ST. LOUIS—The United Steelworkers turned up the pressure on a company still reeling from negative news by issuing a 14-day strike notice to Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. Aug. 18.
About 8,000 USWA members at nine Bridgestone/Firestone plants have been working under contract extension agreements while negotiations continued. But the notice given will terminate the extensions on Sept. 1, a USWA spokesman said. Contract talks between the union and company started in March.
BFS made a comprehensive proposal to the USWA on Aug. 15, but the union said Aug. 18 it "fell short of resolving critical issues identified by the membership."
The USWA said it is seeking a "comprehensive agreement that improves working conditions, wages and pensions for its members working at all of these Bridgestone/Firestone facilities."
But there have been gaps between the sides in several areas, including medical benefits, insurance co-payments and deductibles, seniority rights, holiday pay and mandatory overtime, the USWA said.
"It's time to bring these negotiations to a conclusion," said John Sellers, USWA executive vice president and chairman of the union's bargaining council for these negotiations. "We expect intensive bargaining to continue. If an agreement is not reached during this time, a strike at every location is most probable."
The termination notice and possible strike will affect the six locals covered by the master contract with BFS, which originally expired April 23: USWA Local 7 in Akron; Local 713 in Decatur, Ill.; Local 310 in Des Moines, Iowa; Local 138 in Noblesville, Ind.; Local 998 in Oklahoma City; and Local 884 in Russellville, Ark.
There also are three locals covered by separate contracts that have worked under extensions since their pacts with the company lapsed: Local 787 in Bloomington, Ill.; Local 1055 in LaVergne, Tenn.; and Local 1155 in Warren County, Tenn.
The USWA has attempted to bring all the locals into the master pact, or at least get common expiration dates, but no agreement has been reached on that issue, either.
Local 1155 is the only unit to vote on a contract offer from BFS during this year's negotiations. Its members rejected a six-year contract offer from the company July 21 by a 589-14 count.
If the workers do strike, Bridgestone/Firestone will be fighting another battle on an ever-growing number of fronts. The Nashville Tenn.-based tire maker earlier this month recalled 6.5 million Firestone Radial ATX, Radial ATX II and Wilderness AT tires—all in the P235/75R15 size—stemming from accidents, mostly involving Ford vehicles on which those tires appear.
The firm is facing an uncounted number of lawsuits as a result of the accidents, many of which caused serious injury and death. There also are potential losses from other tire makers stepping in to replace the recalled tires.
While the two sides have through Sept. 1 to iron out a new pact before a walkout, chances are slim the union will give the company a break in its bleak financial situation, said David Meyer, associate professor of management at the University of Akron's College of Business Administration.
There are still hard feelings from the previous multi-plant labor dispute with BFS in 1994-96, Mr. Meyer said. The United Rubber Workers, which merged with the USWA in 1995, struck for 10 months and took another 17 months to work out a new deal with the firm.
Relations between the two sides have never fully healed, especially with BFS' use of replacement workers at the striking plants, he said. "The union feels that the company threw away good relations and replaced its workers," Mr. Meyer said. "The Steelworkers aren't going to take a hit for something (the recall) it didn't create."
The USWA has already said it doesn't expect the recall and pending lawsuits to affect negotiations, but now the union has set a deadline. Mr. Meyer said if BFS is hurt as badly as projected, it may not have the money to give the union what it wants.
"It's a lose-lose situation," he said. "But the union probably doesn't have a choice but to force the issue. A strike is their only weapon, especially if Firestone's production slows down because people are going elsewhere to replace their tires."
While the near future of its BFS workers is murky at best, the union still has negotiations with several other manufacturers scheduled for 2000. These include master contract talks with workers at Michelin North America Inc.'s Uniroyal Goodrich plants and mid-term re-openers with Goodyear workers.
Those two companies began bargaining with the union back in March as well. But talks were suspended in May after the USWA selected BFS as its 2000 target company for pattern bargaining.