CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The year-long strike at Continental General Tire Inc.'s Charlotte tire plant is over, and both sides are claiming victory. Members of United Steelworkers of America Local 850 voted 876-289 to accept a new 6 1/2-year contract during balloting Sept. 19, one day shy of the one-year anniversary of the walk-out.
The package will give union members wage and cost-of-living adjustments totaling nearly $3 per hour over the life of the contract; a pension benefit equalling the industry standard; and guaranteed jobs within a six-month period for anyone wanting to return to work at the plant.
Sept. 20 marked the one-year anniversary of the walkout by the local's 1,450 members after their three-year contract with Conti General expired. The main sticking points when the strike began were economic—primarily over wages, wage adjustments and pension benefits.
But over the past year the company's use of permanent replacement workers, an aggressive corporate campaign by the USWA and unfair labor charges filed by both sides overshadowed any meaningful negotiations and soured relations.
During the past two months, however, serious discussions took place, and ``started to pick up steam,'' a source close to the negotiations said. Both sides intended to keep the progress of talks out of the spotlight, the source said.
Surprisingly, the negotiations also resulted in similar long-term agreements for two other USWA locals manning Continental General tire plants—Local 665 in Mayfield, Ky., and Local 890 in Bryan, Ohio—where the exiting contracts don't expire until late 2000. As of press time Sept. 23, no votes had been taken on those pacts.
Under the Charlotte agreement, all strikers who want to return to work are guaranteed jobs within six months, but no replacement workers hired during the labor dispute will be forced to leave their jobs, said Michael Polovick, CGT's director of human resources.
Other terms of the contract, which expires April 30, 2006, include:
25-cent general wage increases upon ratification, and again in 2001 and 2003;
Reinstatement of cost-of-living allowance increases;
immediate increase in the pension multiplier to $38 per month per year of service (from less than $30), with a mid-term adjustment to at least $41;
elimination of the company's 401(k) match;
establishment of a four-crew, 12-hour schedule, which will reduce the overall employment at the plant to 1,300 from 1,450;
early retirement incentives to try to cut back the work force through attrition; and
the dropping of all legal action and charges with the National Labor Relations Board by both sides.
The agreement calls for a transition period of six months in which to get the work force from about 2,300—1,400 or so strikers and 900 permanent replacements—to the 1,300 employees required for the new four-crew system.
Between the wage increases and cost-of-living adjustments, a union employee working an average of 42 hours per week with four weeks of vacation will receive a pay increase of nearly $6,000 a year by the end of the contract term.
With the settlement, both the USWA and Continental General touted what they saw as their respective gains.
Mr. Polovick said it was important to the company that the replacement workers they hired not be forced to leave the plant.
He said between the number of Local 850 members expected to take enhanced retirement and the attrition of permanent replacements, the plant should be at the 1,300-employee level within the six-month period.
From the company's standpoint, the settlement shows that the union's corporate campaign against CGT had failed and the union saw that the charges remaining before the NLRB didn't have much teeth.
``The corporate campaign was good to boost the morale of workers, but it had no impact on us,'' Mr. Polovick said. ``We lost no customers during the strike and received calls from several dealers supporting us.''
Union leaders see the settlement a different way.
``It's definitely a huge victory,'' said John Sellers, vice president in charge of the USWA's Rubber & Plastic Industry Conference.
He noted that the new contract restores Continental General to the industrywide pattern the union has worked to maintain in the tire and rubber industries. ``And the way it was won reminds every tire company of how strong our commitment to pattern bargaining is,'' Mr. Sellers said.
The long strike also shows how closely knit Local 850 members were during the walkout, said Local President Earl Propst. ``Only 15 crossed the picket line during the strike,'' he said, a level of solidarity seldom seen in the South.