DES MOINES, Iowa (April 14, 2000)—Last May, at the end of "Year One" of the United Steelworkers´ strike against Titan International Inc., the dispute showed no signs of ending.
And today, as the longest strike in U.S. tire industry history prepares to enter its third year, nothing has changed.
Meaningful negotiations between USWA Local 164 and Titan haven´t occurred in nearly a year, the company is hiring non-union labor and communication between the two sides is nothing more than a war of words.
Local 164´s 670 members walked out at Titan´s Des Moines farm tire plant on May 1, 1998, after their three-year contract expired. The union struck over several issues, primarily wage, pension, retiree benefits, job security and mandatory overtime.
But soon the strike escalated into a dispute involving picket-line disturbances, unfair labor practice charges and—worst of all for negotiating purposes—the hiring of replacement workers. As the strike wore on, talks between the two sides became few and far between.
Maurice Taylor Jr., Titan CEO and president, said union members could have come back anytime they wanted and are welcome to do so now. But he has said from the beginning of the strike that he believes Local 164 members are getting bad advice from the USWA International headquarters in Pittsburgh.
"This isn´t a lockout," Mr. Taylor said. "But with their International in control, it´s never going to happen. I don´t feel any urgency to settle things with the Steelworkers."
Local 164 President John Peno said his membership is behind the USWA and has stuck together well throughout the strike. He also said, looking back at the decisions and the events which have marked the past two years, that he wouldn´t change a thing.
"Other companies don´t seem to have a problem paying the prevailing wage, but Morry seems to think substandard pay for workers is OK," Mr. Peno said. "Who´s lost the most money in this thing? I know what´s been lost and gained. At least we´ve gained some dignity and self-respect."
Mr. Peno said the business sense of the labor dispute for Mr. Taylor disappeared months ago. Now it is about "ego," he said.
"The longer this goes on, the tougher it becomes," Mr. Peno said. "I don´t know how long this will go on. I do know we made money for him here with a contract that was $6.50 (per hour) in costs below Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. It´ll be $8 to $10 below by the next contract.
"If Morry wants to compete in the tire business, he has to keep Des Moines running and making money. My work force is the key to that."
Mr. Taylor said he has about 400 replacement workers in Des Moines, and the plant is operating at about 70 percent of pre-strike capacity. Titan´s earnings have been dreadful over the past year, but Mr. Taylor believes the company will rebound this year from the strikes and the soft agricultural equipment market.
"The union wants to blame management, but there´s been a major farm recession," he said. "Everything´s to blame but themselves. I´ve said they can come back anytime. I have nothing to do with it."
Mr. Taylor said even if the union had stayed in the plant or a contract had been signed, economic conditions still would have called for layoffs in the past 18 months.
"Bridgestone/Firestone has had to; we would have, too," he said.
David Meyer, associate professor of management at the University of Akron´s College of Business Administration, said the USWA has had little success with Titan during this dispute because it doesn´t have much leverage with a company that isn´t willing to be levered.
"If a company isn´t willing to talk and won´t sit down again, what are you going to do?" he asked.
The USWA won several federal unfair labor practice charges against Titan in February 1999, but Titan has appealed them.
"That´s leverage, but the union might have a long wait," Mr. Meyer said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Taylor said he´s going "full-speed ahead" in Des Moines. And Local 164 will mark the anniversary with a rally on April 29. ©
"We haven´t been trying to set a record here," Mr. Peno said. "We just want to set the record straight."