NATCHEZ, Miss.-Union workers at Titan International Inc.'s Natchez tire facility approved a new five-year contract Dec. 9, ending the second-longest strike in tire and rubber industry history.
The settlement-coupled with the September ratification of a similar contract at Titan's Des Moines farm tire plant-gives the Quincy, Ill.-based tire and wheel maker some labor peace for the first time in more than 31/2 years.
But unlike their brethren at United Steelworkers Local 164 in Des Moines, Iowa, members of USWA Local 303 in Natchez won't be returning to work anytime soon. That's because the tire plant there has been idle since the spring because of unfavorable economic conditions.
Local 303 President Leo T. Bradley said given the uncertainty of the Natchez factory's future, the deal was the best the union could do. As part of the agreement, Titan said it would maintain the plant up through November 2002. But if Maurice Taylor Jr., the company's CEO and president, decides to close the facility, the union will be helpless to stop it.
``Sometimes your principles are all you have to fight with,'' Mr. Bradley said. ``It's been a long, hard road, and we're ready to get back to work when we get the chance.''
Mr. Taylor called the 39-month strike's end a ``welcome development.''
``This is a unique situation in which the union members have accepted a contract while the facility is not currently in operation,'' he said. ``Titan will continue to concentrate on building our market share for off-highway wheel and tire assemblies through innovative product development.''
The two strikes, along with the recent agricultural market decline and general economic downturn, have hurt Titan's sales and profits since 1998. Mr. Taylor has said he expects 2002 to be an improved year, meaning the Natchez plant could be a big part of the company's near future.
Negotiators for Titan and the USWA first reached tentative agreement on separate pacts in Natchez and Des Moines on Sept. 7. But after Local 164 ratified its contract Sept. 26, Local 303 rejected its proposal on Oct. 2. Mr. Bradley said the members were concerned not only with job security but with the state of the plant, and some payroll deduction and vacation time issues left over from bankruptcy.
The former plant owner, Condere Corp., filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1997 when the plant operated as Fidelity Tire Manufacturing Co. Titan officially took over the facility in September 1998, and the union struck soon after.
Negotiations between the two sides resumed, and after working out some of the outstanding issues, another tentative agreement was reached Nov. 15.
USWA officials toured the plant the last week of November to verify what equipment was inside, and the vote date was set. About 77 percent of the voting members approved the pact.
Like the Des Moines contract, which ended the longest strike-40 months-in industry history, the Natchez deal includes wage increases, a new defined pension benefit plan, seniority and recall privileges and an early retirement option for eligible workers once the plant reopens.
When-or if-the Natchez facility is back in business, it will be interesting to see how many Local 303 members are back. When the strike started in September 1998, about 140 of 330 members were on layoff, and production levels may not grow to capacity for a long time.
By comparison, only about 265, or 40 percent, of 670 strikers returned in Des Moines, as many chose to retire or quit. Plus, a large portion of employees had already left the company during the dispute.
The USWA agreed to drop unfair labor practice charges filed against the company in Natchez once medical and vacation benefits worked out in the settlement are paid, Mr. Bradley said.
All other labor charges stemming from both strikes have been dropped, but two legal actions-a shareholders lawsuit filed against Mr. Taylor and the Titan board of directors and a federal anti-racketeering suit filed by Titan against the USWA-remain unsettled.
``The agreement addressed the concerns of the membership,'' Mr. Bradley said. ``Now we'll focus on working with the company to reopen the plant,'' he said.