CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Independent tire dealers and other retailers are the target of a national ``public awareness'' campaign initiated by striking workers at Continental General Tire Inc.'s Charlotte passenger tire plant. Members of the United Steelworkers of America and other unions are phoning dealerships and other retail outlets, questioning the safety of tires produced by what the union contends are ``unskilled and inexperienced'' replacement workers, as well as the safety of imported tires from Mexico.
Frank Froelich, president of Fremont Tire Inc., a five-outlet chain based in Sioux City, Iowa, said the dealership's headquarters received two such telephone calls April 15. He said the callers posed as customers expressing concern over the safety of the General-brand tires on their cars. The calls surprised Mr. Froelich, who said the nearest CGT tire plant is 600 miles away.
The first caller asked store manager Larry Barkley if he was aware that CGT had fired 1,400 people in Charlotte and was going to transfer its tire production to Mexico. She wanted to know if the tires would be safe if produced outside the U.S.
The dealership's second such call came about an hour later from a male who was harsher in tone, mumbled and wouldn't say if he had a problem with tires purchased from Fremont Tire. Mr. Froelich said numerous voices could be heard in the background from other people who seemed to be making the same type calls.
Mr. Froehlich said all five of the dealership's stores carry General, and he has had no problems with the brand. ``They (CGT) make good tires,'' he said. ``I hate to see this happening. ''
In Sioux Falls, S.D., Mr. Froelich's son, John, who manages the dealership's store there, also received two such calls on the same day. He said one of the callers told him CGT was ``not going to stand behind the warranties'' as a result of the replacement workers.
The younger Froelich said he became angry and hung up the the phone, then dialed *57, the telephone company's service feature which normally provides the number of the last call received.
In response, the phone company said the phone number was ``unavailable,'' suggesting that the caller had purposely taken steps to block the feature and escape detection.
USWA Executive Vice President John Sellers acknowledged that the campaign is a national effort and the union members are behind it.
However, Mr. Sellers said the operation is not being orchestrated by the international union. No telemarketing firm has been hired to make the calls nor have union participants set up their own boiler room operation, he said.
``These are simply individuals who have read the literature and are expressing concern about the public buying tires made by inexperienced workers,'' he said.
Mr. Sellers said the campaign grew out of the union's previous informational activities related to the strike—some of which included distributing pamphlets to dealers and other tire retailers.He said he didn't know whether the phone calls cited by dealers originated from the public at large or were made by union members themselves.
Earl Propst, president of USWA Local 850 in Charlotte, said union representatives also have been calling managers at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club outlets to make them aware that some of the Continental General tires they're carrying were not made in the U.S.A.
``With Sam's and Wal-Mart preaching they buy American-made, we're just alerting them to the fact that they have tires imported from Mexico,'' he said.
Mr. Propst denied that union callers were instructed to tell dealers that CGT's tires were unsafe, that the company did not intend to stand behind its tire warranties or that tire production was being shifted to Mexico.
He said the ``public awareness'' campaign was kicked off in the Charlotte area during March and since has spread to other parts of the country. The Charlotte local has sought and received help in carrying out the campaign from other unions representing some of the country's largest tire plants.
The purpose of the campaign is to increase public awareness that the company is using ``unskilled workers'' at the Charlotte facility, he said.
``The turnover at the Charlotte plant is tremendous. And they (replacement workers) can't be getting the proper training in our opinion,'' Mr. Propst said.
``At every location we've been into,'' he said, ``we've asked the (local union) presidents to make their memberships aware of our plight.''
Union workers at the Charlotte plant, he said, have not received a pension increase since 1992 or an increase in their cost of living allowance since 1995.
``Continental General makes money hand over fist. But when it comes to doing the right thing by us, they just haven't done it,'' he said.