PRINCETON, N.J.-Both Bridgestone/Firestone and the United Steelworkers of America blasted a report by two Princeton University economists that said labor unrest at the now-closed BFS plant in Decatur, Ill., was the major cause of quality problems with Firestone tires.
``Using several independent data sources, we find that labor strife in the Decatur plant closely coincided with lower product quality,'' wrote Alan B. Krueger and Alexandre Mas of Princeton.
``Monthly data suggest that the production of defective tires was particularly high around the time wage concessions were demanded by Firestone in early 1994 and when large numbers of replacement workers and permanent workers worked side-by-side in 1996,'' Messrs. Krueger and Mas said.
Some 4,200 workers at Decatur went on strike July 1, 1994, after working without a contract for three months. The dispute between labor and management lasted until December 1996, and was infamous for its bitterness.
Among other things, BFS started hiring replacement workers very soon after the walkout. For another, the United Rubber Workers union merged with the USWA in 1995, and the Steelworkers that July began a worldwide campaign to force the tire maker to rehire some 1,000 Decatur strikers who remained jobless.
When BFS announced its recall of 6.5 million tires on Aug. 9, 2000, 2.7 million of them were Decatur-made Wilderness AT tires. This led immediately to speculation about poor tire manufacturing practices and labor-management war at the facility.
Sanjay Govindjee, the University of California engineering professor who investigated Firestone tire failures for BFS, found among other factors that the interbelt material properties of Decatur-made tires were substantially different and more subject to fatigue than tires made at other Firestone facilities.
BFS finally closed the Decatur plant last Dec. 14, despite intense efforts by the USWA and state and municipal officials to keep it open. The company gave the facility's age-it was built in 1942 as a tank construction site and converted to tire production in 1963-as the main reason for closing it.
In studying the data from Decatur, Mr. Krueger and Mr. Mas found ``a significantly higher incidence of complaints'' about Decatur-made tires during the period of the strike than at other times or at other plants. BFS' own engineering tests showed a higher failure rate among the Decatur tires manufactured during the strike than at other times, they said.
Also, tire complaints were higher at Decatur in the months leading up to the strike, as well as during the period when replacement and striking employees worked side-by-side before the strike ended, they said.
``There is much anecdotal evidence that replacement workers were less-skilled tire makers, and perhaps more prone to build defective tires,'' both men said. They also quoted a USWA document saying that returning strikers were assigned to the worst jobs and harassed or even fired for the smallest infractions.
``We don't believe that is the case at all,'' a BFS spokeswoman said about the report's conclusions. ``We conducted our own extensive engineering analysis, which took into account a number of variables and facts which we don't believe could be present in the research conducted by Princeton.''
A USWA spokesman expressed similar views. ``You have to look at the other issues-the design of the vehicle, the match of vehicle to tire,'' he said.
He accused the Princeton economists of implying that workers at Decatur sabotaged tires, calling that ``insulting to both the workers who struck and the replacement workers.''
Contacted at his Princeton office, Mr. Krueger said the variables BFS and the USWA mentioned could be ruled out, ``because the vehicles were all the same.''
The engineering tests BFS used in its study involved running vehicles with different tires at the same speed and load, Mr. Krueger noted.
``The tires from the Decatur plant that were made during the strike performed less well in those tests,'' he said. ``Based on these and other results, the tires are the key.''