AKRON-As Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. takes its battle with the United Rubber Workers to a new level by beginning to hire permanent replacements, industry observers say the action could hurt the URW for years to come. For the union, the long-term stakes are high: The traditional pattern bargaining probably will come under fire if Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. succeeds in getting the URW to succumb to its demands or puts a new work force in place under its terms at the three striking tire plants.
Industry sources said that when other tire makers come to the bargaining table, they'll demand terms similar to what BFS is working under.
``No one in the industry can afford to have terms significantly different than their major competitors,'' said Harry Millis, a securities analyst with Fundamental Research Inc. in Cleveland.
Goodyear agreed during master negotiations last year to a contract that it said will raise the cost of wages and benefits for its union labor by 16 percent during the next three years.
Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. also came to terms on a similar pact, although it extracted a number of concessions from its three unionized plants in the master contract the prior year.
In addition to these firms, other tire plants organized by the URW but not included in the master process base their contracts on these agreements, so they too will seek similar treatment.
``The union will be put in a very tough spot,'' Mr. Millis said. ``It sets up very difficult and delicate negotiations for the next round.''
Since the strike began July 12, the URW has maintained the Bridgestone Corp. subsidiary has had one goal: to break the union.
The company has made its stance clear: It didn't intend to go along with a pattern that didn't meet its competitive needs.
BFS said its cost per tire was as much as $5 higher than its competitors, and it needed to run its tire factories on a continuous basis, with pay increases tied to corresponding improvements in productivity.
But despite the competitive disadvantages the company claims, BFS said its profits still will exceed the $10 million forecast for 1994, even though it acknowledged losing up to $10 million a month at the three striking tire plants.
``We would have had an excellent year without the strike,'' a company spokesman said.
Bridgestone/Firestone appeared prepared for the strike. Its Japanese parent pledged to supply tires as needed. And with seven other tire plants in North America, the firm has seen little effect on its customers, other than in farm tires.
Bridgestone Chairman Yoichiro Kaizaki, who previously headed BFS, seems poised to win this battle as the Japanese firm continues to try to make good on the enormous investment it made with the 1988 purchase of Firestone.
The next step-along with battles in court and at the National Labor Relations Board-will be to see how many strikers cross the line as BFS begins hiring permanent replacements.
Meanwhile, the URW was to have presented a counterproposal to the company, in the presence of a federal mediator, on Jan. 18. This was to be the first such meeting between the two sides since July 10.
Prior to the announcement about hiring permanent replacement workers, the company said 600 URW members had crossed, with 500 of those at Oklahoma City. There, reports indicate the company has boosted output to pre-strike levels.
Replacement workers also are being hired at the striking tire plants in Decatur, Ill., and Des Moines, Iowa, along with the air springs plant in Noblesville, Ind.
``Bridgestone/Firestone is going for total victory,'' Mr. Millis said. ``If they remain in that mode, the workers will have to decide whether to work on the company's terms or let somebody else take their job.''
And while the URW watches Bridgestone/Firestone give its members' jobs away, the union also must focus on continuing contract talks with Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp., where two plants have been on strike since July 15.
At one point those negotiations too were stalled, but talks resumed Jan. 9 after a week of discussions in December.