AKRON-The number of unionized workers on strike against U.S. tire makers reached 7,200 as about 1,600 Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp. employees at three plants walked off the job July 15 as soon as their contract expired. In addition, the United Rubber Workers union has filed a lawsuit in federal court attempting to block Pirelli Armstrong's decision to eliminate health benefits for retirees.
The PATC workers joined about 1,500 at the Dunlop Tire Corp. plant in Huntsville, Ala., who've been on strike since June 21, and more than 4,000 URW members at five Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. locations, who hit the street July 12. It's the largest number of URW members on strike since the four-month industrywide walkout in 1976.
Negotiations have been heading toward a confrontation with Pirelli Armstrong since the tire maker first asked for concessions last fall, and then earlier this year froze capital spending pending the outcome of contract talks.
Pirelli Armstrong plants in Nashville, Tenn.; Hanford, Calif.; and Des Moines, Iowa, are affected by the action, although the Des Moines plant was sold to Titan Wheel International Inc. four days after the strike began.
URW Local 164 in Des Moines remained on strike, but is prepared to bargain with Titan as its new owner, according to Local President Earl Seymour.
The URW cited 12 main bargaining disputes with Pirelli Armstrong, calling the tire maker's final offer ``totally unacceptable, ridiculous and devastating to bargaining unit members.''
``The magnitude of the changes demanded cannot be merely reflected as needed business changes but are demoralizing and harmful to the people that the URW represents,'' the union said in a statement.
Items in contention include: reduced health-care benefits for active employees and retirees, wages, pensions, seniority, continuous operations and successor agreement.
The URW also has answered Pirelli Armstrong's recent proclamation that it was discontinuing health care coverage for current and future retirees by filing what it hopes will become a class action lawsuit in federal court in Nashville.
Pirelli Armstrong first filed suit July 8 against the union and retirees in federal court in Des Moines, asking that it be allowed to unilaterally change benefits for retired employees.
The URW's July 18 countersuit alleges violations of pension law and breach of contract, among other things, and is intended to become a class action including all Pirelli Armstrong retirees-including those from plants the company has since closed or sold.
``It's our understanding the contract you retire under covers you for life. They led people to rely on what they told them previously,'' the URW spokesman said. ``No tire manufacturer has ever threatened to do this.''
And while the Pirelli Armstrong workers can't base their strike on this issue, it clearly is one that angers them even more than the economic terms in dispute.
``I'm very displeased with a company that will turn its back on the very people responsible for the viability of the company today: the retirees,'' said Stanley Johnson, president of Local 670 at PATC's Nashville plant.
A Pirelli Armstrong spokesman declined comment beyond a company statement released earlier about the restructuring and a second statement made in conjunction with the sale to Titan.
In other strike news, meetings were held July 19 and 20 between Dunlop management and workers with the aid of a federal mediator. No details were available.