shipyard and I was there about a year and a half but I was a member during that whole time. Then there came an opening. I didn't enjoy working on the ships because it was a lot of hard manual heavy labor pulling big cables from one end of a carrier or a battleship to the other, just pulling cables through bulkheads and just a lot of heavy work, and I’d been used to working on airplanes where they have much lighter wires and much easier working so I wanted to get back working on airplanes. So there came an opening, another ad in the paper I guess, I saw where they were hiring across at the Norfolk Naval Air Rework Facility, another civil service job, they were hiring electricians over there, aircraft electricians. So I put my application in and they immediately got me to work 24:00over there and the first day I was there they took you around for the indoctrination, introduced you to everybody and they introduced me to the shop steward, Francis Reynolds, and that was the machinists union, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. So the next day I got through with all my indoctrinations that day so the next day I go back, and of course that's civil service, it's all open shop, you don’t have to be a member, you know, so I go back to Francis Reynolds, I stuck out my hand, I said Francis, I met you yesterday, you're the shop steward and I said I want to join your union and he like to fell out backwards. He said I don’t normally have people want to come to me to join the union. He said I usually have to chase them down and twist their arm and get them to join that way. And I said I'm union and I want to be a part of the machinists union. And he gladly signed me up as a member in 1968, it was May of 1968, and within a few months I was elected as a shop 25:00steward and then within about a year and a half I became the assistant chief steward and then probably within another year I was asked to run on a ticket to become the assistant chairman of the shop committee. This was a big bargaining unit, bigger than I had been in before. It consisted of, it was about 4,000 people working there overhauling these Navy airplanes and repairing them. So we had, even though they weren't all members we represented about 4,000 people in there. So we had like 75 shop stewards, I think we had eight or nine chief stewards, we had assistant chairmen and chairmen of the shop committee. We had a union office on the base in the shop.

BERNSTEIN: No kidding?

COMBS: The government provided us with a union office, to go there and do research for grievances and arbitrations and things like that.

BERNSTEIN: And that was all machinists or that was again the metal trades?


COMBS: No, that was all machinists there. The shipyard and metal trades had the certification for representation and all the different trade unions were involved over there, like 16 different local unions from different internationals were involved in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard under the metal trades council but here at the Naval Air Rework facility in Norfolk, that was all came under the machinists union. So we had it all there with the, we represented all the blue collar workers.

BERNSTEIN: Were very many of them returning vets from Vietnam?

COMBS: Not at that time because they were still in Vietnam. At that time when I first went there we had some. We had some returning vets but not a lot that I recall. There were some people that came back and went to work for civil service that had been there. And you did, under the hiring system, I know I used that because I had four years in the Navy and that gave me some extra points on my 27:00application to get hired in. So if a vet come and someone who had never been a vet came and they had the same qualifications the veteran would get the job because of the extra points they had because of serving in the military.

BERNSTEIN: Were there African-American workers?

COMBS: Yes. Not only workers, but some of them were --

BERNSTEIN: And electricians?

COMBS: Some of those were, we had as electricians, but there we were representing all the different trades so we had African-Americans that were shop stewards, chief stewards and very active in the union, yes.

BERNSTEIN: That's a time of great turmoil. Was there not -- there was not turmoil in your -- in the union?

COMBS: You're talking about as far as race relations?

BERNSTEIN: Civil rights and --


BERNSTEIN: -- Vietnam War protests, all of those things are sort of all going on at the same time.

COMBS: Yeah, seemed like that was outside. The protests were all outside. We 28:00didn't have that. We did not know of that. Seemed like that was off in other cities, California.

BERNSTEIN: Far away from you?

COMBS: Yeah. Washington and New York and places like that. We didn't have that there at the Norfolk, I don’t ever recall having any protests going on there. And as far as race relations we had a good relationship with the African-American community and, like I said, a lot of them were shop stewards and chief stewards and then when I ran to be the assistant chairman along with the chairman, I had a lot of them that were in my corner. They knew my background and how I worked in there and served as a shop steward and assistant chief steward and I had a lot of them that were supporting me, you know, and when we ran we did a full blown campaign to get elected, you know, and had a lot of support among the black members of the union. So it worked great.


BERNSTEIN: So are there any other grievances or things that stick out from your time as the shop steward?

COMBS: Just one thing there as a shop steward, and I really had a good supervisor, Mr. Barnes, and the reason I thought he was a good supervisor, because he was the kind of person that probably didn't know the electrical work like we did because he’d been out of the trade for so long but he would let us do the job that we were supposed to do. We knew how to be -- we knew how to do the aircraft electrical work but he would get whatever tools or supplies that we needed. We’d just say hey, boss, we need this or this to get the job done, he said I'll make it happen. And he knew where to go on the base to whatever shop, if we needed a special tool made or we needed special equipment, testing equipment or something like that, he would go make it happen. So he was the kind of supervisor that would assist you in getting your job done to the best, to the best possible way and he was a great supervisor. Anyway I filed a grievance on him, and really he hadn't had a grievance filed probably in years and I think it 30:00had to do with overtime, he had not assigned the overtime properly. It was supposed to have been done, you're supposed to rotate the overtime among the qualified people to do it and he had not done that so I filed a grievance on him and he just kind of, I guess it kind of hurt him because he had this grievance on him. And after a couple of days he came to me and he says -- he would not resolve it. I asked him to, I think to pay a guy the time that he had lost that he should have been paid for overtime and he refused to do it and he says, he come back to me and he said are you going to resolve this grievance or is it going to go forward to the next step? I said boss, if you can't grant the demands we've got on there it's going to have to go forward, you know. It’s a grievance, it hasn't been resolved. So anyway we eventually got it resolved, you know. But he was a good guy. He was a good supervisor, it's just that he had not 31:00followed the contract in assigning the overtime and we had a grievance there and we had to get it resolved, and we did.

BERNSTEIN: So you did take it to the next step?


BERNSTEIN: And did he forgive you?

COMBS: Oh yes. He was always a good, he knew that. He knew I was doing my job as a union steward and he had to do his, he thought, as a supervisor. He just wasn't accustomed to going by the rules the way they were supposed to abide by, you know. But he fell in line and did a good job after that, so he was a good guy.

BERNSTEIN: So then this election, you're going to be elected to be a Grand Lodge Rep?

COMBS: No, at that time the election we run there in the plant was for the assistant chairman of the shop committee. So I ran it with another guy and got elected and a year later I ran, I think those positions, maybe they lasted two years, and I was the assistant chairman and I was doing the work of the chairman so a year later they asked me to be on a team that I didn't want to be on. You pick teams to run, a slate of team to run for chief steward, shop stewards, 32:00chairman, assistant chairman and what have you and officers of the local, you know, and they asked me to be on a team and I didn't like the team that they had made up so I said no, I can't do that. And they said you're going to be off of our team so then some of the other guys come and talked to me and they said you need to run as chairman. I said I really don’t want to run for chairman because I hate to run against the guy that asked me to be the assistant chairman just the last go round. They said if you don’t you're going to be on the outside looking in because he’s got his whole slate and we want you to run against him. So anyway almost all the chief stewards came to me, because they knew I’d been doing a lot of the work, and so they came to me and asked me to run and a bunch of the shop stewards and they agreed that they would support me so I reluctantly had my name put in and ran and was elected as the chairman of the shop committee.


BERNSTEIN: When you have that position are you still working as an electrician or you're doing union work most of the time?

COMBS: You're still civil service employees but they had a provision in the contract that the employer would allow the chairman and the assistant chairman sufficient time off work to deal with grievances and problems, you know, whatever it might be. And by the time you get to be assistant chairman that's full time in the union office.


COMBS: Chairman the same way. So even though we were paid as government employees, by the contract --

BERNSTEIN: You were dealing with union business?

COMBS: You're dealing with union business on a full time -- we’d work some but it would be very little and we would work overtime if they needed overtime work. We’d come in and work on Saturday or whatever, so we did, we’d still work overtime and some other time if we were caught up on our union work and they had problems that we had to deal with. But with 4,000 people there was always seemed like some problems to deal with, you know. But I did that for like another couple of years and --


BERNSTEIN: So that's in the late 60s to the early 70s?

COMBS: That's into the 70s now ’cause I think I served one two year term as assistant chairman and then two years as a chairman and I think I ran and got elected again. So I think I was on my second term as chairman for the shop committee and one of our business reps, we had two business representatives there in the Norfolk area at that time, one decided that he no longer wanted to be a business rep so he decided he was going to quit, go back into the shop, work with his tools again. Real good guy, Bill Barnes. And the director asked me if I would come on and fill in the rest of his term as a business representative. I said well, I’d really never thought about it but if you want me to I'll go do it temporarily. So we had to take a leave of absence from work and go do my job, go do the job of business rep. So I did that and then I ran and got elected. I asked, after a few months when the term was up I knew I was 35:00going to have to stand election for business rep and I asked the guy that was in there before, I said do you want your job back because if you do I won’t run against you. He said no, he said I really don’t want to be business rep again, so he was happy not to be a business rep so I --

BERNSTEIN: He wanted to go back to the shop as well?

COMBS: Yes, he did. He went back and stayed in the shop ‘till he retired. So I ran and was elected as a business rep, and no opposition. And after, that was in, let’s see, I first went on in January of ’75 as a new business representative, appointed and filled out that remainder of the term, and then I got elected one time and then in October of ’77 I was asked to go on the international staff as a Grand Lodge Representative and I went on, gave up my job as a business rep and went on as an International Representative.

BERNSTEIN: So before we get there tell me a little bit about the job of a 36:00business rep in your neck of the woods.

