ST. LOUIS (Sept. 7, 2000)—Labor Day, an early September holiday when most people do very little, truly may have lived up to its name this year.
At about 2:30 a.m. Sept. 4, negotiators for tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and the United Steelworkers of America reached three-year tentative agreements on contracts covering nine company plants that employ about 8,000 union members.
The agreements, which will be sent to locals for ratification votes over the next two weeks, may prevent a strike that further would have injured a company reeling from a massive tire recall, a growing number of lawsuits and overwhelming negative publicity.
Having achieved substantial progress and facing a contract extension deadline and strike threat at midnight on Friday, Sept. 1, the two sides decided to keep working through the weekend. Two days later, after around-the-clock bargaining, the tentative pact was reached.
A USWA spokesman said that reaching a contract with the company without having to resort to a work stoppage had been a union priority since negotiations began. "We think it´s a fair agreement," the spokesman said.
The two sides had been bargaining since March. Union members were working without contracts, all of which expired earlier this year. The union gave a two-week extension termination notice Aug. 18.
Three separate contracts will be sent to members for ratification votes. The master agreement will include 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; Local 884 in Russellville, Ark.; and Local 1055 in LaVergne, Tenn.
Local 1055 previously had a separate contract with Bridgestone/Firestone. Local 1155 in Warren County, Tenn., and Local 787 in Bloomington, Ill., will continue to have their own deals with the company.
All three agreements, if ratified, will run through April 23, 2003.
Bridgestone/Firestone believes the proposal was "competitive and fair," a company spokeswoman said. The agreements required compromise between the two sides—but not at the expense of product quality, she said.
While the USWA did not want to detail too much of the pacts before ratification, union sources did confirm wage and pension increases, cost-of-living adjustments and improvements in seniority and attendance guidelines and grievance and arbitration procedures. Mandatory overtime also was removed from the table by the company, the USWA spokesman said.
Union members—who earn between $9 and $19 per hour, depending on experience—will receive a 20-cents-per-hour raise upon ratification; another 20 cents on Sept. 1 of next year; and another 25 cents per hour Sept. 1, 2002. The members also will receive a $1.60 raise in October for back COLA wages, which had been tied to unattained production.
Further quarterly COLA payments will not be connected to production goals, said Randy Gordon, vice president of Local 713 in Decatur.
The pension multiplier also will be raised to $50 per month per year of service from the current industry standard of $41 per month per year of service. For a 30-year worker, that´s a retirement benefit increase to $1,500 per month from $1,230 per month.
While the plants will remain on continuous production schedules, with workers on 12-hour shifts, union members also will return to a rotation of three-day weekends every other weekend, Mr. Gordon said. Holiday shifts no longer will be mandatory, but will be voluntary at a triple-time rate of pay, he said.
Decatur workers initially are excited about the new agreement, Mr. Gordon said. The contract is better than the one negotiated in 1996, in which the union believes it took many concessions, he said.
But Decatur´s 1,800 union workers also have had to endure the scrutiny of the investigations surrounding the recent recall of 6.5 million Firestone Radial ATX, Radial ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. The Wilderness tires—about 2.7 million—plus portions of the other tires, were made in Decatur.
"This soothes some of the wounds," Mr. Gordon said. "I don´t see a problem with our people voting for the contract."
While union and company officials have downplayed the effect of the recall and the pending lawsuits resulting from injury- and death-causing accidents in vehicles equipped with Bridgestone/Firestone tires, it may have expedited the process, the USWA spokesman said.
"The company had to deal with fires on different fronts," he said. "If the issue had dragged on, it may have lost focus. We wanted to bring negotiations to a conclusion and move forward, but that was always our strategy."