PITTSBURGH-Invigorated by their recent merger with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), members of the former United Rubber Workers union have made good on their threat to escalate their battle with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. After the unions joined forces July 1, the more than 700,000-member USWA vowed to intensify its corporate campaign, continue a boycott of Bridgestone/Firestone products, and take the fight to Japan, home of BFS' parent company, Bridgestone Corp.
And on July 14, unionists took their fight to a BFS tire store in Warwick, R.I., where about 40 workers from the former URW as well as other unions, picketed in support of company workers nationwide, many of whom lost their jobs to replacement workers.
Saying they need to support one another, the union members carried signs and shouted ``Union, Yes. Bridgestone/Firestone, No.''
Four days later, at a press conference in Washington, USWA President George Becker accused BFS of importing Japanese and Brazilian workers to take over the jobs of some of the 2,000 striking union members.
He said private investigators have confirmed that foreign workers were brought in under visitors' visas to work at BFS plants in Oklahoma City, Des Moines, Iowa, Decatur, Ill., and Noblesville, Ind.
A BFS spokesman called the allegations ``absolute garbage'' and challenged the USWA ``to provide one shred of evidence'' that the charges have any merit.
Meanwhile, union officials said the USWA plans to protest at BFS' more than 1,500 company-owned tire stores nationwide, and will throttle up its boycott efforts.
Sears, Roebuck and Co., a major marketer of Bridgestone and Firestone tires, will be a particular boycott target, Mr. Becker said.
USWA leaders also plan to take striking workers and their families to Japan to present their grievances there.
Former URW President Kenneth L. Coss called the fight on Bridgestone Corp.'s home turf in Japan a vital part of the battle.
``It will be a concerted, widespread, well-financed. . . (effort) all through Japan to explain to the Japanese people what Bridgestone is doing to American workers.
``Just about everything they're doing. . . is considered immoral or illegal in Japan,'' he said.
The URW had to stand firm because any gains BFS made would impact future negotiations with other tire makers. ``If you (give in), the companies that are trying to treat you fairly are hurt so severely, they can't maintain it,'' Mr. Coss said.
While many union members believe the merger strengthened their hand at the bargaining table, several labor analysts have downplayed its impact on negotiations.
And spokesmen for Goodyear, Michelin North America and Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. said they don't expect the merger to affect negotiations at their facilities.
During the merger convention in Pittsburgh July 1, Mr. Becker said a new contract with Bridgestone/Firestone is a top priority.
A Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman said the company also would like negotiations to resume.
Just how much-if any-effect a heightened corporate campaign by the USWA will have on Bridgestone/Firestone won't be clear for some time, according to a number of analysts.
``They can do some damage,'' said Dave Meyer, a management professor at the University of Akron. ``But it would be unusual for Bridgestone to capitulate to this when they didn't for the direct worker strike. There's a slim-as opposed to none-chance of having this work, and it's the best chance they have.''
Another analyst said the union's effort against BFS is as much political as economic.
``The URW lost a lot of face by losing that strike (at BFS),'' said James Craft, professor of human resources and labor relations at the University of Pittsburgh. ``This gives them a way of saving face.''
While union members at BFS are getting excited again about the battle and feel the boycott will work, Mr. Craft is not so sure.
``I just don't think it's going to be a big deal,'' he said.
Washington correspondent Miles Moore and The Associated Press contributed to this report.