COMBS: As a business representative we negotiated contracts, handled grievances, arbitration cases. And I remember the first arbitration case I had to do on my own. I asked the director to go set in with me on that because even though I had been in on several arbitration cases in the past I had never handled one as the person that processed -- prosecuted the case. So I asked the director to come and set in with me and he did, he came and set in and he was there for like two hours and then he got over and he whispered in my ear, he said I'll see you later, he said you don’t need me. So he left and I handled the case and went on from there, you know. But everything was relatively smooth during that time. I don’t know of any big issues, you know. Handled lots of arbitration cases, negotiated contracts and organized, did some organizing for new shops and things like that, you know, but that was --


BERNSTEIN: So this was the time when Red Smith becomes president of the IAM.

COMBS: Red was president, when I first went in there as a business representative he was president because I got one telegram from him. I had a group of people, in District 74 there in Norfolk, Virginia, we had a group up at Wallop’s Island, Virginia, over on the eastern shore for NASA, we represented several contract groups over there where they launched small rockets for NASA, and I had a group out on strike over there. We had a contract negotiations with the service contractor and NASA, and we couldn't get the thing resolved and we went on strike and I got a telegram from Red Smith, because we put pickets up on the main gate, and all the gates, so we wanted to make sure that anybody coming in there saw that our particular group of employees were on strike. And they 38:00have a provision by law that they designate what they call a neutral gate and anyone having business to do with that contractor will have to go in and out of that gate and that's the only gate you can put pickets on. So I got that telegram from Red Smith to remove all the pickets that I had at Wallops Island on all the gates except the one for the neutral gate where all the workers and vendors had to go in and out that had dealings with that particular company. So I reluctantly agreed to do what the International President ordered me to do, but it worked out good, we got it resolved in a few days and everything went on well. We got a contract. Yeah. But pretty much uneventful as a business representative, just doing the normal things that one would do to negotiate contracts.

BERNSTEIN: How big was your territory?

COMBS: We went from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, we had a government facility down there. The old Coast Guard had a base down there where they worked on Coast 39:00Guard planes, we represented those people. And then Wallops Island, Virginia, and then in between we had Hampton, Virginia; Newport News, Virginia; Norfolk, Virginia, Virginia Beach, private industry locals and things like that. We had a fairly large Bendix plant in Newport News, Virginia. So anyway that was pretty much the territory that I covered when I was a business representative.

BERNSTEIN: So you traveled, you were on the road during the week and --

COMBS: Yeah, but not away from home at night because it was close enough where we could go take care of the business during the daytime and be back at home at night. So it was not that we had to stay overnight. Sometimes at Wallops Island I would have to spend the night over there, stay overnight, because we’d go up there, we had like eight to ten different contractors and there would be different issues, so we’d go up for a Local Lodge meeting, we’d try and take 40:00care of the grievances and whatever we had to do while we were there and sometimes we’d spend one night there and go back. But then I went on the Grand Lodge staff in October of 1977.

BERNSTEIN: And was that something you were looking forward to, did it come as a surprise, or was it a dilemma about whether to do it or not?

COMBS: It was a surprise for me really. I didn't know, I’d never really thought about going on. I really never wanted to be a business representative. I didn't seek to be a full time union representative. It's just that the opportunity presented itself, it was offered to me and the pay was better and I decided I like what I'm doing and being a business representative was very much like what the chairman of the shop committee did. You handled the grievances and arbitration cases and trying to get people organized into the union, signing up new members. So it's similar to what I was doing already and I enjoyed doing 41:00that and I had an opportunity to go on as a labor relations representative. They wanted me to go into management to be a labor management representative while I was on the base and that was the same time I was being offered the job of a business representative and I liked working with the employees and handling grievances on their behalf rather than I did sitting on the other side of the table. So I chose the side of being on labor rather than being on management.

BERNSTEIN: It's interesting that they tried to co-opt you.

COMBS: Yeah, they, uh, they said -- I said I don’t even have, the director of labor relations told me I could have the job, you know, one of the labor relations specialists, which would have taken me out of the bargaining unit and then been in a management position. I said I don’t even have an application in. He said we can get you an application and we can make it happen. And I had to tell him a few days later that my side was with the union and I was going to 42:00go and be a business representative and I decided not to be a labor relations specialist.

BERNSTEIN: It didn't take you long to decide?

COMBS: No, it really didn't. I knew where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do and it worked out good. Then I was surprised when I got called from Donny Wharton who was the administrative assistant to the vice president of the Cleveland office, he called me up and he said do you want to go on the Grand Lodge staff? I said well I don’t know if I do or not because those guys have to travel a lot and I'm not sure that I want to do that. He said well, there's travel involved but he said sometimes some of the guys travel more than what you would probably have to, some of them like to be away from home and they like to travel. He said you probably wouldn't have to travel nearly as much as some of them do, you know, if you didn't want to. So anyway he said think it over, talk 43:00it over with your wife, and he says if you want to, he says –- he says we'll have you come into the Cleveland office and you can talk to the General Vice President, Merle Pryor, about it and see what he has to say. So I thought about it for a couple of days and talked to my wife about the thing and then decided to go and talk to him and see what he had to say. And they met me, Donny Wharton and the vice president at the time, Merle Pryor, met me at the airport in Cleveland when I flew in and we set in a restaurant there and talked for a few hours, I guess, and he told me that his representative that handled the federal employees that dealt with the contract negotiations and organizing and what have you, he was going to retire and he needed a replacement for him and, uh, if I came on I’d have to move to Kentucky. Of course that's like throwing a rabbit in the briar patch because my folks lived in Kentucky, I had brothers and 44:00sisters that lived there, you know. And I said going to Kentucky is certainly not going to be a problem, you know. And so anyway we talked things over and I agreed to go on the Grand Lodge staff and --

BERNSTEIN: Your wife didn't mind leaving her relatives in Virginia Beach?

COMBS: No, she did not. She was a real trooper. She enjoyed it. As a matter of fact, I told them at that time, I said my children are at school here in Virginia and I don’t want to take them out of school during the middle of the year, I want to wait ‘till like spring. He said that will be fine because he said you need to be on six months before they'll pay for your move anyway, before they'll relocate you, but he said in the meantime you may have to go out to Kentucky and work some but he said you can drive the union-provided car out there or you can fly back and forth, whatever. So it worked out well and the following spring when the children were getting out of school we found a place in Lexington, Kentucky, we bought a home out there and we moved out to Lexington 45:00and my wife even says to this day, she said it's one of the greatest places we've ever lived. She loved it while we lived there and just really enjoyed it. But we were there, while we were in Kentucky I was working servicing contracts in Kentucky, working with the business representatives out there and sometimes if they had an arbitration case that their schedule didn't permit them to handle I would handle arbitration cases for them or whatever. So I worked Kentucky and he would have me working back in Virginia, so I was working Kentucky, Virginia and a few other assignments sometimes that took me outside the states, but we lived there in Kentucky. I think we had a house there for four years. And then while I'm working in Kentucky we have some problems that develop over in the Virginia area in my old district and he has me assigned back over there because 46:00we had to put a Local Lodge or two under suspension and I had to go in and was appointed the deputy for the International to handle their affairs. So I was assigned back to Virginia and my family’s out in Kentucky and I'm working in Virginia most of the time and traveling back and forth to Kentucky to see my family. So that went on for several months, maybe a year, and finally I told the Vice President at the time, Merle Pryor, said you know you've got me working in Virginia, you're paying me per diem, all this travel back and forth, I said if I'm going to be working Virginia most of the time why don’t you transfer me back to Virginia and we won’t have to pay all this travel expenses and per diem. And he said OK, we'll do that. So we end up selling our place in Kentucky and bought a house back in Virginia and moved back to Virginia.

BERNSTEIN: It's a good thing you liked both places, otherwise you might have been mad.

COMBS: Yeah, it worked good. No, it worked out good.

BERNSTEIN: So how did all those problems arise when you were gone such a short 47:00time, in Virginia? Or they were in different parts?

COMBS: The first local I got assigned back to was the local that was in the Norfolk Naval shipyard, the machinists’ local. I had nothing to do with them when I worked in there because I was in the IBEW local doing electrical work and this is the machine shops. And we had actually had two locals in the shipyard at that time. We had inside machinists and outside machinists, two different locals in there. And one of them had, some of the guys in there had gone and done some bad things, got involved in drugs and some of the officers and they actually took money from the Local Lodge and we had to suspend all the officers and I took the local over and ran it for about a year before we turned it back over to them and the officers that were found guilty of wrongdoing, they were barred from ever holding office in the local again.


BERNSTEIN: Did they keep their jobs?

COMBS: Kept their jobs. Because you can't take, you can suspend them from their position in the union but you can't affect their employment. So they were able to keep their jobs.

BERNSTEIN: But you’d think the company would notice if they were involved in drugs and --

COMBS: Yeah. But if they're not involved on government work it's hard for them to get involved. This is outside, as far as we know it was done outside. May have been done some inside but we didn't, that didn't affect us as a union. It was outside –- it was outside, and our union affairs is where it affected us. So we took action to remove the bad guys and put new guys in their place and I put on an organizing campaign while we were there, worked with the guy in the shop there, C.R. Brown, a great guy, and he helped me organize and we had the membership, we took the membership from about, I think it was about 400 members at the time, we took it up to like 1,000 members during a year’s time just by 49:00organizing ourself within, you know. So the membership grew tremendously and we had a real great functioning Local Lodge.

BERNSTEIN: That's huge.

COMBS: Yeah, it was a big thing (overlapping dialogue; inaudible). So it worked out good.

BERNSTEIN: And so that's in the late 70s?

COMBS: Yeah, that would have been, because I went on in ’77, now that's probably into the early 80s now. This was -- We're into the 80s, early 80s, when this happened. Because I worked Kentucky for awhile. I worked out there, back and forth to Virginia, I worked out there for a couple of years before I actually came back to Virginia to take over this assignment as deputy of the Local Lodge on behalf of the international. Then we had another Local Lodge that was being raided by the Teamsters union over in Newport News, the Bendix local, and we went in there and fought off the raid there and beat the Teamsters in the election.


