ST. LOUIS (Aug. 18, 2000)—While Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. mulls a future now clouded with lawsuits and a multimillion unit recall stemming from accidents occurring on its sport-utility vehicle and light truck tires, one other problem still looms: settling contracts with its unionized labor force.
But there may be a bright spot in the negotiation process with the United Steelworkers that has spanned five months and ultimately will affect four contracts and 8,000 organized Bridgestone/Firestone workers at nine U.S. plants.
The company made an extensive master contract offer to the USWA Aug. 15. The union is reviewing it and planning a response, though no future meeting date has been set, a USWA spokesman said Aug. 17.
Previous to the past two weeks, talks had been slow and the two sides had been substantially apart on a number of issues. But the union believes the recall and the pending lawsuits are separate issues and haven´t affected contract negotiations, the spokesman said.
The financial effects of the recall and the growing number of legal actions seeking damages for fatal and injurious mishaps won´t be nominal. Early estimates on costs to the company for the recall alone—6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires—range from $350 million to $500 million.
Those figures aren´t far off from the one-year cost of a master contract package.
But other factors have led the talks with Bridgestone/Firestone to this point, the USWA spokesman said. All but one local involved in negotiations is working on an post-expiration extension agreement which either side can terminate with 14 days notice (USWA Local 787 in Bloomington, Ill., can terminate within five days).
Plus, USWA Local 1155 at the company´s Warren County, Tenn., plant overwhelmingly rejected a six-year contract proposal July 21.
The tire maker did not return calls seeking comment.
Talks began in March, and after the USWA selected the Nashville, Tenn.-based firm as its bargaining pattern target in April, the industry has been waiting for the results.
"Our talks with the company have been going on for some time," the spokesman said. "All the issues are on the table. This news, as sobering as it is, shouldn´t affect what we´ve been working towards."
The USWA revealed little of the contents of the Bridgestone/Firestone proposal. The union spokesman did say it appeared the company was "not pursuing some of the takeaways" it was seeking earlier in negotiations.
David Meyer, associate professor of management at the University of Akron´s College of Business Administration, said if the company is hurt as badly as projected, there may not be the money to give the union the financial pact it wants.
But it may be an opportunity for the union to make gains on some non-wage items it has sought in the past, Mr. Meyer said. Some of the sticking points in the negotiations are related to seniority, job security, health and safety, mandatory overtime and work rules.