DECATUR, Ill.-Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s tentative plans to close its Decatur tire plant by year-end are now official.
The company announced Aug. 15 it had finalized its decision to shutter the facility, a move that will cost more than 1,800 jobs. John McQuade, Bridgestone/Firestone vice president of manufacturing operations, said the closure is the only option to ``adequately address the severe overcapacity issue that is facing our company.''
The Nashville-based tire maker announced June 27 it was issuing a six-month plant closure notice to the United Steelworkers of America, which represents the production workers in Decatur. Bridgestone/Firestone cited a need to reduce U.S. production capacity to line up with decreased demand and ``strengthen the company's core operations.''
Negotiators for the company and USWA Local 713 met several times over the seven-week period between the two announcement dates, but the original decision stood. The two sides will continue to meet ``to reach agreement on the effects of this closure,'' Mr. McQuade said. No layoff schedule has been worked out, but the target date to close the plant is Dec. 31.
``As I have said before, this is a painful decision, but one that is necessary to ensure the company's financial health and viability,'' he said.
Local 713 President Roger Gates said the company had an obligation to come to the table to negotiate following the closure notice, but doesn't believe it made an earnest attempt to keep the Decatur plant open.
The facility was brought to the forefront of the ongoing Ford Motor Co.-Firestone controversy when the tire maker announced its voluntary recall of 6.5 million Firestone-brand tires, including 2.7 million Decatur-made Wilderness AT tires, last August.
That fact led to speculation about poor tire manufacturing processes and destructive labor/management relations at the plant. Subsequent negative reports-showing how Decatur used different materials and procedures than other Bridgestone/Firestone tire plants and presenting data to support the claim that Decatur-made tires had higher failure rates-didn't help the site's image.
Ford used its data as part of the basis for the recall of an additional 13 million Wilderness tires in May.
``We think we were made the scapegoat by Firestone and Firestone by Ford,'' Mr. Gates said. ``Ultimately, we paid the price here.''
There are between 1,200 and 1,300 Local 713 members currently working at the plant, down from about 1,700 last fall. The company laid off about 450 workers beginning last fall as part of a multi-plant inventory reduction. Mr. Gates affirmed the layoffs were one more bad outcome stemming from the recall.
Bridgestone/Firestone said in June that the plant's age-it was built as a World War II tank plant in 1942 before the company bought it and renovated it for tire production in 1963-was a big factor in its decision. The company, which took a one-time charge of $210 million at the half-year point to cover the closing's cost, also said it would save $100 million per year through the closure.
But Mr. Gates believes the tire maker eventually will miss the factory's flexibility. Decatur makes passenger and light truck tires in a variety of models and sizes and has the ability to handle short runs and product changes as well as any plant, he said.
``I don't think we've ever been given the credit we deserve,'' he said. ``We've had the worst ticket mix possible, and yet we've made it work.''
The facility was operating at about 50 percent of its 30,000-tires-per-day capacity at the time of the original closure announcement.
As for the Local 713 members, they're in shock from the news, Mr. Gates said. And they're bitter toward both their employer and Ford. ``They've been made scapegoats, and they don't like it,'' he said.
One positive note is that the benefits provided by the master contract agreement with Bridgestone/Firestone last September will ease the blow somewhat, Mr. Gates said. There also remains a remote possibility that the plant could be sold to a buyer that could make use of the current workers.
``The company doesn't look like they'll have a use for it,'' he said. ``The sooner someone would come forward the better. I know one thing: They'd have a good work force available.''
The closing also affects the facility's 200-plus non-union employees. Mr. Gates said some of those people may be in worse shape than his members because the union has better benefits in some areas.
The Decatur saga won't be over, however, until the workers are out of the plant for good, he said. ``We're not giving up yet,'' he said. ``We've survived strikes and being permanently replaced and animosity we didn't think would ever end. I'm proud of our history. But we definitely have our work cut out for us.''