AKRON (April 17, 2000)—Despite having been on strike for two years, John Peno said he has no ill will toward the company with which his union has been unable negotiate a contract.
In fact, Mr. Peno, president of United Steelworkers Local 164 in Des Moines, Iowa, said he wants to see Titan International Inc.´s newest tire facility in Brownsville, Texas, succeed.
"Brownsville will definitely help business," Mr. Peno said. "To be competitive, you almost have to have more than one plant."
To Local 164 members, who have been out of work since May 1, 1998—part of the longest strike in U.S. tire industry history—the Brownsville plant concept once was a testimony to a company benefiting financially from their efforts.
But over the past two years, it´s also meant a threat to their livelihood, a manifestation of what they believe are lies and half-truths and, in the future, a target for organization.
When Titan President and CEO Maurice Taylor Jr. announced in 1996 that the company would build the new factory in Texas, the USWA knew it would affect Titan´s Des Moines farm tire plant.
After all, Mr. Taylor planned to use Brownsville to supply several tire markets, including agricultural, and was adamant in keeping the work force non-union. While Local 164´s 670 members were earning a wage and benefit package of about $22 per hour, that cost would be about $12 per hour in Brownsville, he said.
Mr. Taylor said the Texas facility would be "much more efficient" than Des Moines, and added in January 1998 that he would "have no problem making Des Moines into a warehouse." The fact that Titan and the USWA would soon be starting major negotiations for a new contract in Des Moines simply made the situation more volatile.
"In the Brownsville plant´s infant stages, it seemed it would be a great complement to our business," Mr. Peno said. "Then it became a hammer to take our jobs away."
Four months later, Local 164 was on strike, with one of the issues being job security concerns caused by Brownsville´s pending status. By June, Mr. Taylor threatened to begin moving tire-building and curing machinery to Brownsville from Des Moines if negotiations didn´t improve.
Within days, Local 164 filed several unfair labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board, including ones related to the threat to move jobs and equipment to Texas.
In February 1999, the USWA won its NLRB case against Titan on several issues, including the Brownsville-related charges. Titan has appealed the decision.
Even before the NLRB ruling was handed down, Brownsville had become a target for the USWA, whose cause against Titan and Mr. Taylor now included Steelworkers Local 303, which struck at Titan´s tire plant in Natchez, Miss., on Sept. 15, 1998.
The union pointed to the many delays in Brownsville and claimed Titan was ignoring the NLRB by moving equipment out of Des Moines and Natchez and shipping it south.
Just 11 days after the labor board decision, the USWA released photographs and videotape showing the inside of the plant and several pieces of old, unusable equipment.
Mr. Taylor answered by saying the Brownsville factory was in the first part of a three-year, four-phase project, and said the strikes had hurt ramp-up production because resources slated for Texas had been kept in Des Moines and Natchez. Mr. Peno disputed Mr. Taylor´s claims.
"Until the pictures inside Brownsville were shown, no one from Titan said it was a phase-by-phase project that would take that long," he said. "Morry said by 1998 it would be up and running. Our strike hadn´t affected anything at that point."
The USWA also turned to the package of money, tax incentives and wage subsidies granted to Titan by local and state agencies in Texas as evidence that Mr. Taylor wasn´t keeping his promises, especially with the numerous delays at the plant.
The union claimed the company was wasting the $30 million package it received as incentive to locate in Brownsville.
Tom Johnson, a USWA communications technician, said under the conditions of one of the grants, Titan had to hire 375 employees by the end of 1999 to qualify for the benefits.
As of the end of the first quarter of 2000, the plant employed 230.
"We think Morry´s biggest crime is running a scam and using the money to finance a war against us," Mr. Peno said. "If that´s what´s happening, it´s wrong, because he promised people jobs here. We think the people in Brownsville should be asking questions about their money."
Rick Luna, Brownsville´s director of community development, said that except for upfront, pre-construction costs, such as site development, Titan must deliver on what it says to earn the incentives.
"The monies are contingent on meeting targets; it isn´t all or nothing," Mr. Luna said. "In 1999, the company met 51 percent of its employment goals, so they received 51 percent of the available money. If they did nothing, they´d get nothing."
Mr. Luna also said that only about $6.5 million of the estimated $30 million package is cash. Much of it is savings-related, on operations costs, sales and franchise taxes, utilities and training costs, he said.
The USWA will continue to plug away at Titan and Mr. Taylor and try to show the Brownsville facility isn´t what it appears to be, especially given the time and money it has taken to build and start running it, Mr. Peno said.
He also believes Mr. Taylor´s plan to run a low-cost plant offering wage packages in the $8-per-hour or lower range will lead to a union stepping in.
"I´m confident. I have no doubts that plant will be organized," he said. "Eventually he´ll treat the workers and the community the way he has everywhere else."
Mr. Taylor, when reminded of the USWA´s goal, repeated a line he´s said several times since his fight with the union began two years ago: "They´ll never get Brownsville." ©