It was the year of the strike-be it baseball players, teamsters or rubber workers. 1994 had its share of work stoppages-including the longest strike in the history of the United Rubber Workers union, which remains on-going at five plants operated by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp. Two non-tire BFS plants also are on strike.
In both cases, URW members are seeking settlements close to a ``pattern'' contract negotiated with Goodyear earlier this year. Both Pirelli and BFS have said such a contract would jeopardize the competitiveness of their companies.
The confrontation between BFS and its URW workers, which at times has grown ugly, still seems nowhere near an end. At presstime (Jan. 5), negotiations were taking place only with Pirelli Armstrong. Meanwhile, the URW had called a special convention for Jan. 24 in Las Vegas to consider boosting its now nearly depleted strike fund, which held an estimated $13 million before the strikes began. The union pays strikers $100 a week after the first two weeks of a strike.
Still, a BFS spokesman said the company's three tire plants on strike-located in Des Moines, Iowa, Decator, Ill., and Oklahoma City-are operating at more than 70 percent of capacity, using 2,600 workers, including salaried employees from the plants and other locations, temporary workers, new permanent employees and about 500 union members who have returned to work since the strikes began.
BFS expected the plants to be nearly at 100 percent of capacity by January.
BFS has also filed an unfair labor charge with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the URW has brought racism into the bargaining with its verbal attacks on the company's Japanese ownership.
Hopes of a settlement at Pirelli's Hanford, Calif., and Nashville, Tenn., plants were a little brighter, with both sides agreeing to meet in Cleveland Dec. 15-22.
A Pirelli spokesman declined to disclose the working capacity of the company's plants.
At the height of the URW work stoppages, about 8,000 union members at eight tire and two non-tire plants were on strike. That total now lingers around 5,000 union members at five tire and two non-tire plants.
Initially, about 1,300 union members at Dunlop Tire Corp.'s Huntsville, Ala., plant walked off their jobs June 21. Those workers returned to work Sept. 23 after ratifying an agreement that retained the plant's 12-hour shift schedule and basically followed the benefits part of the Goodyear pattern contract.
On July 23, nearly 800 workers at Yokohama Tire Corp.'s Salem, Va., plant went on strike. URW members there returned to work Oct. 5 after approving a three-year contract that improves wages and benefits and gave the company more flexibility in its seven-day operating schedule.
Workers at Pirelli's Des Moines, Iowa, plant struck July 15, one day before the company sold the facility to Titan Tire Corp., a division of Titan Wheel Interna Employees there agreed to go back to work after signing a temporary pact Sept. 1.
The BFS and Pirelli strikes became the longest URW work stoppages by overtaking the 141-day strike of 1976 in November. In 1976, about 70,000 URW members struck 54 plants in 21 states, shutting off the majority of North America's tire capacity.
Still, tire dealers said they had not experienced major supply problems this year from any of the struck companies.
Harold E. Ziegler Jr., president of Canton, Ohio-based Ziegler Tire & Oil Co. Inc., the nation's oldest BFS dealership, said supply is not as large of a problem now that dealers typically carry more than one company's tires.
``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.
But the URW strikes were not the only work stoppages faced by tire makers and dealers in 1994.
On April 6, about 75,000 truckers, dock workers and mechanics from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters walked off their jobs when their National Master Freight Agreement expired. Teamsters claimed part-time drivers and intermodal transport would cause job loss among union drivers.
The strike ended April 29, with little affect on the tire industry. The Teamsters won additional pay, increased benefits and killed a proposal allowing companies to hire part-time dock workers without benefits. But many Teamsters were upset by a provision allowing more intermodal shipments and loss of the union's long-standing right to strike over any grievance.
Rubber makers reported little trouble shipping product during the three-week Teamsters strike, and most tire dealers said they avoided dwindling supplies by using non-unionized trucking firms.
Crain News Service photo by Bruce Meyer