BERNSTEIN: How’d you do that?

COMBS: Well it was -- we just, we had to go to a vote and we beat ‘em. We beat ‘em at the vote and --

BERNSTEIN: But what do you think the winning, what were the factors that --

COMBS: What got us in trouble there in Newport News was, just to be honest with you, was our representatives that were there servicing at the time were not doing the job that they should have been doing.

BERNSTEIN: So that left the opening for the Teamsters to try?

COMBS: That people got very disgruntled. And I was assigned in there to negotiate their contract and we negotiated the contract and it was kind of an unusual thing because we had a lot of members in there that were supportive of the Teamsters because of our failure to represent them properly in the past. And I remember the day we took it to a vote, I was in there negotiating the contract 51:00and it was kind of an unusual thing. We had like a 39 month contract but by law you can only bar a challenge from another union for three years. So even though you negotiate a 39 month contract you can't keep the union from challenging you and taking you to an election. So we actually prevented the election by going in and negotiating the contract prior to the end of the 36 months.


COMBS: So I went in and negotiated the contract and we took it to a vote but when we took it to a vote it was like three months before the contract went out but they was going to put the new contract in effect if it was ratified by our members. Well, we had a lot of these Teamster sympathizers show up at our meeting. As a matter of fact, the meeting was so ruckus because of all these sympathizers for the Teamsters that showed up to vote, and we can't keep them from being there because they're members of the machinists union, but they're sympathizers of the Teamsters.

BERNSTEIN: And they're voting on the contract.


BERNSTEIN: That you've just negotiated.


COMBS: So I'm telling them at this meeting that, you know, you need to approve the contract, it has to be, when you vote for the contract it has to be carried by, you have to vote to, a majority of the people have to vote to carry the contract and if a majority of you don’t vote for the contract then by our constitution we'll have to take a strike vote. And that's what we had to do because that day they voted the contract down.

BERNSTEIN: So more than half of the people there --


BERNSTEIN: -- basically weren't against the contract, they were sympathizing with the Teamsters?

COMBS: Yes. That’s why they voted the contract down. And I said now we're going to have to take a strike vote, by law -- by our constitution we've got to take a strike vote. And it really got ruckus in there. I mean these people were mad. It got so bad, I had rented the -- in Newport News there I had rented the Ramada Inn, they had a big conference room that would handle like four or 500 people, it was a big humongous conference room, and that's probably about how 53:00many we had there because we represented almost 1,000 people over there at this Bendix plant. And it got so loud and so vocal inside there, people yelling and screaming and carrying on, that it was only me and the Local Lodge officers and I had one other International representative there with me, and we were trying to conduct this thing, I had to appoint tellers to count the ballots on the election for the contract to make sure that we got a majority, if we did get a majority. And when they counted them they said we don’t have a majority. I said OK, we're going to have to take a strike vote. So I'm up at the PA system and I tell them this, I said you have voted the contract down, it's been rejected so now we must take a strike vote and it must carry by a two thirds majority. Two thirds of you have got to vote for the contract or you've got to vote for a strike or you're going to have a contract because based upon our 54:00constitution if you don’t vote by a two thirds majority to carry a strike vote then you automatically accept the contract, even though they had already voted it down.

BERNSTEIN: There's not another ballot?

COMBS: No, that's it.

BERNSTEIN: That's it?

COMBS: Yeah. So you take two votes.

BERNSTEIN: That's interesting.

COMBS: That's just the way our constitution is. So anyway I'm trying, in between this the other Grand Lodge representative that was in there with me, Dennis Smith, he’s older than me, he was about ready to retire and wasn't in the best of health, and he gets all upset, so he brings -- because he hears all this allegation about people got in line and voted twice before. I didn't know that. It was allegations, I don’t know if there was any truth to it or not, you know. So he takes a big old trash can and sets it right down in the middle of the auditorium there and he says put your ballots in here, we'll have tellers here to watch. So I'm out there telling the tellers, everybody line up, and I put tellers on the end of the line, I said now we've got tellers back here at 55:00the end of the line, we've got tellers up here watching the ballot box and I said I want to make sure that nobody -- when they vote, when they go through this line, when they vote they don’t come back and get in line and vote twice. We want to make sure this is a pure vote, it's going to be accurate.

BERNSTEIN: This is the strike vote?

COMBS: Yes. So I'm out there getting people lined up. In the meantime I've got a Teamster sympathizer, he’s up on the stage on my mike that -- I've rented this building now for like $400, I paid this for the organization who’s paying. He’s up there on my mike telling the people what to do and what not to do. My blood pressure goes up and I'm about to die and so I go running down the aisle and I jump from the floor onto the stage. It's up like three or four feet up. I jump up there because this guy, him or me, one’s got to go because I'm not going to allow this guy to run my meeting that I paid for, you know, or the organization has paid for. So anyway he goes flying off the other end and I tell the tellers from up there then on the PA system, you stand in line out there, 56:00make sure that nobody gets back in line, I got this thing all orchestrated. My other rep, he disappears. I don’t know where he went. He’s no longer in the building.

BERNSTEIN: Oh dear. He’s the older one?

COMBS: Yes. In the meantime it's got so rough in there that on every door there are one or two policemen. This lady that I’d rented the building from, she thought we were going to have a –


COMBS: A riot in this building, in her building. So she’s called the local police and there's like policemen on every door. They can't come in because they're not members, we wouldn't let them in the building, but they're on the doors, you know. So we go ahead and everything goes smooth. I mean it's not smooth but it's smooth enough to get the thing done. I keep tellers out there, make sure everything’s done right. All the ballots are in so I tell the tellers, count the ballots, give me a written report how many vote to strike, how many don’t vote to strike, you know. And they come up after, we were waiting inside this building so it takes, I don’t know, it takes an hour or so 57:00to count all these ballots, all these tellers, and finally they bring their report up to me. And only about, I forget now what it was, I don’t even think it was 50%. It was maybe like 40 some percent voted to strike. So I stood up on the PA system and I said brothers and sisters, you have a contract, you have failed to vote by a two thirds majority to carry the strike vote so you have a contract based upon the company’s final last and best offer. And it's like all these people that are Teamster sympathizers, they’re just -- they're mad. But anyway things go on so I go out the front to check out, to pay this lady, I'm ready to lave --

BERNSTEIN: Everybody leaves peacefully enough?

COMBS: Yeah. It’s OK.

BERNSTEIN: They're mad and loud but they're peaceful.

COMBS: Because there's policemen all around so nobody’s going to try anything now because the policemen are there. And I was glad they were there, be honest with you. And so I go to pay this lady, I wrote the check for the $400, whatever it was, and she hears all this that's going on in there, I guess, because she 58:00wouldn't have called the police unless she thought it was bad. And she says Mr. Combs, she says I don’t know what kind of work you do but she said I don’t believe you get paid enough to do a job like this. I said ladies –- I said “Lady, on days like this you're absolutely right, I don’t get paid enough, but somebody has to do it.” So later that day I called the other rep. He lived in Chesapeake, Virginia, there not far from where I lived. I called him, I said Dennis, I said you disappeared, I said what happened? He said Coet, he said after I put that trash can down that everyone put their ballots, he said I started getting these pains in my chest, he said I was afraid I was going to have a heart attack, he said I had to leave. I said no problem. He said how’d it go and so I told him everything was okay. But anyway the Teamsters filed 59:00charges against us. They filed unfair labor practice charges against us because we had gone in and negotiated --

BERNSTEIN: A contract before the end of the 39 --

COMBS: Prior to the 39 months. We negotiated prior to the 36 months. We knew what we were doing because we knew they could -- the day after the 36 months was up they could have filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board and taken us to a vote. We circumvented that by getting a contract. They filed the charges and took the National Labor Relations Board about a year to resolve everything but they come back and said we handled things proper the way it should have been handled, the Teamsters was out and they got nowhere. So it worked out good for us, and we still got the local there.

BERNSTEIN: You're still in that plant?

COMBS: Yeah, local 2461 and they're still there at the old Bendix plant. It's now Siemens, a German company, has taken it over and running the thing but we've still got hundreds of members working in that same plant. It went well.

BERNSTEIN: That's amazing.

COMBS: Yeah.

BERNSTEIN: So you earned your keep.


COMBS: Yeah. And I had another fight with the Teamsters, another challenge. They raided us down at the Cherry Point, North Carolina, facility and this was like two or three years later and I got assigned by my vice president to go in down there. He said go in, he said the Teamsters are petitioning for a vote and they're going to challenge us to an election down there to represent those employees. And it was about, that local down there had about, I think it was about 3,000 members in it at Cherry Point. So I went in down there and he assigned a whole staff of other representatives to work with me and we spent maybe three or four months in there fighting off that challenge but we beat the Teamsters on that one also. We took that to a vote and they didn't get nearly as many votes as we did so we're still at Cherry Point and the Teamsters are not there either, so.

BERNSTEIN: What was the key to that win, do you think?

COMBS: I think there we had a good business representative there. I don’t know why the Teamsters challenged us there. We had a good business representative, Terry Wethington, and he had won so many cases for those people down there, 61:00workman’s comp cases, arbitration cases, safety and health issues, environmental differential pay. And he had a history of winning these things. I knew that. So we put together down there, we put together, like -- and normally they don’t like for you to do this, we put out flyers. They were just maybe like a half of page, a lot of white, just about a half a page so people will read it. But I started writing up --

BERNSTEIN: Less is more.

