NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Nov. 21, 2000)—The troubles of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. continued in November, as the tire maker announced further temporary layoffs of 2,000 workers at three plants.
Furthermore, the company faced a USA Today article stating that BFS had approximately 1,100 complaints from Firestone ATX tire owners before it ever began the recall of 6.5 million ATX and Wilderness AT tires, and a court order from an Indianapolis federal judge not to destroy any more recalled tires until some can be gathered as evidence for lawsuits.
On the other hand, BFS reported that the recall is 80-percent complete, with more than 5 million tires replaced.
Beginning Jan. 21, BFS will lay off approximately 700 workers at its Oklahoma City, Okla., tire manufacturing facility and nearly 400 at its plant in LaVergne, Tenn., the company said in a Nov. 17 press release.
In addition, the firm will shut down its Warren County, Tenn., plant the weeks of Jan. 14 and 21, idling the factory´s 900 workers.
These layoffs come on top of BFS´s already announced production curtailments, including the indefinite layoff of 450 workers at the tire plant in Decatur, Ill.
The company also scheduled a two-week curtailment in December for the remaining 1,500 workers at Decatur, as well as two two-week shutdowns in November and December for LaVergne and Oklahoma City.
BFS blamed an oversupply of passenger, light truck and truck/bus tires—based on a buildup of inventory in anticipation of a strike that never came—for the new layoffs, the same reason it gave for the earlier ones. A BFS spokeswoman in Nashville, however, acknowledged that the softness in demand for Firestone replacement tires also played a role.
"As we dig down into inventory, and sales begin to come back, we hope and expect to bring people back beginning in the second quarter of 2001," she said.
BFS said it will provide laid-off workers with "benefits consistent with the company´s policies and with collective bargaining agreements with the United Steelworkers of America." This should translate to up to 80 percent of usual wages, the company said.
Bridgestone/Firestone CEO John T. Lampe met with USWA International President George Becker and with officials of the affected union locals to tell them of the pending layoffs, the spokeswoman said. Officials of USWA Local 1055 in LaVergne and Local 998 in Oklahoma City didn´t return phone calls asking for comments.
The claims mentioned in the Nov. 15 USA Today article were sent to BFS between 1989 and 1999, it stated. The company directed these claimants to call a toll-free telephone number for a claim form.
While there were only 57 claims made between 1989 and 1995, the number surged after that year, with 367 alone in 1998, the article said.
Some of the claimants attached letters to their claim forms, and USA Today quoted from these letters, which were obtained along with the claim forms from court documents that were unsealed at the paper´s motion.
"I cannot believe...Firestone will not take responsibility for the problems associated with these tires," read one letter from Melinda Myers of Pearland, Texas. "I would not want the blood on my hands if I were an employee of your company."
The Nashville spokeswoman said the USA Today story needed "a little bit of balance...We´ve manufactured millions and millions of tires. We received 1,100 claims out of a tire population of 47 million and a recall universe of 14.4 million." (The 6.5-million figure usually given for the recall is the estimated number of the original 14.4 million ATX and Wilderness AT tires still on the road at the time the recall began.)
"It is not realistic to say this number of claims should put a company on alert that there´s an underlying defect in its product," she said.
Meanwhile, the presiding judge in the consolidated Firestone product liability lawsuits ordered BFS to leave the recalled tires alone until some could be culled as evidence.
Sarah Evans Barker, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, issued the ruling Nov. 17 at the first organizational hearing of the multi-district litigation. As of that date, about 160 Firestone cases from across the U.S. had been consolidated in Barker´s Indianapolis court.
BFS attorneys argued that the company must destroy the tires to make sure they don´t get resold and remounted on vehicles. Attorneys for the plaintiffs, however, argued that a representative sample of the tires should be preserved as evidence. Barker ordered destruction of the recalled tires to be halted until both sides can work out a compromise.
A BFS spokeswoman in Indianapolis said the company was still working on its response to the ruling.
Mr. Lampe and other BFS officials still hold to the timetable of finishing the recall by the end of November and issuing the final results by January of the research of Sanjay Govindjee, the Berkeley engineering professor entrusted with finding the underlying causes of the problems with the ATX and Wilderness tires.