Lawyers and union officials are making common cause in the Firestone Steeltex controversy, while opposing companies say their allegations have no merit.
Joseph L. Lisoni, a Pasadena, Calif., attorney leading a class-action lawsuit against Bridgestone/Firestone and its parent firm Bridgestone Corp., held a news conference Nov. 15 in Washington to publicize his petition that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reopen its investigation of Steeltex tires.
``Our goal is to get these tires off the streets,'' said Mr. Lisoni, who claims he has documented more than 7,000 accidents allegedly caused by failures of Steeltex tires and expects to confirm 3,000 more by the end of November.
Mr. Lisoni was joined by two officials of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union. Because BFS continues to buy carbon black from the Continental Carbon Corp. plant in Ponca City, Okla.-where 86 union members have been locked out since May 2001-this means the tire maker is using inferior carbon black that adds to the weakness in their tires, the PACE officials allege.
A BFS spokeswoman called Mr. Lisoni's various allegations ``totally false'' and ``absolutely outrageous,'' while Continental Carbon accused PACE of making ``reckless allegations'' unrelated to the substantive labor issues at Ponca City.
NHTSA began an investigation of Steeltex tires in September 2000, the month after Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. In April 2002, the agency terminated the probe, saying it had found no defect trend in the tires despite 872 complaints on its database.
``The Department of Transportation made it abundantly clear that it was open-minded toward reopening the investigation if it had sufficient evidence,'' Mr. Lisoni said. ``We feel we have given (Transportation Secretary Norman Y.) Mineta at least sufficient information to reopen the investigation.''
Mr. Lisoni and his staff began investigating Steeltex tires while representing plaintiffs in a wrongful death and injury case involving a van equipped with Steeltex tires. Although BFS settled this case, Mr. Lisoni claims the thousands of similar incidents he uncovered compelled him to ask the tire maker to recall all 30 million Steeltex R4S, R4S II and AT tires. When it refused, he filed the class action in August.
One of the main causes of the problems with Steeltex tires was the ``C95'' cost reduction program instituted at Bridgestone/Firestone by former CEO Masatoshi Ono, according to William Hagerty, Mr. Lisoni's expert witness. The goal of this program, he said, was to cut costs companywide by 5 percent or more annually between 1994 and 1997.
For six years Mr. Hagerty was owner and operator of San Diego-based K&S Tire and Wheel. He told Tire Business he also was, for two years, chief of quality assurance for the Defense Industrial Supply Center in Philadelphia, which made some 500,000 requisitions for goods monthly.
Under BFS's program, Mr. Hagerty said, ``153 separate cost reductions were mandated.'' Among these, he claims, were using off-spec polymers and pigments; reducing natural rubber content; using ``split construction'' techniques; reducing body plies; using thinner steel filaments; and buying cheaper carbon black.
The last point was emphasized by Keith Romig, associate director of national and international affairs for PACE, and Todd Carlson, Continental Carbon bargaining chairman for PACE Local 5-857 at the firm's plant in Ponca City.
``We believe that when the company locked out the highly trained PACE members, who were formally certified by the International Standards Organization, and replaced them with untrained workers, it substantially increased the chances it would be shipping below-spec carbon black to tire makers and other customers,'' Mr. Romig said.
When Continental Carbon locked out its union workers at Ponca City, it also relinquished quality control there, according to Mr. Carlson. ``The company is trying to produce the same amount of carbon black with half the workers, all without experience or certification,'' he said.
They claim Goodyear canceled its contract with Continental Carbon in September, whereas BFS continues to use Ponca City carbon black.
Mr. Lisoni and the union included in their press information a statement from Aubert Y. Coran, retired Distinguished Science Fellow at Monsanto Co. and a Charles Goodyear Medalist. Mr. Coran stated: ``Variations in furnace operation conditions and the presence of impurities could cause changes in colloidal properties and dispersability (in carbon black).''
Reached at his home in Longboat Key, Fla., Mr. Coran said he provided just a general remark on the dispersion of carbon black at PACE's request, and that he hasn't seen the carbon black in question.
``This was a recent consulting gig,'' he said. ``They haven't even paid me for it yet.''
BFS said its early warning system identifies tire defect trends, and in this case, did not. ``We continue to be disappointed that certain plaintiffs' lawyers will try to create fear and concern among the driving public for their own personal gain,'' the firm said in a news release.
The BFS spokeswoman said the C95 program was ``not anything that's new. It was an opportunity to identify ways to make operations more efficient. None of these measures affected quality in any way.''
As for buying carbon black from Continental Carbon, she said, ``Contrary to what Mr. Lisoni says, everybody inspects their incoming materials. We do not rely on anyone's word alone. And in any case, Continental Carbon's quality control people are not replacement workers. They've been there for years and are doing their jobs.''
Told that BFS said its C95 program had nothing to do with quality, Mr. Hagerty stated: ``That defies logic. Tell me how, as the manager of a tire plant, you'd maintain quality after cutting costs 26 percent over five years.''
Even if Mr. Lisoni and PACE's statements about Ponca City carbon black were true, that would have no bearing on the quality of Steeltex tires, the BFS spokeswoman said. Most of the Ponca City carbon black BFS buys goes to its plant in Oklahoma City, which doesn't make Steeltex tires.
In a prepared statement, Continental Carbon said it tests all its products before shipment to ensure they meet customer specifications. It also noted-and Goodyear confirmed-that Goodyear continues to do business with the company.
A Goodyear spokesman said his firm suspended carbon black shipments from Ponca City only, because ``we found some material from Ponca City that did not meet our specifications."