DES MOINES, Iowa-The longest strike in tire industry history may be nearing an end.
Titan International Inc. and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) are on the brink of settling their bitter dispute, reaching tentative agreement on many issues save for a return-to-work accord.
But even with an agreement in the offing, both sides have followed the pattern of the past 39 months-and found something on which to disagree.
Titan issued a news release Aug. 2 saying the two sides reached a tentative agreement on ``terms and conditions of a five-year-plus contract.'' But the company also said that some issues had to be resolved, including a back-to-work agreement.
USWA Local 164, whose 670 members struck against Titan at its Des Moines farm tire plant on May 1, 1998, responded by saying a tentative deal had not been struck, but rather that agreements on several issues had been reached, with a back-to-work arrangement to come. A USWA spokesman at the time said the Titan statement was ``premature and incorrect.''
Local 164 President John Peno insisted that without a comprehensive plan in place addressing how and when workers would be brought back to the plant, there was no deal.
Titan President and CEO Maurice Taylor Jr. said he wanted to get the news of a tentative agreement out before rumors about a deal started. ``We're a public company,'' he said. ``Our stockholders deserve to know where we are on this.''
Mr. Peno wouldn't confirm whether the major sticking points of the dispute-including wages, forced overtime, pension, the two-tiered wage system and job security-have been settled in the recent negotiations. But Mr. Taylor said Aug. 7 that an agreement covering the union workers' return to the facility is the only real issue left.
Negotiators for the union and company were scheduled to meet again in Des Moines Aug. 8. Mr. Peno said he's confident both sides will come to the table to settle. ``We're as close as we have been since this thing started,'' he said.
The two sides re-established bargaining in February after not meeting for 18 months. In addition to negotiating inactivity, the strike has been laden with unfair labor charges, lawsuits, picket line disturbances and various accusations flying across the battle lines.
Mr. Peno said productive negotiating has been sporadic since February, but the sessions the week of July 30 were as intense as any they've had. ``We had some late nights, and then were back up and going again at 7:30,'' he said.
In addition to the main issues that spurred the walkout, negotiators also need to address questions about replacement workers. Titan began hiring replacements shortly after the strike began, and the plant currently employs about 500 non-union production workers.
Mr. Taylor said he will find jobs for the replacements, either in Titan's Des Moines factory, a distribution subsidiary or another location. ``They don't have to worry,'' he said of the non-union workers. ``We've made that decision. We'll run our facilities, point blank and simple.''
He believes a relatively small number of striking union workers will come back to the plant, as many of them have quit and found other jobs. Some may also choose to retire after a deal is secured, he said.
Mr. Peno said he expects between 400 to 450 Local 164 members to return. He estimated that 70 to 80 of the workers have taken jobs with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. at its Des Moines tire plant.
``Are they going to leave those jobs? Probably not,'' he said.
While Titan and the Steelworkers may be on the verge of ending the longest of tire strikes, the second-longest industry labor dispute is far from over. USWA Local 303's members struck at Titan's Natchez, Miss., tire plant in September 1998, and now is dealing with another major problem besides their jobs: Titan mothballed the Natchez facility earlier this year.
Mr. Taylor said the plant might be reopened for production when economic conditions allow it.