PITTSBURGH—The United Steelworkers of America would have liked the process to go a bit faster, but still believes the 61/2 months devoted to negotiating its new contracts with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. was "time well spent."
With the final ratification vote Sept. 20, the union and company secured three contracts covering nine BFS tire and non-tire plants and about 8,000 workers through April 23, 2003. The signing of the pacts, which are retroactive to April 23 of this year—when the previous master contract expired—completed a bargaining process that officially began March 6.
"You never know how quick it will go or how it's going to work out, but for the most part, we thought it was going to get done," said USWA Executive Vice President John Sellers. "It wasn't easy, but there were always indications we'd get there."
After getting through a long spring/summer negotiating period in St. Louis, a couple of contract rejections, a two-week extension deadline and a marathon Labor Day weekend session, bargaining committees for both sides reached a tentative agreement Sept. 4.
The locals took the next two weeks to approve the deals, including the separate pacts for workers in Bloomington, Ill., and Warren County, Tenn.
The USWA said it made "major gains" in important economic and work condition areas. It also was able to set a bargaining pattern for future 2000 negotiations with tire companies, including Goodyear and Michelin North America Inc.'s Uniroyal Goodrich units.
BFS said the agreements are "competitive and fair."
Through the contracts, workers will receive a 20-cent wage increase immediately, a 20-cent raise on Sept. 1 of next year and a 25-cent raise on Sept. 1, 2002. A $200 one-time payment to each worker will cover the time back to April 23.
More importantly, the company will restore a 100-percent guaranteed cost-of-living allowance, with wage adjustments no longer attached to performance. Prior "at-risk" adjustments will be returned in weekly wages, meaning employees could receive COLA amounts of between $1.26 per hour and $1.82 per hour, depending on location.
With the general wage increases and potential COLA adjustments through the end of the contract, workers could get increases of up to $2.30 per hour.
The new $50 pension multiplier, up from $34 per month per year of service, pushes benefits past what was the tire industry standard of $41. The minimum monthly pension payment for a retiree with 30 years of service is now $1,500, up 47 percent from $1,020.
The early retirement pension supplement also was increased to $340 per month from $50.
The unions also received improvements in many work-condition-related areas, including seniority, overtime, the grievance procedure, subcontracting, attendance and safety and health. The safety and health language included provisions saying employees can't be required to work in "unsafe" conditions, and that the company must provide regular safety training and conduct rescue drills.
The union called the new provisions "among the finest in any Steelworker contract anywhere."
One set of issues that Mr. Sellers believes will make future negotiations more efficient are the common expiration date for these contracts and common bargaining location for the next round of talks.
With people spread out in various cities and different deadlines set for each contract, there was much time wasted trying to organize things and traveling, he said.
David Meyer, associate professor of management at the University of Akron's College of Business Administration, said the contract is a good one, especially for future retirees. But Bridgestone/Firestone's viability may be put to question because of the Wilderness AT and Firestone ATX recall that began in August, plus the lawsuits stemming from it, he said.
"The Firestone brand could be finished, and it could be five to seven years before we see closure on the recall problem," he said. "If the company keeps its plants open, gets its product out and keeps consumers buying it, it should survive. But the workers always seem to pay the penalty for a company's problems."