WASHINGTON-Efforts by the United Steelworkers of America to get a new labor agreement between its rubber workers and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. have escalated again-and could jeopardize the tire maker's exclusive original equipment contract with Saturn Corp. Allying itself with United Auto Workers Local 1853, which represents laborers at Saturn's sole plant, in Spring Hill, Tenn., the USWA announced at a Washington press conference July 1 that Saturn retailers will take Firestone OE tires off new vehicles at no cost and replace them with another brand, if a customer requests it.
The USWA distributed a letter, dated June 28, from Local 1853, which is a primary partner in Saturn with a say in all its affairs. It said Saturn's permission to retailers to replace OE tires grew out of ``a concern from union members going into a Saturn retailer and purchasing a Saturn with Bridgestone (i.e. Firestone) tires on it.''
The letter casts some doubt on the future of BFS' exclusive OE contract with the automaker.
But that doesn't mean Saturn, a General Motors Corp. division, is siding with the USWA in its two-year dispute with BFS, a Saturn spokesman said. It's simply a matter of maintaining customer satisfaction.
The UAW letter also said the current labor issues ``will be scrutinized'' before a new OE tire contract is awarded.
Under the contract, BFS has supplied 100 percent of the OE tires for Saturn since the GM division was created in 1990. In 1995 the tire maker supplied about 1.2 million tires to the 302,094 cars assembled by Saturn, according to figures from Automotive News, a sister publication of TIRE BUSINESS.
A BFS spokesman said the company hadn't received the letter yet, and could not comment on it. He also refused to say when the OE contract expired.
Steelworkers President George Becker said at the press conference that the UAW and GM Saturn ``have agreed to bring their considerable influence to bear on Bridgestone/Firestone on behalf of the 4,000 USWA members who have suffered so greatly at the hands of this firm.''
However, Joe Kennedy, Saturn vice president of sales, service and marketing, said the carmaker ``will not engage in public commentary on the issues involved in the labor dispute'' between BFS and the union.
``Because Saturn is dedicated to building and maintaining customer enthusiasm, our retailers respond to customer needs on a case-by-case basis,'' he said. ``As a result, some original equipment Firestone tires have been replaced at no cost to customers who have requested the change.''
Saturn retailers won't turn away customers who want different tires, he added, and have had permission to replace Firestone tires since the labor dispute began.
The cases of customers requesting cars without Firestone tires have been limited, occurring only in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to the spokesman for Saturn.