DES MOINES, Iowa-The two longest strikes in tire industry history may be over by the end of September pending ratification votes of the union locals involved.
The United Steelworkers of America announced Sept. 7 tentative agreements were reached with tire and wheel manufacturer Titan International Inc. on contracts with USWA Local 164 in Des Moines and USWA Local 303 in Natchez, Miss. The striking locals staff Titan's tire manufacturing facilities at those locations.
Quincy, Ill.-based Titan's proposal in Des Moines is for a five-year pact, to lapse in December 2006. The offer addresses the main issues over which Local 164 struck, including forced overtime, increased wages, the company's two-tier wage system, job security and pension.
The possible implementation of a defined pension plan is a shocker. Titan was dead-set on not offering a pension plan before the strike, insisting its 401(k) and profit sharing packages provided sufficient retirement incentives. Now, if the contract is ratified, the workers will have a pension through the union's Steelworkers Pension Plan, the USWA said.
``This was a monumental move for the company,'' said Local 164 President John Peno.
The proposal includes seniority rights for union workers choosing to come back to the plant, where Titan makes farm and construction tires. Mr. Peno has predicted the number of union members who would return out of the original 670 strikers at about 400, but insists he isn't sure.
``I want them all back, but I understand that many have gotten other jobs and moved on with their lives,'' he said.
Those jobs remaining will be filled by replacement workers hired during the bitter 3-year-old strike. Titan President and CEO Maurice Taylor Jr. has said he will find work for permanent replacements who helped him keep the plant open during the walkout.
``We've always been able to focus on what we have to do, and I thought we did a pretty good job,'' he said. ``We could have gone on without a settlement, but it's time to get going now.''
Workers with high seniority also will have an early retirement program to consider, Mr. Peno said. The option may be worth looking at, given the addition of a pension, he said.
In Natchez, the deal will have the same length and contain most of the same highlights of the Des Moines offer. The wage offer for the Natchez local is on average $1 per hour less than that for Local 164, said Local 303 President Leo T. Bradley.
While his workers will have seniority rights as well, the number of those who will return to vote on the contract or return to their jobs is up in the air, he said.
There were 317 Local 303 members, with slightly more than 100 on layoff, when the strike began Sept. 15, 1998. As far as he knows, the workers who were on layoff are permitted to vote, Mr. Bradley said.
``I expect between 250 and 300 people at the ratification meeting,'' he said.
The biggest wild card in Natchez, however, is the status of the tire plant itself. The facility was mothballed in the spring because of bad economic conditions in the U.S. manufacturing industry.
Mr. Bradley said he was told the shutdown could last as long as 18 months. ``It might be hard to get people to vote for something that uncertain,'' he said.
The offer to Local 303 does have successorship language, however, meaning if another company buys the Titan plant it will have to negotiate with the USWA, Mr. Bradley said.
A ratification vote on the deal for Local 164 in Des Moines was put on hold Sept. 18 over questions about health insurance in the tentative agreement, according to a union spokesman.
During final proofreading of the company's proposal-Titan and USWA negotiators reached a tentative agreement Sept. 7-union leaders noticed health coverage for surviving spouses of retirees hadn't been clarified in the document as negotiated, the spokesman said.
The local's members consider the issue important enough to get more information from the company and make sure the language is acceptable before going to a vote, he said.
The Natchez local has its own contract vote Oct. 2, according to Mr. Bradley.
Titan President and CEO Maurice Taylor Jr. said the union could take all the time it needs, since they're the ones who are on strike. He added that as far as he knew, nothing had changed from the company's perspective on any issue.
It will be the first vote taken by either local on Titan proposals. Mr. Taylor has criticized the USWA during the strikes for not allowing its members to accept or reject an offer themselves.
``Work stoppages are never beneficial for either side of a labor dispute,'' Mr. Taylor said. ``We are encouraged that the membership will be given a chance to vote, and we are hopeful that it will be approved. Putting this issue behind us will allow Titan to focus available resources on company growth.''
Mr. Peno and Mr. Bradley have both contended they never saw a package worth taking to the members until now.
``I'm going to recommend it,'' Mr. Peno said.
In addition to the economic and back-to-work issues, the two sides also settled some of the legal disputes that developed during the strike, he said.
Unfair labor practice complaints and hearing results through the National Labor Relations Board will be resolved.
A multimillion-dollar racketeering lawsuit filed by Mr. Taylor against the Steelworkers and a complaint filed against Titan's board of directors by shareholders belonging to Local 164 also will be dropped, Mr. Taylor said.
If a deal is ratified immediately, Local 164 members could be back in the plant as early as Oct. 1, Mr. Peno said.
However, Mr. Taylor said it could take longer to ``get things sorted out.''