QUINCY, Ill.—While talks between Titan International Inc. and striking union workers continue to stall, the Steelworkers at Titan's Natchez, Miss., tire plant say the company is going to lay off workers in January and possibly shut down the facility in 2000. But Maurice Taylor Jr., Titan president and CEO, says that's nonsense because he plans to increase production and employment in Natchez next year.
A replacement worker at the plant, where members of United Steelworkers Local 303 walked out Sept. 15, 1998, has informed union members that layoffs will begin shortly after the new year, local President Leo T. Bradley said.
A Titan supervisor inside the factory, where the company makes industrial, off-the-road and farm tires, also said there may be a shutdown in the near future due to the facility's sub-par production and monetary losses, Mr. Bradley said.
Union officials have been saying the plant has been producing heaps of scrap tires since replacement workers started production in late 1998.
The Natchez factory has about 250 non-union employees and produced about $50 million worth of tires in 1999. Mr. Taylor said he'd like to increase production to about $80 million worth of tires in 2000.
Earlier this year, Titan announced it planned on investing $10 million to expand the facility by 10,000 square feet and eventually add up to 200 jobs there. Expansion still is the plan as long as demand merits it, he said.
Meanwhile, talks between the company and the striking union locals in Des Moines, Iowa, and Natchez are at the bottom of Titan's priority lists, according to Mr. Taylor.
The USWA, meanwhile, is trying to show Titan stockholders and the public it believes Mr. Taylor's leadership is hurting the company. Union officials sent a five-page letter to Titan shareholders in late October—the second one since the strikes began—citing Titan's financial woes, management shuffles and increased safety mishaps.
Most recently in Natchez, the company refused entry to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was following up on an Oct. 4 internal mixer fire in which two non-union workers suffered burns. It was the third time in the past year, including once in Des Moines in the spring, that Titan has refused plant entry to OSHA.
Both Mr. Bradley and John Peno, president of Local 164 in Des Moines, have filed several complaints with OSHA about safety conditions at the plants during the strikes.
Mr. Taylor did say a company investigation determined the Natchez fire was caused by a "big blast of air" from the machinery breaking a fluorescent bulb, which ignited carbon dust emanating from the mixer.
More bad news came to the company as a mid-summer ramp-up delay at Titan's Brownsville, Texas, specialty tire plant has been extended to this month.
Titan halted manufacturing in Brownsville in mid-July to get the plant ready for full tire production. Much of the needed equipment for the 1 million-sq.-ft. plant was to be installed during the production suspension, according to Mr. Taylor.
The delay was to last three months, but will end up about twice that long if the production suspension continues after the new year.
The factory will continue to produce lawn and garden tires of less than 12 inches in diameter, but also will get its all-terrain vehicle tire lines going in January, Mr. Taylor said.
The economic downturn in the U.S. agricultural market, which provides Titan's most valuable business segment, has been the biggest factor in the firm's woes, Mr. Taylor said.
Despite the labor problems and financial woes, he predicted Titan will hike business by 20 percent this year.
Mr. Taylor also confirmed a USWA report that a portion of the 250 workers at Titan's Steel Wheels Ltd. facility in Kidderminister, England, will be laid off. The union said 70 workers will be let go because the company lost a Caterpillar Inc. contract for multipiece rims for earthmover equipment in the U.S.
The contract, which is to expire in April, was lost due to the economic slowdown. The still-unconfirmed multimillion dollar deal with Caterpillar for Titan LSW tire-and-wheel assemblies on its skid-steer loaders won't be affected, he said.