AKRON-The United Rubber Workers union has ended its 10-month strike against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.-the longest work stoppage in rubber industry history-ordering members at three BFS plants to return to work unconditionally May 22. Meanwhile, the 93,000-member URW, its strike fund and its bargaining power depleted, has moved rapidly to consummate a merger with the 565,000-member United Steelworkers of America, a Pittsburgh-based union with a $165 million strike fund.
The executive boards of the two unions approved the proposed merger in mid-May. URW members will make the final decision when they vote on the proposal at a special convention, June 30-July 2 in Pittsburgh.
Leaders at the URW's Akron headquarters said the decision to end the walkout at BFS should not be seen as a surrender. ``This is simply a change in strategy for our union,'' said President Kenneth L. Coss.
Outside observers saw it differently, however.
``This is really an unconditional surrender for the URW,'' David Meyer, a management professor at the University of Akron, told the local newspaper.
Both Mr. Meyer and Harry Millis, an analyst with Fundamental Research Inc., believe the URW's bargaining power has been reduced severely.
Both sides usually lose during a strike, Mr. Millis said. In this case the corporation won, which ``can't help but affect future negotiations'' at other companies, he added.
Businesses in the rubber industry cannot afford to have labor contracts ``that are dramatically different from their competition for very long,'' Mr. Millis said.
A BFS spokesman said the tire maker, which brought in about 2,500 permanent replacement workers during the strike, will rehire union members where there are vacancies and put other members on a preferential hiring list. Still, the company expects the number of rehires to be low, he said.
By putting members back on the job, the URW is protecting its locals from being swept under by possible decertification votes in July, union officials said.
During a strike, labor laws allow workers to vote on whether to stay with the union as their bargaining group. However, after July 12-a year after the strike was called-only permanent replacements and picket-line crossers would be eligible to vote.
``The locals now have a chance to survive,'' Mr. Meyer said. But there's still a good chance the union would lose a vote because of the number of replacement workers that have been hired, he added.
Even if the union is decertified now, issues will arise involving work practices and labor relations that will have BFS workers interested in re-unioniz-ing three to five years down the road, Mr. Meyer said.
Of the five URW locals covered by the master contract with BFS that originally walked off the job last July, only three were still out when the strike was officially canceled. Those were at BFS' tire plants in Oklahoma City and Des Moines, Iowa, and its air springs plant in Noblesville, Ind.
Union members at the company's racing tire and machinery unit in Akron had voted to return back in January. Then on May 7, workers at the Decatur, Ill., tire plant voted to end their strike. An additional 1,300 union employees crossed the picket lines at the striking plants, according to BFS.
Union members and permanent replacements at the five facilities will work under the terms proposed by Bridgestone/Firestone in August during negotiations, the BFS spokesman said, including 12-hour shifts and production-based bonuses.
The URW has accepted the terms for the time being because of the threat of decertification, union officials said. Nonetheless, spirits still are high because of the likely merger with the United Steelworkers.
As one local URW official said: ``How do you stand up to an economic juggernaut like (Bridgestone/Firestone)? You merge.''