PITTSBURGH-John Sellers recently unveiled his ``strength through numbers'' master plan to recapture power for union workers in rubber and tire factories. Mr. Sellers-newly elected executive vice president of the United Steelworkers of America's Rubber/Plastics Industry Conference-outlined his strategy for upcoming master contract talks at the rubber council's convention, held Sept. 24-26 in Pittsburgh. His three-pronged plan includes:
Returning-and sticking-to a pattern settlement, starting with next year's master contract talks with the major tire makers;
Bringing more locals into the fold for master talks; and
Aligning contract expiration dates within companies and, ultimately, within the industry.
Mr. Sellers admitted including more locals in master talks and establishing common contract expiration dates are lofty goals that may take the union years to accomplish. However, the attainment of both will go a long way in protecting the pattern, workers' rights and the attainment of ``fair and equitable'' benefits and wages, he said.
``We have to establish parity within the industry,'' Mr. Sellers said. ``For those that are not involved in master bargaining, I want to set up industry councils of those plants which are in like industries toward the same purpose: to ultimately get to agreements that resemble each other and stop this competition plant-to-plant.''
Mr. Sellers pointed toward the union's recent struggles with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. Union negotiators have been unable to seal a deal anywhere close to the 1993 pattern settlement at Goodyear.
Equally troublesome, he said, is other major tire makers saying they need to follow in Bridgestone/Firestone's footsteps to remain competitive. But Mr. Sellers said he isn't about to let the pattern-and all that organized labor has worked for-die.
``All of industry is watching this fight,'' he said. ``(Corporations) would like Bridgestone/Firestone to win this, but it's not going to happen.
``We will win this fight and re-establish the pattern in '97,'' he said as convention delegates gave him a standing ovation.
Local union officials support Mr. Sellers, saying his three-pronged plan for upcoming master bargaining will go a long way in protecting workers' standard of living.
T.D. Steinke, a former union district director, said the new executive vice president has what's most important-a following. ``He has the membership's support, and that's where the real power is.''
``We've got to get back to the pattern,'' said Tony Carr, vice president of USWA Local 998 at Bridgestone/Firestone's Oklahoma City plant. ``It gives us that leverage in negotiations.''
Getting more locals covered under the umbrella of master agreements and establishing common contract expiration dates go hand-in-hand with re-establishing the pattern. ``Anytime you've got more plants involved, that's more production you can affect by a walkout,'' said Roger Gates, president of USWA Local 713 at the BFS plant in Decatur, Ill.
Accomplishing these goals also will save the companies time and resources in negotiations, and stop the ``cherry picking plant-by-plant'' now going on, Mr. Carr said.
How the union's 26-month dispute with Bridgestone/Firestone shakes out will determine a lot of what can and can't be accomplished in upcoming negotiations, said Herb Anderson, secretary of USWA Local 715 at Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co.'s Fort Wayne, Ind., unit.
Spokesmen for Goodyear, Michelin North America Inc. and Continental General Tire Inc. declined to discuss their firm's position on establishing a pattern, adding locals to the master or making contract expiration dates uniform.
However, a BFS spokesman had no qualms outlining his company's stance against traditional pattern pacts.
``We like the 1994 pattern agreement where companies were able to settle based on their individual needs,'' the spokesman said. ``There hasn't been a real pattern agreement since the early '70s.''
BFS also is against including all union plants in the masters and making uniform expiration dates.
``We can understand the union's desire to have an umbrella under which locals are clustered, but we still think there will need to be individual groupings,'' he said.
There's never been common contract expiration dates, even within a single company's chain of union plants, the spokesman said. Aligning the termination of these pacts puts too much power in the union's hands and is an unrealistic, lopsided goal, according to the spokesman.
``If we do that, it obviously would work to the union's advantage,'' he said. ``It would bring us back to the '76 strike, where everybody in the industry could be out at one time,'' he said.
Consolidating negotiations may save time, but the spokesman said it also could bring negotiations to a standstill. ``We doubt the union would be able to handle negotiations for so many companies at one time,'' he said.
Two industry analysts are polarized in their views of the pattern settlement and the likelihood of re-establishing it in the tire industry.
The pattern can benefit both companies and unions, but getting back to it will take time, said Dave Meyer, a University of Akron labor-management professor who follows the tire industry.
But according to Dennis Virag, managing director of the Automotive Consulting Group, the pattern is an outdated, lopsided bargaining ploy that is gone for good.
``Companies don't like the pattern because each company is different and in a unique situation,'' he said. ``Both parties, I believe, have outgrown the need for a pattern and would be better served without it.
Setting a pattern that's bad for a company will cost jobs in the long run, Mr. Virag said. ``Older tire plants can't be held to the same labor cost structure as the newer ones. The best solution is to negotiate in good faith on a case-by-case basis.''
But in Mr. Meyer's view, pattern settlements keep companies competitive and help workers gain ground. Re-establishing a pattern among the major tire makers will be difficult but not impossible, he said.
And it will take a few years, he added. ``The union first must get the Bridgestone/ Firestone situation resolved.''
Eventually, though, Mr. Meyer expects workers to regain a foothold in negotiations and revive the pattern as they merge and gain political and economical clout.
``That's certainly a large wish list,'' Mr. Virag said, speaking of Mr. Sellers' plans. If the union is able to accomplish Mr. Sellers' goals, Mr. Virag said, ``(T)hey'll be able to hold management to the fire and stop companies from transferring production from one plant to another during a strike.''
Common contract expiration dates are the key to reviving the pattern, Mr. Meyer said. ``Common expiration dates lead you to where you can take out the whole industry, and that's real power.''