COMBS: I went to the secretary of the district office down there and I said we've got to pull out all these cases that Terry has won because I've got to show the members and I've got to list everybody’s name where he’s won his case for him. And we had like two full pages single spaced. I forget now, it was like 30, 40, 50 cases, I don’t know what it was, you know, he had won, and we put their names in there and we put how much money. Some of them may only have been a few hundred dollars, some of them were in the thousands of dollars, and we listed every one of those. We’d put like two lines for each case, you know. 62:00We filled up, it was either two or three pages. So I tell them we're going to handbill this to everybody in there because this was right before the election and these other reps said you can't handbill something like that, that's too much writing and I said no, you've got to tell the story. So since I was in charge of the campaign I overruled them, we put it out, you know. And of course everybody’s talking. They go to Barry. “Barry, did you get $3,200 for an environmental differential pay?” “Yes, I did.” And we had every one of them. We had it documented. So they was talking among themselves. “I didn't know that Bill got $700 for overtime pay on his case and I didn't know that so and so got this and so and so got this, you know.” So they were all talking. We beat the Teamsters about two to one on that thing. We just tore them up. And it was because we had a good servicing rep there and why the Teamsters would want to challenge us there I don’t know but --

BERNSTEIN: And why people didn't have a better idea before the leaflet that --


COMBS: We just didn't publicize. Terry was a good guy but he was a low key, quiet guy. He’d just go win the case and workman’s comp, he would get involved in that for people, get them a lot of back pay, and environmental pay. Because there they were working inside tanks and you're allowed environmental differential pay. If you're working on height, things that are up high without proper scaffolding, you're entitled to environmental differential pay. And he knew the regulations and he’d just file a case and he’d pursue it until he got it resolved and then he’d just file it away. They didn't know the history on the thing and when I put that out they're all talking.

BERNSTEIN: So interesting. Do you still have a copy of the handbill?

COMBS: No. They may have it there at, it's local 2296 at Cherry Point. They may have it down there but I don’t have it with me, but yeah.

BERNSTEIN: See, you always need the story. I did this labor arts project and I'm always looking for handbills with great graphics or something striking that -- 64:00because generally you think that's what makes an impression. But what you're telling me is the most boring one in the stack, if you get this right story, may be the one that's the most convincing.

COMBS: But then my boss, Merle Pryor, Merle Pryor, wanted me to come to Cleveland, Ohio. Tom Buffenbarger who’s our International President now, Tom was Merle’s administrative assistant and he had left the Cleveland office to come to work at headquarters for some special job that they wanted him to work at. Winpisinger wanted Buffenbarger to come to headquarters and work on this job. So Merle, this was in 1987, Merle, he kept -- for two or three years he kept asking me to come to the Cleveland office. I said Merle, you have nine states in the old Great Lakes territory, you have nine states and I said I'll work in any one of those nine states but Cleveland, Ohio, I've never heard 65:00anything good about it, I don’t want to go to Cleveland, it's the last place. I said if you want me to go to Michigan, Indiana, Ohio -- not Cleveland -- Kentucky, Tennessee, North, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, I said I'll work in any state you want, I don’t want to go to Cleveland, that's the last place I want to go. And he kind of tricked me. We got to Myrtle Beach in the spring of ’87 and I'm checking in, he comes up to me, he said, “Hey, got to talk to you.” I said what have you got to talk about? He said, well, he said, “I'm shorthanded in the Cleveland office, he said. I need you to come in there next week and -- and help me out a little bit.” I said, well, I said, I'm supposed to be at Placid Harbor next week, supposed to be here for school. No, I told him the week after that, I think, I said the week after that, next week, said I’d come in next week but the week after that I have to be in Placid Harbor. He said “OK, that’ll be fine.” So I go in to Cleveland the 66:00following week on Monday, I fly in. The first day I'm in there, Merle sits down and he starts talking about these things he wants me to do and he’s just like unbelievable, all these things. I go back to the hotel room that night and I'm thinking there's no way in the world, I can't even scratch the surface during the week I'm here. He wants me to come in here, he told me to come in here for a short period of time because he was shorthanded. So I go back in the next day, I said Merle, I said you know, I got to thinking about this last night and I said all this stuff that you've talked about, and I was going through these notes, I said there's no way in the world that's all going to get done this week, you know. I said you're talking about projects here that's going to last for weeks, months. He said “Yeah, Coet, he said I know, he said but he said I've got to have you work up here. He said I told you I won’t change your assigned station, he said you can stay in Virginia but he said I've got to have you work out of this office. He said you can fly in every week and, he said, you can go home on the weekend.” I said Merle, I'm a family man, I said I've got to have my family with me. He said Okay, you move your family up here, I'll make you my 67:00administrative assistant and he said you can live here and work here, you know. He said otherwise you're going to have to commute back and forth.” So I called Linda that night, I said honey, guess what, we're going to be moving to Cleveland, Ohio. So I told her what happened. I said I've got to work up here, I'm not going to work up there and you all live in Virginia. So the two girls, they were in college in Tennessee, going to Tennessee Temple University, and they were home, I said don’t say anything to the kids about it. My son is a senior in high school. No, he’s a junior; he’s going to be a senior the next year. So I said don’t say anything to the children, we'll have a meeting when I get home this weekend, you know, and we'll tell them about it then. So I get home that weekend and I tell the children. I said we've got to sit down and talk, so I tell them. I said Merle has told me I'm going to have to work in Cleveland and I don’t want to work up there and my family live in Virginia so I said we're going to relocate to Cleveland, Ohio. I said as bad as I don’t 68:00want to we're going to do it because it seems like the least alternative that we have, you know. So I'm watching my son, he’s setting over there and I'm asking the girls. I said –- Debra’s the oldest, I said Debra, what do you think? She said “Dad, we're away in college from September till June” –- are we pushed for time?

BERNSTEIN: No, we're fine, I'm just checking the machine. We're good.

COMBS: And I said -- and she said “Dad, she said we can go from Cleveland to Tennessee to go to college as easy as we can go from Virginia to Tennessee.” And Barb, she said the same thing, our middle daughter. I'm watching Tim. I said Tim, what do you think? Because I know he’s going to be a senior next year. “He said well dad, he said, I really don’t mind. He said David, that was his best friend, he said David was a year ahead of him in school, he said David’s going away to college this year, he mentioned a couple of other kids, he said they're going to go to other schools next year, he said I don’t mind going to 69:00Cleveland.” I said really? He was just a real trooper about the thing. And he went to Cleveland and we moved to Cleveland and he told me after that year he made the soccer team, he made the basketball team, played sports, both those teams up there in the school, he told me after the end of the year, he said dad, this is the best school year I've had my whole year -- whole time I've been in school.

BERNSTEIN: No kidding?

COMBS: Yeah. He loved it. It worked out great. And then he went off to Tennessee Temple the next year as a freshman down in college and so it worked out great.

BERNSTEIN: That's amazing.

COMBS: And we didn't want to go to Cleveland but while we were there it was really, Linda and I both said we loved Cleveland.

BERNSTEIN: What would have happened if you’d have just said I can't come here?

COMBS: I don’t know. I don’t know what would have happened.

BERNSTEIN: It's a good thing you didn't.

COMBS: Yeah. So I worked with Merle Pryor up until the end of the year and then 70:00Donny Wharton got named as a new General Vice President and he came to Cleveland to take over and Merle Pryor got transferred over to the Chicago regional office and I worked there in Cleveland for the next five and a half years with Donny Wharton as his administrative assistant. And we closed down the Cleveland office in ’93 and I came to headquarters. And when I came to headquarters they assigned me as the Assistant Director of the Legislative Department and I worked with the director and we’d lobby on the Hill and lobbied Congress for various bills and what have you, you know, and kept busy doing that. One time I went down there because President Clinton was in a bind on a particular bill and needed labor support so the AFL-CIO called a meeting and we went to the White House and met with Bill Clinton and he came out and told us, he said I need your help. He said, he had a list of about 20 some Congressmen and they said we need these guys turned around, we need you guys to do all you can. So we took 71:00assignments, different labor organizations took assignments on one or two or three Congressmen that we would work on and we worked them and got it turned around and got that –- got the bill. It was a budget bill for Clinton. They said because if they win this one they're going to go for the jugular vein and we've got to have it. So we was able to turn that around. So I went in, set and chatted with Bill Clinton, he shook our heads and told us how much he appreciated us and we got the job done and got the bill passed for him.

BERNSTEIN: How did you do it?

COMBS: Went and started talking to the various Congressmen and --

BERNSTEIN: Did you get assigned a Congressman from a state, from an area where you had a lot of members? I mean was it that closely coordinated?

COMBS: I don’t remember who it was right now but whatever it was, we would get our people back in the district because --

BERNSTEIN: Wherever it was you would have people?

COMBS: Yes. We knew that the old saying, if a Congressman gets, you know they 72:00said, one of the aides said if a Congressman gets one or two calls on an issue it's not a big deal but if he gets ten, 20, 30 calls on an issue the lights go on, they start getting real concerned. And if he gets more than, he gets more involved. So we knew how to turn up the pressure. We’d call our districts and local lodges and say start sending the calls, the letters in to this particular Congressman on this issue, you know, we need you guys to ring his bell and don’t let up until we tell you to stop or till the bill is passed. So we knew how to turn up the heat on them and we were able to do that.

BERNSTEIN: It worked?

COMBS: Yeah, worked good. So we got, the one -- I even forget now who the Congressman was that we was assigned to, the one that I had to go talk to, but we got the Congressman turned around and he voted to support the bill and we got the mission accomplished. It was good. I only worked in the legislative department for about six months. I think at the end of that year, that would have been ’93, I think it was January, I got a call from George Kourpias and 73:00he said -- he said Coet, he said I need you to become the director of the government affairs, Government Employees Department. And I knew John Meese was in there. I didn't know Meese was retiring. And he really wasn't. He had been asked to move over and head up the Metal Trades Department, to become the President of the trades department, Meese had. So George says since I had come out of the federal government George wanted me to head up –- George Kourpias wanted me to head up the Government Employees Department. And I told him sure, I’d be glad to do that, you know. So I left there and worked for their government employees for about two and a half, three years and I would go around and put on training classes at the various locals and districts where we had government employees, Norfolk, Virginia; Cherry Point, North Carolina; California; Seattle, Washington; Bremerton, Washington, where we had government employees. Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; wherever we had government employees I’d do, down in Florida, I would go put on 74:00training seminars to train them how to become better shop stewards, better representatives you know, and how to --

BERNSTEIN: Because it's a fairly different set of procedures than for any other shop steward?

