PITTSBURGH-By a razor thin margin, delegates at a special United Rubber Workers convention voted July 1 to merge with the United Steelworkers of America, ending the independent existence of the URW just shy of its 60th birthday. The 617-304 vote-614 votes were required to secure the two-thirds needed for passage-highlighted a two-day gathering in Pittsburgh that featured plenty of politicking and lots of division between the supporters and detractors of the merger.
``There's a lot of loyalty in this union,'' Steelworkers President George Becker said of the URW. ``A two-to-one (vote) is almost an impossible thing. It took a lot of sacrifice and courage for them to do this and, by God, we're not going to let them down.''
With the merger, Mr. Becker's organization adds the URW's approximately 94,000 members to its rolls, taking the Steelworkers' total membership to more than 700,000.
The URW, founded in September 1935, now will be the main part of a newly created Rubber and Plastic Conference of the Steelworkers headquartered in the URW offices in Akron. Rubber Workers' locals also now have access to the Steelworkers' $166 million strike fund, which is especially important to the URW because the union depleted its strike fund during walkouts starting last year against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and three other tire makers.
Under the terms of the merger, former URW President Kenneth L. Coss will become a Steelworkers executive vice president, and the rest of the URW's officers and executive board also will have positions in the new structure.
Merger talks between the two unions began in March, when Mr. Coss suggested it while the two unions discussed ways to join together to fight Bridgestone/Firestone. Negotiations moved quickly from there, and the executive boards of both unions approved the merger in mid-May.
Whereas the Steelworkers' constitution allows its executive board to approve such mergers, the URW's mandated that the rank-and-file approve it at a special convention. The Rubber Workers had been looking at possible mergers for at least the past two decades, but this was the first brought before the membership.
And while all URW delegates joined hands and sang the union anthem, ``Solidarity Forever,'' after the merger was approved, getting the necessary votes proved to be anything but easy.
As URW officials traveled the country holding informational meetings trying to garner enough support, the battle lines became quite distinct.
Those in favor-including the Canadian delegation, most of the smaller locals and the Bridgestone/Firestone locals that were hurt the most during the strike-saw the Steelworkers as a union with sufficient resources to provide service and enough numbers behind it to stand up to companies. They also said they recognized the URW couldn't remain a viable union as its membership dwindled.
``It's just that 90,000 members don't have the political or economic clout to take on multinationals,'' said Floyd Sayre of URW Local 644 at the Shell Chemical Co. plant in Mount Pleasant, W.Va. (a former Goodyear facility). ``The Steelworkers have that clout.''
The major opposition came from the majority of the locals at Goodyear facilities, most of the major tire locals and locals in ``Right to Work'' states, where local union leaders feared a loss in membership because of higher dues.
Opponents also feared the loss of identity for rubber workers, believed the agreement was put together too quickly, and resented the fact that top URW officers will get raises in the merged structure, while many of the rank-and-file will see their dues increase.
``It's not that I'm anti-United Steelworkers, it's just that I'm anti-merger,'' said Doug Werstler from URW Local 2 representing Goodyear workers in Akron. ``I feel we should be in control of our own destiny.''
Because of the dissent, several changes were made to the final merger document before the vote. Most important: Locals will have five years to phase in the new dues structure instead of three.