WASHINGTON (May 14, 2001)–-Just days after marking the third anniversary of the longest strike in U.S. tire industry history, Steelworkers in Des Moines, Iowa, got some good news in their ongoing battle against Titan International Inc.
On May 3, United Steelworkers Local 164 received word that a National Labor Relations Board appeals panel upheld a prior agency ruling finding Titan violated federal labor law in its dealings with the union at its Des Moines farm tire plant.
But Maurice Taylor Jr., Titan CEO and president, said this decision, like the original ruling, didn´t levy monetary damages against the company. Titan´s fortunes will change when the case enters the federal court system, the next step in the appeals process, he added.
The appeal decision, handed down April 30 by a three-judge panel, affirmed the Feb. 11, 1999, ruling of Jerry Hermele, NLRB administrative law judge, that Titan committed several unfair labor practices against members of Local 164. The union´s 670 members staffed the Des Moines facility before going on strike against tire and wheel manufacturer Titan on May 1, 1998.
Mr. Hermele´s original 1999 decision ordered Titan to "cease and desist" from several unfair labor practices, including the transfer, or threat of transfer, of equipment or bargaining unit jobs from Des Moines; threats of permanent replacement of union workers or implementation of a unilateral offer without having reached an impasse; and discontinuing insurance benefits for employees on leave at the time the strike began.
The April 30 decision backed Mr. Hermele and reaffirmed his order to restore production operations in Des Moines to the level they were when the strike began; provide information to the union regarding the transfer of equipment and jobs, specifically to Titan´s Brownsville, Texas, tire plant; bargain in good faith with the union; revoke the implementation of the company´s "last, best and final" offer from June 1998; and reinstate benefits to 24 employees who were on leave when the strike began.
Local 164 President John Peno called the decision "monumental."
"All along, we have been certain that we have been doing the right thing," he said. "This order, upholding (Mr.) Hermele´s original decision, confirms that."
The panel´s ruling also calls for Titan to post a notice at the Des Moines plant explaining the order and notifying the NLRB within 21 days that the company has taken steps to correct the labor law violations.
Mr. Taylor, however, still has problems with the interpretation of some of Titan´s actions by the NLRB and plans to point them out when he takes his appeal to the 8th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.
For example, he said he still doesn´t understand how the conversion of the Des Moines walkout from an economic strike to an unfair labor practice strike–under which the hiring of permanent replacement workers is illegal–-is based upon a news conference. The NLRB ruled that Mr. Taylor violated the National Labor Relations Act at a May 14, 1998, conference by threatening to move equipment to Brownsville and reduce the production work force to 300 if the labor dispute with Local 164 wasn´t settled.
Mr. Taylor maintains that his May 14 comments were a result of decisions by tire makers Pirelli Tire North America Inc. and Continental General Tire Inc. to remove molds from the plant. His statements from the conference also appeared in the NLRB ruling without the questions that prompted them, leaving him wondering if they were taken out of context.
He also questioned why, when the law forbids him to talk to workers directly during a strike, his comments to the press can be used in an NLRB action as "threats."
Titan also contended in the NLRB hearings that the work transferred out of Des Moines involved small-to-medium tires that were no longer being manufactured there, and that the transfer decision was made before the strike began. The judges didn´t agree.
As long as the dispute´s status remains an unfair labor practice strike, Local 164 members can return to work via an unconditional offer.
If through the appeals process the status was reverted back to an economic strike, the current non-union work force would be made permanent and could decertify the union as the bargaining unit, Taylor said.
"Things worked out better than I expected," he said. "I´m interested to see what happens."
Local 164 officials, however, are confident the same conclusions will be drawn at the next level as well. "I´ve seldom seen language that names an individual as being directly responsible for prolonging a labor dispute, as Taylor is here,´´ said Tom Johnson, a USWA communications technician. "The panel upheld every issue in the complaint. We think that´s significant."
Mr. Dawson writes for Rubber & Plastics News, a sister publication of Tire Business.