COMBS: Yes, government employees is entirely different. Because they're in the government you can't, it's not when the contract runs out you can go on strike. You know, you can't go on strike so you have to learn how to negotiate and resolve things and get things done without the threat of a strike, because you know, you can't do it. And working the legislative process, you know, that's very important to government employees because all their benefits are legislated so they have to stay on top of that, you know. So our job, my job as the Director of the Government Affairs Department was primarily working with the business representatives. Sometimes I would handle negotiations for one of the business reps where I may go out and handle an arbitration case but it was 75:00primarily getting our people involved in knowing how to handle their problems and the proper people to contact, legislators, and get things done that way, you know. So I spent two and a half years or so doing that and then one day Donny Wharton come to me and he said Coet, he said I need a new Personnel Director, he said I want you to do it. And of course I've worked for Donny. Matter of fact, he’s the one called me when I went on the Grand Lodge staff back in 1977. He was the administrative assistant for Merle Pryor and I’d known Donny ever since I’d become a business representative, before I was a business representative I guess, and he was a great guy and he come down and set in my office and talked to me, he said I want you to be my Personnel Director. He said will you do that? I said how long do I have to think about it? He said you take two or three days, whatever you want to think about it. We set there and talked and I said Donny, I said I don’t need any more time to think about it. And 76:00then I said you're the greatest boss in the world, I said I’d be glad to work with you and if you want me to be your Personnel Director I'll be your Personnel Director. So I went in personnel in headquarters and they changed the title later to Human Resources Director but I went in there and the last eight years, I retired in July of ’05, so for the last eight years before I retired I was the Human Resources Director.

BERNSTEIN: And that means that you recruit and resolve things for everybody who works for the union?

COMBS: Yeah, for the International. We had --

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, how big is that?

COMBS: At that time I think the largest number of employees we had was 220 some employees. And that included our regional offices, one in Canada, California, Dallas, Texas, Chicago, Cincinnati, and then we had a regional office here in headquarters for the Transportation Department.

BERNSTEIN: Did you feel like management?


COMBS: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. You had to. Because I hired, we hired people and had to fire people. And I worked with Placid Harbor down here, getting staff down here and dealing with issues, you know. And if we had a shortage out in the field somewhere, if there was a shortage with some of our Local Lodge officers who were involved with business reps or whatever, we had a shortage somewhere or some misappropriation of funds, our Grand Lodge auditors would go and investigate it and they’d get all the facts and figures together and I would be assigned to go in and conduct a hearing and find out whether or not this person has actually committed a violation of our constitution, you know. And had to do that several times. Went to Canada a couple of times, out to California, Washington.


BERNSTEIN: Was there ever a case where you didn't know what to do?

COMBS: No. No. We always --

BERNSTEIN: The evidence was always there?

COMBS: It was pretty clear.

BERNSTEIN: You could figure it out.

COMBS: And any time our auditors go in there and they have the right to go in there and search the bank records and look at everything, no, they always, they had the case built so it was relatively simple and it was just a matter of --

BERNSTEIN: There's no case without evidence.

COMBS: Right.

BERNSTEIN: So you don’t get called in until --

COMBS: It was just a matter of bringing the person -- it was bringing the person in and saying this is what you've been charged with, this is what we have. And we’d have the Grand Lodge auditor put on the evidence that they had found and we would ask the individual what do you have to refute that? They could have an attorney represent them as long as they were a member of the IAM. They could use anybody they wanted as long as they were a member of the IAM to represent them 79:00at this hearing. But those were just things that we had to do to keep the organization clean because if we found out somebody was cheating and we didn't do something about it then we're guilty.

BERNSTEIN: Then you're culpable.

COMBS: Sure. But anyway it went good and I enjoyed my stay as personnel director working for Donny Wharton and then when he retired Warren Mart came in as the new General Secretary Treasurer and I worked with him for a couple of years before I retired. But anyway it's been wonderful, the union’s been great. I think I may have told you yesterday the largest contract I was ever involved in after I was a Grand Lodge representative, I was assigned into Norfolk, Virginia, where I had worked back in 1966, ’67 and into ’68, I was assigned in to head up negotiations for the Metal Trades Council for those 16 unions, about 1,000 80:00employees. About 10,000 employees working in there under the certification. And it took us about a year to hammer out a contract in there and got a contract and got it resolved. So it was good.

BERNSTEIN: And you had to manage the demands of all 16 different --

COMBS: Yeah, 16 unions. We only had, I don’t remember right, we only had about six or seven people on the negotiating committee because all the unions were not big enough to have somebody. They had people sit on there based upon the number of members they had. So our machinists union was represented because we're one of the biggest unions in there. The IUE or IBEW and Boilermakers and some of the other skilled trades unions were represented on the committee but we had a good committee and they worked well with me and we hammered out a contract in about a year’s time and it worked out good.

BERNSTEIN: That's a huge number of people.

COMBS: Oh, it is, yeah. And fortunately, fortunately when, you're limited to what you can do as far as negotiations but there are a lot of work rules that 81:00you can have impact on and make it better for the employees, you know. So it was good, worked out good. So what else do you need to know?

BERNSTEIN: What did I forget to ask?

COMBS: But the union’s, you know, it's been wonderful to me. I could not have asked for a better career. Every day I enjoyed going to work. I know that when I worked at headquarters the last 12 years before I retired I never had the feeling that, I wish I didn't have to go to work today. I never had that feeling. I just always enjoyed getting up and going to work and it wasn't like it was work to me. It was just like pleasure to do the work that I had to do. But then when I decided to retire it didn't bother me to retire because I could walk away from it and still feel good about it, you know. I never said I wish I 82:00hadn't retired. I've enjoyed retirement too, you know. So it's been good, very good.

BERNSTEIN: What you been working on since you retired?

COMBS: Me and my wife are active in the church, we are involved in the church, and I play golf and do projects around the house and for my daughter and son-in-law and my son and other daughter that lives in Richmond, Virginia. I'll go there and work on projects for a week or two and things like that.

BERNSTEIN: Everybody keeps drafting you still.

COMBS: Yeah, I enjoy it. Yeah, it's good. Just went out Thanksgiving with my son and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren out in St. Louis and he had moved into a new house and he had about eight or ten projects he wanted me to work on and I think we got them all done before the week was up so it worked out good.

BERNSTEIN: That's really impressive.

COMBS: Yeah, it was good.


BERNSTEIN: I should ask you more, go back I guess to any political campaigns that you were particularly --?

COMBS: Any particular campaigns? Yeah.

BERNSTEIN: Involved or stick out in your mind either as moments where the Machinists played an important role or as moments when there was some kind of dissension among members about which way to go. I mean on the national level certainly there's been a lot of --

COMBS: Yeah. I could tell you. Can you –- can you cut that off for a couple of minutes?

BERNSTEIN: Absolutely, time to take a break.

BERNSTEIN: We're back.

COMBS: One of the other things I probably didn't tell you, there are many though, while I was Human Resources Director for eight years any time that we had a sexual harassment charge filed against somebody out in the field or 84:00anywhere at headquarters or down here I was assigned to investigate it. It was my job to go out and investigate it and make a report back to the International President, then he would rule on it. And we did that to try to stay out of court so we could resolve those issues before they went into the courts. So probably in the eight years I was in there I probably went out six, eight, ten times to investigate sexual harassment charges and make a report back to the International President and I don’t -- to my knowledge we never had one go on to court. I think we got them all resolved. I remember one in particular, we had this complaint come in from this lady down in Miami. She was the president of a local and maybe the secretary, recording secretary or president of the local, whatever, she had a position in the Local Lodge office. I think she was the 85:00president. And she had one of our Grand Lodge reps had showed up at the meeting and he had used some awful language in there.

BERNSTEIN: One of the Grand Lodge reps?

COMBS: One of the Grand Lodge reps. So I was assigned in, she filed a complaint against him for sexual harassment because he was very abusive to her with his foul language.

BERNSTEIN: In the middle of a meeting?

COMBS: Yes. Yeah.

BERNSTEIN: Public entirely, OK.

COMBS: Yeah. So I was assigned in and when I go in I tell him ahead of time I've been assigned to investigate so he needs to meet me there in Miami at a certain date and I have the witnesses, I'm going to talk to all the witnesses. I'll talk to the one that filed the charges, I'll talk to all the witnesses and then I'll talk to the individual. And so I got the facts from everybody and it was very clear, you know, what had happened and so I go meet with this guy, this Grand 86:00Lodge rep. And I asked him, I said this is what she’s saying, is this what happened? He said yes. I said, I called him by his name, I said you can't do that. This guy was already past retirement age. Even at that time he was like in his late 60s or may have been almost 70 at that time. He worked I think even past 70. I said you can't do that. He said I've done that all my life. I said you can't do it that way anymore because, I said, that's not going to fly. I said you'll be in court and I said if we don’t do something about it we'll be in court also because we'll be guilty also. And, so I wrote my report up. I told him, I said I'm going to tell the International President exactly what I found on this thing, that this is exactly what you've done. And they wrote him a 87:00letter, reprimanded and told him if it ever happened again he will lose his job. So those are the kind of things we got involved in. One time here at the Harbor I had a guy down there and he was the bartender and I got a sexual harassment complaint and he was a good guy but he didn't realize what he was doing. He would go around to the ladies, he would massage their backs and most of them didn't mind but this one lady, she told him I don’t want you doing that to me and he’d do it again. So she filed a written complaint and I had to come down here. And I said [name withheld], you can't do that. He said my family, we've always, he said we're big on that. I said that's okay with your family but you can't do it here.

