AKRON-Sign-toting pickets are walking the lines at unionized U.S. plants of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. (BFS), Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp. (PATC) and Dunlop Tire Corp.-with no accords in sight. Without the aid of a crystal ball, industry observers say it's difficult to predict just how long the strikes may last. However, the 7,200 striking URW members are the largest number idled since an industry-wide action in 1976 halted tire production for four months.
Few probably want a long work stoppage. However, John Sellers, a URW organizational director and chief negotiator with the tire company, admits ``unless one side or the other is willing to move significantly from what our last positions were, there's really not anything to talk about.''
Would a prolonged strike, for example, cripple BFS? ``We certainly hope not-but when we withhold our labor, we certainly do hope that it puts pressure on the company,'' Mr. Sellers said. The workers' ``continued livelihood is our utmost concern.''
He called the BFS strike a ``regretable situation,'' adding, ``when you get into this type of fight, things escalate and some damage is inevitably done.''
Whether independent tire dealers might be seriously impacted by a prolonged strike is doubtful, according to industry analysts and dealerships contacted by TIRE BUSINESS. Unlike ``the old days,'' today's multi-branded dealerships can practically obtain comparable brands at will.
BFS has said it, too, regrets the strike, and intends to ``minimize any disruption to our customers' needs.'' Mr. Sellers indicated BFS could be in it for the long haul, citing a statement he said was made over a year ago by Yoichiro Kaizaki, Bridgestone Corp. president, pledging to deliver more than 3 million tires to its North American operations if a strike occurred.
The union, on the other hand, is said to have a significant war chest and, Mr. Sellers said, ``there's enough money in (it) to accommodate a long strike.''
The industry is in the midst of what analyst Scott Soffen typified as a ``game of chicken-labor is trying to push that game along, to get someone to say `uncle,' so everybody can get back to work.''
The first vice president with New York City-based Lehman Brothers, said ``chances are it won't be a long strike...It's an attempt by the union to give management a wake-up call.''
The tire makers, he observed, ``should be squeezing out more productivity from the workers they have.''
Two companies obviously stand to benefit, analysts reason: Goodyear, which already resolved its labor problems, and Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., which doesn't follow a master contract. Though at or near capacity, they could gain a little marketshare.
``In an environment like we have right now, with replacement demand fairly strong and original equipment demand very strong,'' sales lost during a strike could be lost forever, depending on a company's inventory, Mr. Soffen said. Any lengthy job action also could cause a company to lose momentum.
The strikes will be resolved fairly quickly, he predicted, although the tire makers could hold out indefinitely, depending on how much loss their parent firms are willing to bear. As does BFS, the smaller PATC and Dunlop ``both have parents that have money that can keep them alive for some time.''
None of the three will likely sink on account of a strike, but Mr. Soffen said Dunlop and PATC ``are both in precarious positions. Neither one is profitable, and the question is, how long do you want to operate in a market where you're not profitable before you throw in the towel and say it's just not worth it?''
Anyone believing the strikes are catalysts for more industry consolidation ``is reading too much'' into them, Mr. Soffen believes. Consolidation has been and will continue to take place, ``but the strikes won't cause it. You'd have to have a suicidal-type of labor force that says (it's) going to strike and put itself out of a job in order for that to be a real factor.''
Tire dealers should feel little impact, the analyst said, because most sell multiple brands.
Harold E. Ziegler Jr., president of Canton, Ohio-based Ziegler Tire & Oil Co. Inc., said as much, noting years ago a strike could be a real problem for a dealer, back when Ziegler Tire was 100-percent Firestone-``the only brand we allowed in the place.''
Founded in 1919, it operates 14 commercial and retail outlets in Ohio, and is in fact the nation's oldest Firestone dealership.
``Our loyalties were very strong,'' Mr. Ziegler said. But ``good business'' dictated ``it wasn't wise to go with only one supplier.'' Now, when a strike occurs, ``you find ways to get by,'' he added.
Hamad Tire Co., a three-outlet retail chain in Akron, handles Dunlop tires, and has yet to feel any effects from the URW strike that began June 21 at Dunlop's Huntsville, Ala., tire plant.
``We're pretty well stocked right now and haven't had to order yet,'' said Denise Mosyjowski, a store manager. But she said Dunlop informed the company there might be some shortages because ``they didn't know how long the strike might go on.''
Jerry Bauer, president of Bauer Built Inc., Durand, Wis., conceded: ``For a large dealership like us, a strike is a great inventory management tool.
``It gives us a chance to clear out our warehouses-we usually carry a large inventory.''
Industry analyst Harry Millis, with Fundamental Research Inc. in Cleveland, laughed when asked if the strike means the industry is in for another shake down, saying ``significant consolidation'' has occurred ``the entire 32 years I've been covering the industry.''
He doesn't see managements or the URW backing down, and surmised the strikes ``could be long.''
For BFS, the stoppage comes at a time when it's making inroads into the OE market, and finally turned a minor operating profit last year. That particular strike has Mr. Millis ``shaking his head.''
``I don't understand it. (BFS is) the one in real danger of losing significant marketshare at a time when it seemed to have good momentum going.''
He expects to see imports pick up ``fairly sharply'' because of tire makers' fears of losing marketshare, and doesn't anticipate any supply strains to occur until after Labor Day. ``The silver lining to this,'' Mr. Millis added, ``is capacity gets tightened and the industry gets prices up to a realistic level.''