DECATUR, Ill. (Aug. 21, 2000) — United Steelworkers of America union members staffing Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.´s Decatur passenger and light truck tire plant are "bewildered" by the fallout from the company´s massive tire recall, specifically the fingers pointing in their direction.
On Aug. 9, Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS) and Ford Motor Co. announced a recall of 6.5 million Firestone Radial ATX, Radial ATX II and Wilderness AT tires—all in the P235/75R15 size. The Wilderness tires—about 2.7 million of the recalled group—were made in Decatur, as well as a smaller portion of the ATX and ATX IIs, the companies revealed.
BFS also said that tires coming out of Decatur are over-represented in the accident-caused death and injury claims involving Ford vehicles that spurred the recall. Between 60 and 70 percent of the recalled tires appeared as original equipment on Ford vehicles such as the Explorer, Ranger and F-150 light truck.
The Nashville-based tire maker stopped production of the Wilderness tires in Decatur late last year.
But the 1,800 workers who are members of United Steelworkers of America Local 713 in Decatur believe they and their facility have been singled out unfairly a little early in the investigation process, said Larry Werve, the local´s shop steward and a 29-year plant veteran. "There are a lot of questions to be answered," he said.
Every piece of the production process—including design, specifications, testing and quality control—needs to be examined before blame for the tire problems is laid in Decatur, he said.
"There´s craftsmanship involved in making tires, but we do everything by specification, and the company implements their own testing and quality-control procedures," Mr. Werve said. "As far as I know, we haven´t had any testing problems."
BFS has defended its workers and manufacturing processes in Decatur as well.
"Like all Bridgestone/Firestone production facilities, the Decatur plant adheres to stringent standards of quality control where every tire is subject to strict inspection . . . at every step of the manufacturing process, from raw material through finished tire," a company spokeswoman said. "And every production employee, at each of our plants, receives substantial training before they work on the line."
An Aug. 13 story in the Washington Post said six former Decatur workers have testified or plan to testify in lawsuits against the company that quality-control practices were less than ideal. Workers covered up flaws in the tires, inspections were overlooked in time crunches and humid plant conditions may have corroded materials, former employees alleged in the story.
The company rebutted the allegations of what it called "disgruntled employees" by pointing to Decatur´s quality awards from Ford, General Motors Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.; the plant´s QS-9000 certification; and conflicting comments from other Decatur workers who praised the production process there.
"We´re not denying we built the tires that have come under question, but we have no reason to believe the workmanship to be anything less than the best," Mr. Werve said.
"We put out 26,000 tires per day here, and everything is not perfect. But that´s why we have a system of checks and balances."
Mr. Werve added that the plant produces about 100 different types and sizes of passenger and light truck tires at any one time, and currently the count is at about 190. The ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires make up a small portion of the daily tally, he said.
With the Decatur factory producing about 27 percent of the three types of tires in North America and about 50 percent of the suspect tires, that isn´t a "clear reflection" of all the trouble onto Decatur, Mr. Werve said.
Another question being raised is the issue of the tires´ production dates and who made them.
Local 713 members weren´t inside the plant during a 10-month strike by the United Rubber Workers against the company in 1994-95, but replacement workers were.
Reports have been conflicting about the dates: Some say the bulk of the production was done during the strike under the hands of replacement labor, while other sources say the majority of suspect tires were made between 1996 and 1999.
Whatever is discovered during the investigation among Bridgestone/Firestone, Ford and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it is difficult to blame the work force—even the replacements, Mr. Werve said.
"I wasn´t in the plant at the time (of the strike)," he said. "But I know when we went back in we had the same specs and testing we had when we walked out. You can´t point the finger at them, either."
David Meyer, associate professor of management at the University of Akron´s College of Business Administration, said "when there´s a lot of blame to go around, go to the top´´—in this case, to Bridgestone/Firestone management.
"There were a lot of problems at Decatur, as well as other plants, around the time of the strike," Mr. Meyer said. "The company took control away from the employees in many areas, forced overtime and eventually used replacement workers.
"It wasn´t conducive for good relations and efficient production. The environment was ripe for what´s happened there, and the company planted the seed."
For the time being, Local 713 workers only can continue to do their jobs and wait for the investigation´s outcome, Mr. Werve said.
But the last couple of weeks have left the membership feeling somewhat vulnerable.
"As a general rule, we try to go into the plant, do a quality job and earn our paychecks," he said. "We can´t do much about the legal and political end of this. But everything that´s been said leaves us out there a bit."