BERNSTEIN: Certainly not when people say no.

COMBS: No. I said if you do you're going to lose your job, we're not going to have it because I said once we become aware of it we're going to put a stop to it, if you do it again you're history, you're out of here, so. Anyway I don’t think he really meant anything by it but he just had to be told, that's not the 88:00kind of thing you do, you know.

BERNSTEIN: Have you ever had a time when people were falsely accused?

COMBS: I think we had one case in Canada where the charges were not all that they had appeared to be on the surface and it wasn't as bad as what somebody was alleging, you know. We got the matter resolved, you know. But to say that there wasn't some wrongdoing, I don’t know that I've ever been involved in one of those because usually if it got to this level there was something there.

BERNSTEIN: There was something going on.

COMBS: Yeah, there was something going on, you know. So I had to go in several different times and tell people you just can't do that, that we can't have it, you know. And they had to get a letter, after I did my investigation to the International President he’d send out a report to them and --

BERNSTEIN: He’d send down the final decision?

COMBS: Yes. He made the final decision. Yes. Yes. And of course even after that time they're allowed, the people that's filing if they're not happy with the 89:00results they can go to court. So what we were trying to do --

BERNSTEIN: Very much accountable to your --

COMBS: -- is we were trying to nip it before it got to court. And as far as I know I don’t think we ever had one go to court. But the other thing I was going to tell you, one of the things I was involved in, when I was moved back from, as a Grand Lodge rep from Kentucky back to Virginia I was assigned as the Virginia, what they called at that time, they called them state coordinators. So I would work with all the full time business representatives in the state. We had two in Richmond, one in Roanoke, two in Norfolk, I guess that was it. So I guess we had five, maybe one time we may have had three in Richmond and maybe for a while we may have had three in Norfolk, Virginia, but anyway worked with those five or six representatives in dealing with any issues or any organizing we had in the state of Virginia. And so I was assigned in this business 90:00representative in Roanoke. There was a contract coming up at Clifton Forge, Virginia, and I was assigned in to negotiate the contract to help them out. So I did, I went in and negotiated the contract and the guy before me was one of those old crusty guys and he would scream and yell and cuss and bang his shoe on the table. He just did all kinds of things, you know.

BERNSTEIN: The other Machinist coordinator?

COMBS: Yeah, the other representative before me, he was that type of guy, you know. Well, these girls, they were primarily a bunch of girls that we represented at this factory up in Clifton Forge, Virginia, couple hundred people in there and except for the maintenance people I think most of the rest of them were ladies that worked in the plant, and they liked that. They thought if you didn't scream and yell and cuss the employer, you know, that you weren't doing your job, and that wasn't my style, I didn't do that. I just, we would lay out our demands and we would try to walk through them, you know, and we’d try to, 91:00I’d show them the benefits of why we want it this way and not their way and I have you know, we reached an agreement. And after we reached an agreement, and they voted and they ratified the contract, so we had a contract, and afterwards they come to me and they said -- they had given up some things, there was some language in there, I forget now what it was, but anyway they had given up some language that they used to have and had different language in the contract and they come back to me and they said this is the intent of what we've negotiated. I said no, this is not the intent. I said I know what the intent was and what the company is saying is exactly right, what we negotiated is what they're saying, that's the intent of it so they're right on this issue, you know. Well, we're not standing for that. And they got mad at me and they went and hired an attorney to represent them. And that's bad news because you can't spend Local 92:00Lodge dues money to do something like that to circumvent the contract or whatever. So anyway to make a long story short --

BERNSTEIN: And just before you get there, do you think that part of that had to do with their feeling that you had been somehow not as effective as the blustery --

COMBS: Yeah, they thought because I would not yell and scream and would not really demean the company in front of them that I really wasn't as effective as the other guy. So anyway they hired, it was actually two attorneys, one that had some work for us up, in Pratt and Whitney up in Connecticut years before, he was a labor attorney, they hired him and a guy out of Richmond, Virginia, to represent them. They like signed a contract to pay these two guys like $10,000 and can't do it. It was wrong. But anyway International Grand Lodge got involved in the thing and they suspended the Local Lodge officers, filed charges against 93:00them for doing this because they were -- what they were trying to do is circumvent the procedures for handling grievances and what-have-you through our grievance procedure and the business representative and the International to resolve the problems with the employer.

BERNSTEIN: If they thought you were wrong they should have gone to the next level instead of paying $10,000 to the attorney.

COMBS: Yes. So anyway they hired these two attorneys to represent them and I got appointed as the deputy when the lodge was suspended, all the officers were suspended. So under our constitution when you suspend the Local Lodge, the officers from their position, they have to appoint a deputy to go in and act on behalf of the president and you just, it's no longer democracy, it's one person.

BERNSTEIN: It's like a trustee.

COMBS: Yeah, it's one person controlling all the things.

BERNSTEIN: Other unions call it a trusteeship, right?

COMBS: So anyway I get assigned in and I call a meeting to tell them that, you 94:00know, I've been appointed. Of course they've got letters notifying they were suspended and certified letters going to them that they're no longer officers and I'm the deputy and I will conduct the meetings and I will conduct the affairs of the Local Lodge, you know. And I go to this meeting that we called, Clifton Forge, Virginia, and they have these two attorneys there. So somebody pointed out to me, I didn't know all the people, there was somebody pointed out to me they've got their attorneys here. I know any meetings that we have, members only are allowed to participate in these meetings. So I'm up front with the auditor, I'm up front at the podium there, and I said anyone in here that's not a member of the Machinists union must excuse yourself and leave the room because we're getting ready to conduct business of this union and it can only be done with members of the IAM present. And this one guy, this attorney, he’s 95:00real nasty, he said I'm a member of the bar and I don’t have to be a member of your Machinists union. I said if you're not a member of my Machinists union I'm going to ask you to leave so we can conduct business of this union in this particular meeting that we've called here for –- you know. He said I'm not leaving. The other attorney says I'm not leaving either. I said I'm going to ask you one more time to leave and if you don’t this meeting will be over with. So he said we're not leaving. So I just rapped the gavel, I said meeting adjourned. And so I get my briefcase, my auditor -- Grand Lodge auditor, he gets his briefcase and we start walking out. As we're walking out the auditor, Irwin Cramer, he stops right at the aisle where these two guys are sitting, he looks down there, he said did you say you're a member of the bar or did you just come from the bar? So anyway he just put a little gig in and we left and kept them under suspension, I don’t know, six, eight months, something like that, got 96:00new officers in, you know, had elections later on, because those people were barred. Once they violate the constitution they're barred from holding office.

BERNSTEIN: What happened to the attorneys? Did they get any money?

COMBS: I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, one of them who had done work for us in the past, we had paid him, when the employer up in Connecticut tried to break our union we had hired him up there and he had gotten thousands and thousands of dollars from this union to represent our side of the case in court up there in Connecticut. So he had made big money off this organization. He came to headquarters and International President Winpisinger was president at the time and he called me, he said I've got this attorney so and so coming in and he said I want you to tell me what happened. So I gave him the whole rundown on the thing and so he meets with these –- with this attorney and this attorney’s saying, he said we were hired and we want you to, we understand now. They finally realized that they can't come in and circumvent the labor relations law 97:00where when unions are certified they have the exclusive right to represent the people, you know and an outside attorney can't just come in and say Joe Blow has hired me to represent them and I'm going to do it. You can't do that under labor laws. So he come to headquarters and Winpisinger told me later that he actually cried in his office and asked Winpisinger, he says I beg you to forgive me, he said we were wrong in what we did, we should not have done that and Winpisinger said you've already caused enough problem, get out of here, I don’t want to see you again, you'll never get any more money from this organization, ran him off. And so that's the way it ended up. But as far as I know, I don’t remember now, they may have gotten, initially the local may have paid them like a fee to get them in there to begin with but after that they never got any more money because I had control of the checkbook after that and we never -- I never wrote one check to them or paid them anything. Yeah. But, you know we still got the 98:00Local Lodge, after a few months those officers that did the wrong were suspended, barred from holding office and had elections after that and elected new officers, you know, and they've been running the Local Lodge. We turned it back over to them and they've been running the Local Lodge, they've been doing well ever since.

BERNSTEIN: And the other people are still members?

COMBS: They can be members, they just can't, when they're barred, when they do something wrong like that once they're barred they're usually barred for life. Now sometimes it can be for a lesser period of time, you know, from holding office but usually they're barred for holding office, especially if there's fraud involved or something like that. I don’t know about this case. They may have only been barred for X number of years, I don’t remember now. But anyway the Local Lodge is still going on and everything is working well there.

BERNSTEIN: It's important to have a system to resolve.

COMBS: Yes, and to do it right. That's all you have to do is just do the things right.


BERNSTEIN: Yeah. That's not something I ever would have dreamed of. I was asking you before we took a break about political campaigns that stood out in your mind over your years in the IAM and whether there had ever been any --

COMBS: We got involved. Any time there's an election we would get involved on the endorsed candidates. If the AFL-CIO, machinists union being part of, they endorsed somebody for Congress or Senate or whatever, that's who we supported, you know. And I got assigned out when I was at headquarters, I don’t think I did when I was in the Cleveland office but when I came to headquarters in the last 12 years before I retired on the presidential elections I would get assigned out into the field, work a particular Congressional district to get out the vote. We could only go to our members. We couldn't go out to the public and try to get the public in but we could go to our members and tell them, you know, 100:00here are the issues. That's really what we're trying to do. We’re trying to educate our members on the issues and then get them to turn out on election day, you know. So I was involved in the last, before I retired the last two presidential elections. I was signed up to Kentucky one time, worked out there for a month, month and a half before the election, went out to Iowa one year, worked on the campaign out there prior to the election, just to educate our members and to get them out to vote on election day, you know. That was the big issue what we were assigned to do.

