AKRON (Dec. 13, 2000)—Getting up and going to work every day is a treat for some, a struggle for others.
But even the most happy-go-lucky employees would have a difficult time maintaining eight-hour smiles at Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. these days. For the past four months, the recall of 6.5 million 15-inch ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, and all its consequences, has cast a long shadow over the company and its workers.
How long of a shadow? Numerous lawsuits stemming from injuries and deaths in accidents caused by tire separations, congressmen grilling company executives for answers to find the causes of those tire separations, an alleged lack of confidence in the Firestone brand, a deterioration of the company´s relationship with Ford Motor Co. and intense media coverage of all of the above, to start.
And in the past six weeks, reduced demand for replacement tires and a surplus of inventory for protection against a strike led the firm to twice announce layoffs and production cutbacks at four tire plants.
Roger Gates, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 713 in Decatur, Ill., where 450 workers have been on indefinite layoff since Oct. 29, said it doesn´t surprise him that production jobs have been affected by the recall.
"No doubt we´re paying for what has happened," Mr. Gates said. "It´s the way it always works, either through layoffs or some other way."
John T. Lampe, Bridgestone/Firestone chairman, president and CEO, said the decision was difficult, but the company was in a position where it could not support its inventory levels without layoffs and production slowdowns. "We think we´ve announced the actions necessary to get our inventories back in line," Mr. Lampe said. "We want to bring back our employees at all our facilities as quick as we can. It´s very painful to have those people impacted by this, and our goal is to get them back."
Workers in Decatur also have had to deal with scrutiny of production in their plant since the beginning of the recall. A huge portion of the recalled tires—including 2.7 million Wilderness tires—were made in Decatur.
But rumors of the Firestone brand´s fall or Decatur´s closing hasn´t deterred workers from believing in their product, Mr. Gates said. "The bad publicity has waned somewhat, but it resurfaces," he said. "Decatur has been portrayed as the bad guy, but we still feel the plant has taken a hit it doesn´t deserve. There´s still no indication of what the definite problem is."
Garry Manning, president of Local 1055 in LaVergne, Tenn., said his members expected layoffs with the company´s slow tire sales and full warehouses. About 400 workers temporarily will be laid off beginning Jan. 21.
LaVergne also curtailed production from Oct. 29 to Nov. 11 and will do it again Dec. 14 to Jan. 2.
"Everyone´s doing pretty well with it, but there are a lot of questions to be answered," he said.
Mr.Lampe said at the time the second round of layoffs was announced that workers likely would be brought back during the second half of 2001.
Ron Vining, president of USWA Local 1155 in Warren County, Tenn., said he anticipated cutbacks as well. The Warren County facility will shut down during the weeks of Jan. 14 and Jan. 21, affecting about 900 workers.
"Morale is still good," Mr. Vining said. "The company and union have to reiterate that we make quality products here. Unfortunately, all the tire companies are pushing to make their products as fast as possible, and quality can suffer. I hope it will slow down."
Mr. Vining also said he´s optimistic that the announced shutdowns will do the job in clearing inventory. He said the warehouse for his factory´s tires have a 28-day supply, meaning a two-week shutdown should get rid of half the tires.
Mr. Manning said he was told the inventories are about 50 percent higher than normal in LaVergne, Decatur and the Oklahoma City tire plant. Oklahoma City is on a similar curtailment schedule as LaVergne, plus it will undergo a 700-employee layoff in January.
How soon production workers are brought back may depend on the status of the Firestone brand and its sales, said David Meyer, associate professor of management at the University of Akron´s College of Business Administration.
"The company did have some inventory backed up when they thought there might be a strike, but is that the workers´ mistake?" he asked. "In the long run, you have to weigh which of the reasons that there´s no need to make tires is larger: because there´s a huge inventory with no change in the sales rate, or because no one wants to buy the tires. I think it´s far more likely that people have stopped buying tires."
Any potential strike was averted in September when Bridgestone/Firestone and the USWA agreed to a new three-year contract. With the layoffs, cutbacks and uncertain future at the company, it may have been a hollow victory for the union, Mr. Meyer said.
But Mr. Gates, who has worked at Firestone for 34 years, said he doesn´t believe getting the new deal was a hollow victory. The levels attained for pension and wage increases are beyond what he would have expected just a few years ago, he said.
Also, it is a necessity for the union to work together with the company at this time for everyone´s good, Mr. Gates said. "Not that we won´t still have our fights," he said.
Mr. Manning agreed. "It´s the message we´ve always tried to put out to the company—that they need us, and with an attitude of mutual respect, we can make money for them," he said. "Our relationship has been adversarial at times, but we need to put that behind us."
The mood among union members as a group in Decatur has been better than expected, though the layoffs are always tough on junior workers, Mr. Gates said.
"The senior people have been through layoffs before, but the junior people think these jobs are for life," he said. "We try to teach our members that we´ll survive even through the tough times."
Union leaders know the recall hasn´t been easy on the salaried and non-union employees at Bridgestone/Firestone either. "There have been some management changes, and there´s bound to be more," Mr. Manning said. "Jobs are in jeopardy. It´s tough to take."
Mr. Meyer said the mood is probably lousy wherever one goes at the company. "Put yourself, for example, in the position of the engineers, some who may have designed tires in question and who may have to testify in these investigations," he said. "I´d probably be hesitant and very uncomfortable. This whole thing makes the employees´ jobs more difficult to do, but all they can do is the best they can."
From Mr. Lampe´s perspective, morale among Bridgestone/Firestone employees has been very good, with many continuing to show their pride and pledge their support for the company.
"Certainly there are people who are very concerned that we get this recall completed, but we´ve had tremendous support from employees," he said. "We´ve gotten a number of notes not only from staff employees but also from on the line at our facilities."
Most workers at this point just want to see the recall problem solved. r. Manning said he hopes the firm finds out what the real problem with the tires is so no one else is injured. "We don´t want to see anyone hurt by our products, especially those that may have been made by our members," he said.
Mr. Gates said a solution would restore confidence in consumers and a positive attitude in Bridgestone/Firestone employees. "We´d all like this to go away, to be able to point to a problem and say `Here it is, we fixed it,´|" he said. "But now it´s hard to do that, because there´s no defect obvious to (the Wilderness) tire."
And though times have been better in Decatur, the fighter´s mentality will remain. "We plan on keeping the plant open," Mr. Gates said. "We´re going to survive."