PITTSBURGH—In announcing their agreement on a tentative contract Nov. 6, negotiators for both the United Steelworkers of America and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. claimed victory in their 28-month dispute. And while the announcement caught most industry observers by surprise, they tended to agree that both sides had indeed won.
``Considering where they were two weeks (earlier)—dead in the water, embroiled in a bitter battle—I'm shocked,'' said David Meyer, a University of Akron management professor who follows the tire industry, reacting to the settlement.
``The fact that the agreement resolves all the unfair labor practice charges (against BFS) and includes a respectable labor contract that expires with the other master contracts (on April 23, 2000) is phenomenal. It's drop-dead, jaw-to-the-floor amazing.''
The deal was reached at 1 a.m. Nov. 4 in Chicago following 72 hours of uninterrupted bargaining—the culmination of weeks of secret meetings between company and union negotiators, according to John Sellers, executive vice president of the USWA's Rubber/Plastics Industry Conference.
Signed just a day before a scheduled National Labor Relations Board appeal hearing on unfair labor practice complaints against BFS, the pact includes:
The immediate recall of about 50 union members remaining on the company's preferential hiring list, as well as the reinstatement of more than 40 who had been discharged for alleged misconduct during the strike;
A $750 signing bonus for all employees and more than $15 million in ``supplemental bonuses'' for recalled strikers—in individual amounts ranging from $5,000 to $11,000;
An immediate wage increase of 40 cents an hour and an across-the-board wage hike at the tire plants of 35 cents per hour, effective Sept. 1, 1999;
Improvements in health and
pension benefits; and
A successorship provision requiring the buyer of any BFS facility to negotiate a contract with the union prior to closing a deal.
``In a long dispute like this, there are no victors,'' said USWA President George Becker. ``However, I am pleased to announce the union succeeded in achieving the major goals that we have pursued since this struggle began.''
BFS is equally pleased with the settlement, Chairman and CEO Masatoshi Ono said in a prepared statement.
``We entered these negotiations in 1994 determined to address our company's competitive needs,'' Mr. Ono said. ``We particularly wanted to make needed changes in the way our plants operated—we had to make them more productive.''
Among the major changes BFS sought was a move to continuous, seven-day operations with 12-hour shifts, as well as a plan to tie some pay to performance.
``We achieved all of these goals, and we conceded in areas where we believed it was necessary to obtain a mutually satisfactory agreement,'' Mr. Ono said.
The six union locals covered under the master contract with BFS probably will vote on the package in late November, Mr. Sellers said. The pact also includes a separate contract for union members at the tire maker's La Vergne, Tenn., tire plant, which has operated without one for more than a year. In total, the tentative agreement covers more than 6,000 Steelworkers, he said.
``Bridgestone/Firestone really extended the olive branch to the union with this package,'' Mr. Meyer said. ``This settlement sets them on the right path. It resolves many of the issues, but not all of them. There's still a lot of healing that has to take place, but at least it stops the bleeding.''
Both sides won a fair amount by dropping their daggers, according to Harry Millis, an analyst with Fundamental Research Inc.
``Bridgestone/Firestone got significant changes in work rules that will make it easier to enhance production and move forward,'' Mr. Millis said.
The union won a small—but very important—victory when the Japanese-owned company agreed to recognize the Steelworkers as the bargaining agent for hourly workers at five plants. When the company in January 1995 permanently replaced strikers, it nearly wiped out the union at Bridgestone/Firestone facilities, according to Mr. Millis.
``The fact that the Steelworkers got a contract and are back in the plants is (victory) enough,'' he said. ``On top of that, they held off Bridgestone/Firestone on some fronts and made modest gains on others.''
The agreement benefits all in the tire industry, Mr. Millis added.
``Everybody now has a pretty good idea where Bridgestone/Firestone's at labor-cost-wise. They're fairly close to the others (involved in master contract bargaining—Goodyear and Michelin North America).''