BERNSTEIN: Was there ever a time when there was a real difference where you were in the union between who people wanted to work for and the AFL endorsement?

COMBS: I’m sure -- no, not as far as being out in the public. I'm sure we've always had members that vote their feeling. They know that they vote a secret ballot and they do these polls all the time. They say 70% of the members voted 101:00for the endorsed candidate but 30% didn't, or vice versa. Or 60% voted for the endorsed candidate and 40% did not. And I don’t know.

BERNSTEIN: It doesn't cause a public -- not a public but a dispute out in the open in the union meeting--

COMBS: You don’t know that. (overlapping dialogue; inaudible) Sometimes you'll run into people at the meetings that say I think we're stupid for endorsing such and such and we say, you know, we are a union, we're a democratic union and if our membership endorse a particular candidate that's who we're going to support, you know, and you may have disagreements with that or you may have certain issues but that's just the way we are. We're a democratic organization, that's who we support, you know. And sometimes you’d have disgruntled members, you know, but it had never got to the point where it was a big full blown issue or anything like that. But I'm sure we always had members, always, and we always will have members that don’t support the endorsed candidates, you know. But I think we -- by educating our members and then getting them to actually 102:00participate on election day I think it has a great impact on the outcome of elections.

BERNSTEIN: Do you remember when Winpisinger became president?

COMBS: Yes. Yes, I do. And that was a great thing for the organization.

BERNSTEIN: How would you describe how you saw things change from your chair or car or whatever, wherever you were?

COMBS: The biggest change, and I was a –- let’s see, I was a business rep when he first became the international president and Red Smith was the president before him and the biggest change I saw was Winpisinger was much more out in the public making his speeches and rallying the troops and getting people going in the right direction, you know. And he was very, very progressive and I think 103:00ahead of his time. And -- loved the man. Thought he was just a great union leader. But he got out and got involved in the issues and things that would help working men and women and talked those issues up and he was able to get a lot of media coverage that we had never gotten in the past, you know. So he was an out front guy and a good guy. So, great guy.

BERNSTEIN: He himself at least made all kinds of coalitions with other labor and progressive groups. Was that something that changed life as a business rep on your level or did it not affect --

COMBS: I don’t think it changed life. I think it's what needed to be done all along. He just had a way of putting it together and he knew that labor unions standing alone is not, we're not going to affect everything the way we would 104:00like to see it affected in a positive direction. We've got to join coalitions with other groups to make things happen, you know. And I think that was his goal and I think for the better part it happened. Under him, you know we did see the need, our eyes were opened that we must. We can't just say we're a labor union and this is our endorsement and we don’t care about anybody else. We need to work with other groups and make sure that when we get together that we're all singing from the same hymn page and we're all marching in the same direction, you know, for the same cause. So it was a good thing. It was great.

BERNSTEIN: And you think it really influenced your --

COMBS: Oh yeah, no doubt about it. Our union was --

BERNSTEIN: Every territory that you were involved in you could see a difference in the --

COMBS: Yeah. People -- you’d always have people say do we really need to pay the money for that jet? Said well, whether we do or we don’t we've got it and 105:00it's a way for him to reach a lot more people and be in a lot more places than he would otherwise. If he has to depend on public transportation he’s not going to be in nearly as many places as he would and he’s always welcome where he goes. So I think it's a good thing. And we’d keep talking. It's good but you always had some people that were disgruntled, said why are we spending that kind of money for that, and their thought was just keep on doing things, we've always done things this way, let’s keep on doing them this way for the rest of our lives, you know. But he was progressive and he was probably, I'm sure he had a lot of people who were thinking, you know, and they didn't see the need for it, but it wasn't something that was, it didn't cause a major issue at the conventions or anything like that. So it was a good thing.

BERNSTEIN: I want to ask a little bit about, you've lived in a lot of communities but even so, you come from a labor family but so in the communities 106:00that you're in is there support for your –- for labor and for unions? I mean have you and your family mostly lived in places where most of the neighbors were on the same page?

COMBS: No, I can't say --

BERNSTEIN: Or not so much?

COMBS: Most people are not. Because I know my wife, she would go to various meetings and then when they found out that her husband is a union representative they would like kind of withdraw a little bit, you know. So most communities that we've lived in, there's working class people there and we seem to be close to them and we're all on the same page, you know, most of the time, but a lot of times I know my wife, she’s experienced it more than I have that people find out your husband works for the union and they start thinking mafia and 107:00corruption and stuff like that, you know. And she’s had to tell them that's not the Machinists union, that's not my husband, you know, it's not that type, you know. But as far as living in a community where everybody is thinking and going in the same direction we are, no, I haven't seen that, you know. There’s some, you know, we have some neighbors that are blue collar working people and they think like we think and do like we do but it's not always that way.

BERNSTEIN: And you've been involved in a couple of strikes over the years.


BERNSTEIN: And then the same question, what happens when you go out on strike in terms of getting support from outside the union? I guess I should go back and ask that about a particular instance.


COMBS: I haven't been on a long strike where you really, I guess as the strike progresses longer and longer then you need more support like that. You do need others involved, you know, and you try to educate others why you're doing. Because usually what appears in the paper is not good press for people that are on strike. It's not good. So we try to educate them on that. But uh, my biggest thing was trying to get them not to strike to begin with. I had a group in Norfolk, Virginia –- no, Newport News, Virginia -- worked for a government contractor and I negotiated the contract and we're dealing with a very tough employer and I knew that and I told the people when we come to the ratification meeting, I said it's not as good a contract as we would like, it's not what we 109:00wanted but it's the best we can get at this time and I recommend that we accept the contract, and they voted it down. And I said, as I explained to you a while ago, I said we're going to have to take a strike vote now. And we had a lot of people in there that was charged up, they were mad about some issues --

BERNSTEIN: About the Teamster, it was also --

COMBS: No, this has nothing to do with the Teamsters. This is another one, this is a different one. So the people are mad about some issues at work and we didn't get them resolved to their satisfaction so they vote the contract down. I said now listen, this employer is very tough and don’t vote to go on strike unless you're willing to stay out there a long haul because we're not going to resolve this thing within a day or two. This employer, he’s very anti-union and he would like to get rid of the union all together, you know. And he’s the kind of employer that will try to hire new people to take your place so I said 110:00don’t vote to go on strike unless you can stand up when he starts hiring new people, because I'm afraid this guy will do that. I think he had made the threat before, I'll replace them. And anyway I wish I could have been more persuasive in telling them this because they voted to strike and they went out --

BERNSTEIN: Two thirds vote?

COMBS: Oh yeah. It carried by more than that. This was like a -- I forget now what it was. It seemed like it was 75, 80%.

BERNSTEIN: They were ready. They were mad.

COMBS: Yeah. They had a few local people there that were just fired up and they wanted to get this company because this company had treated them bad. You know, they really wanted to bang them good, you know. So I said please think about this thing because this is a tough employer, now. And anyway they voted to go on 111:00strike. So I think the contract ran out at midnight that night and the next day they were on the picket lines. We had them shut down. And after one day the company ran an ad in the paper, they were out one day, they ran an ad in the paper, they started hiring replacement workers. It was only one day. And they were calling these people, they may have sent them all a notice, if you don’t show back up to work by such and such a date, and they only gave them like one or two days, if you don’t show back up by this date we will hire a replacement to take your place. I'm going over there on the picket line with these people and there's a lot of people on the picket line and they're milling around and they call me off to the side, they said look, you better do something because if you don’t get this resolved I'm going back to work. I said you didn't listen very well when I told you that this employer may hire replacement workers. Well, 112:00I didn't think he would do that. And so they wouldn't say it out among themselves because they were too embarrassed to talk among themselves but they kept calling me off to the side, I've got to talk to you, I've got to talk to you. So I walk around and I've got several people that's talking and they're all telling me the same thing, I'm going to cross this picket line, I'm going to go back to work if you don’t get this thing resolved. So I took a reading on these people and my gut is churning because I'm afraid I'm going to lose this whole thing because this company is, they're just bad enough to do that. And so I called the mediator up in Richmond, Virginia, I called him and said can you get a meeting with the employer tomorrow with me to see if we can resolve this thing? And one of the things that the employer had wanted to do was he had wanted to, we had union dues check off in the plant, he wanted to eliminate 113:00that. Well, you can't go out and collect dues in the business if you don’t have check off you're in bad shape, you know. So I got him initially to keep that in there but we had a provision in there also since it's a government contractor, we had a provision in there where that if they come to work there they must become a member of the union because you can't do it in Virginia under a right to work state but on a --

BERNSTEIN: On a federal contract.

COMBS: On a federal installation you can do that, under a federal contract if it's on a federal enclave you can negotiate a provision that says they must either be a member or they must pay dues. They don’t have to be a member but they must pay an equivalent dues.

BERNSTEIN: (inaudible)

COMBS: Right. So anyway, this mediator, he calls me back, he says I can get a meeting tomorrow at such and such a time with you, or afternoon, you know. I said OK. And it was like the following day is when the employer was going to start replacing. We went into negotiations at 6:00 that evening down in Hampton, 114:00Virginia and we negotiated till like 6:00 the next morning and I'm knowing, I'm knowing myself, I've got a bunch of people here that are weak. They will not stand up, you know. When they start hiring replacements I'm going to lose them all and we're going to have a bunch of replacements in there, I've got a bunch of people out on strike with nowhere to go. So we negotiate all night long and I finally get the employer to put that provision back in there, that they don’t have to be a member but they must pay an equivalent dues and I got the check off and I forget now what I got, two or three other little things, nothing big, and after negotiating all night long I call another meeting and have another ratification meeting, bring it back and present it to them and they accepted it. And it's a good thing because had that company knew what I knew, if that company knew how weak they were, and I didn't tell anybody, if they knew how weak those employees were, they’d have held out. If I’d have been the company I’d have held out. They’d have broke our union. We wouldn't be there. We’d have 115:00lost it all that week because they’d have hired replacements. Yeah, we could have kept picket lines up but they hired replacements, we’d have been through. So anyway that local, they're still there.

BERNSTEIN: Still there.

COMBS: And fortunately we saved the thing. Because I didn't tell anybody that I knew what, everybody was telling me individually --


COMBS: I didn't tell anybody else that that's the feeling in the whole group just about. So we were able to salvage that group and we made it work and they're still there today. So that was a good thing. But people are funny. You know, they get mad on some issue and they want to --

BERNSTEIN: They dig in.

COMBS: They want to bloody the employer’s nose but then when it turns around where they're going to get hurt sometimes they have a change of heart. It takes a strong labor person to go out there and say I'll walk the picket line even if they're going to replace my job. If they're going to hire a replacement I'll still walk the picket line. It takes a pretty strong person to do that.


BERNSTEIN: It's not clear that that's a long term effective strategy.

COMBS: Right, yes. But yeah, I've been involved in a few strikes but our goal was always to try to get it resolved without going to a strike.

BERNSTEIN: Without it going on too long.

COMBS: Yeah, absolutely.

BERNSTEIN: So that's where I was asking a question about community support or any outside support during a strike and basically what you're saying is the strikes you were involved in were short and dramatic.

COMBS: Yes. We had one in Kentucky that was long. Matter of fact, they ended up closing the plant. We had some women in Corbin, Kentucky, a business rep there, they were low paid and I had -- before I was servicing in Kentucky they were an 117:00individual union, they were not in a district, so that means the Grand Lodge had to service them. We had to negotiate their contract, handle grievances and arbitration cases. So our goal was to put all those satellite individual locals, put them in a district and have the district service them and it worked out better that way. Grand Lodge didn't have to keep a rep there all the time, because we didn't have that many to -- anyway I got this one local in Corbin, Kentucky, to go in district 153 in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and the business rep came in and negotiated a contract and they went on strike. And these women were tough. I mean they brought slingshots and steel ball bearings --

BERNSTEIN: Ball bearings?

COMBS: Ball bearings and shot the windows in the plant. And they had a little shack they built out by the entrance where you go into the factory and that's 118:00where the pickets stayed all the time. And it was shut down. There was nobody going in and out of the plant. All the employees were out, it was locked up solid. And the girls had been out on strike for like, I forget, a month or so, maybe longer and they even put, it was like in the fall of the year, September, October, they brought a Christmas tree and put it on top of their little shack and they said we'll be here till Christmas if that's what it takes. So they were very adamant, they were very solid in what they were doing. So the company decided they're going to hire strike replacements. They couldn't get any in Corbin but the next town over, there's another adjoining town, they got a couple of guys, shady characters, to come to cross the picket line. So these guys come out there to cross the picket line and these girls said where you going, plant’s closed, we're on strike, you know. The company has hired us to come in here to work and we're going to work and the girls said you're not going in 119:00there to work. These girls are tough. They've got baseball bats and so they start hitting his car and they knock out headlights and they bang up the car and these guys turned around and leave. In the meantime the plant manager, he calls the state police and the state police come up there and our business rep’s there -- I wasn't there. The business rep was there and he has a very good relationship, he’s a good politician so he knows the state police and he tells the state police, yeah, some gangsters come up here, you know, and wanted to fight with these girls and anyway they run him off. So while the state police is there, there's a big crowd of women there, 30, 40, 50 women there, in a few hours here come these two guys back. One of them is setting up on the hood of the car and he’s got a shotgun. They're going to cross the picket line. This company’s told them to come to work, he’s setting up on the hood of the car with a shotgun and the other guy’s driving. And the state trooper -- they 120:00don’t know the state trooper’s there. I don’t know why. The car may have been parked on the side, I don’t know, but the state trooper’s in the crowd with our ladies and as these guys come up there they get in their way, their car is driving through this crowd of women and this guy’s got this shotgun. The state trooper steps out of the crowd with his 357, he puts it right behind this guy’s ear, he said I'm a state trooper and he said you're under arrest and give me the shotgun. And he took the guy’s shotgun and arrested them both and put them both in jail and nobody else crossed the picket line but the company ended up, they were so adamant that they wouldn't give any pay increase, they closed the plant down. Thing went out of business.

BERNSTEIN: How long were they out on strike before?

COMBS: I think they were out for like three or four months before they finally end up closing the thing down all together. Yeah.

BERNSTEIN: That's really sad.


COMBS: It was. It really was. You hate to see that.

BERNSTEIN: But that's amazing, the state trooper came in.

COMBS: Yeah.

BERNSTEIN: So when the state trooper came the women hid their baseball bats, I'm guessing?

COMBS: Probably. I would imagine they did. No, officer, we're just here keeping people from crossing our picket line.

BERNSTEIN: Just standing here picketing.

COMBS: That's right. But they were a tough bunch of ladies.

BERNSTEIN: Some good stories. What did I forget to ask you? I know. I was asking about community support for strikes. But the other thing that's a related question is did you belong to a church your whole life?

COMBS: Always.

BERNSTEIN: In many different communities?

COMBS: Always.

BERNSTEIN: Was there ever any, were those two totally separate sectors of your life?

COMBS: Yeah.

BERNSTEIN: All the way through? There was never any crossover between your labor --


COMBS: No. The churches that we belong to are independent Baptist churches. They're very conservative. So they do not, they're not going to get out there and get involved like some churches on labor issues or something. They just won’t do that. So they've never –- they’ve never gotten involved in things like that, to my knowledge, you know.

BERNSTEIN: And you've never had a situation where you wanted to go to them and say can you please help with this?

COMBS: No, I don’t think I ever did. Because they would not, it wouldn't be like there's a bunch of people out of that church that's out on strike. The people that were on strike, they were outside of the church, they were not in the church.

BERNSTEIN: They weren't connected in any way.

COMBS: Yeah, never had that issue where there was a bunch of people. I think if there had been people in the church that were on strike then I think you could have asked for the support and probably gotten it. But for them to support somebody that's not in the church, no, they wouldn't.

BERNSTEIN: Doesn't make any sense.


COMBS: No, they wouldn't do that. And community support, we always said, you know, any time we have a strike we need to get the community involved, we need to get people involved, you know, to support the strike. So it's always been an effort to get as many involved as we could to help out.

BERNSTEIN: What did your wife do in these years?

COMBS: She stayed at home with the children, raising the children, keeping them in school and things like that while I working on the job. Up until our son when we were in Cleveland, Ohio, his senior year he went to high school there and she pretty much stayed home and I would go on the road except in the spring she always went with me and we would go to a staff conference and we’d usually have a staff conference that would last almost a week and most of the time we’d go to Myrtle Beach, sometimes other places but somewhere within the territory. Myrtle Beach seemed to be like a place that all of our business reps 124:00and Grand Lodge reps liked so we’d have a staff conference for a week down at Myrtle Beach, usually in April or May, one each spring and all the spouses would come there. We would have probably with the business reps in the United States and the Grand Lodge reps and our Cleveland staff we’d probably have anywhere from 50 to 75 representatives there and then they’d have their spouses, so we’d have a pretty good size staff conference at Myrtle Beach once a year. And that was always good. And in the meantime each state council would have what they call a state council machinists meeting twice a year, spring and fall meetings. So from the Cleveland office we’d go out to those meetings and at those meetings we’d do the educational things on politics, endorse candidates, you know, educating our members on the issues and trying to make sure that the locals have a representative and would go back and educate their members on the issues and then turn the people out to vote on election day. So we spent those, 125:00the state council meetings, the spring and fall would be educational things for us to train our officers and members that were there, delegates that were there, to go back and get their members involved. So it was a good thing.

BERNSTEIN: So most of your friends are in the union?


BERNSTEIN: And a lot your wife –- a lot of your family friends? Did your wife make friends with the, did she feel a part of it?

COMBS: Yeah. She didn't at first. When I first got involved with the union her dad had been a truck driver and he was a nonunion truck driver with Overnight Transportation down in Richmond, Virginia. He ran out of Virginia Beach and the Teamsters tried to organize Overnight Transportation I guess several different 126:00times and I guess there were some incidents where there were windows broken out in the vehicles, you know, and I don’t know if it was the organizers did it or if it was company reps that did it to try to make the union look bad, I don’t know what it was, but anyway he had a very dislike for unions because the company had told him that the unions are bad and they kept the unions out. So when I -- my wife and I, when I started getting involved with the union she had some really reservations about what I was doing. But I convinced her that it was a good thing. And then when I started getting involved I would take her to some of the, if I was doing an organizing meeting somewhere I’d take her and let her sit in on the organizing meeting and where I'm educating the people trying to show them the benefits of having a union and they're going to be able to have a say and a vote in their working conditions and their pay and their benefits 127:00and things like that, you know. And they would tell her horror stories about the things that had gone on in their particular plant or facility and my wife heard all of this so it wasn't long until she was the greatest union supporter in the world. She just, she thought, and she does today, that there's nothing like labor unions. But they have to be run properly and done right, you know, and that's what I've tried to do always is make sure that things are done in proper order. But my wife, she went from anti-union to a very strong, positive union supporter. She thinks there's nothing like labor unions, she’s proud of unions today.

BERNSTEIN: Sounds good. So what did I forget to ask? Did we leave things out?

COMBS: I don’t know of anything that you have not covered. If there's something else you can think of I'll try to answer it.

128:00 BERNSTEIN: I'm sure I missed something but I don’t know what it is so we'll --