Goodyear, Bridgestone/Firestone and Michelin North America Inc. are facing master contract negotiations in the late winter of 2003 with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA).
The participants all acknowledge that negotiations will take place but are tight-lipped about the specific content of those negotiations. Similarly, industry analysts are for the most part unwilling to go out on a limb and make predictions about the potentially volatile situation.
The tacit consensus, however, is that anything could happen. Talks could either be reasonable and peaceable, or there could be the sort of acrimony that ends in months of disrupted tire production and supply.
``The mood is black,'' said David Meyer, associate professor of management at the University of Akron's College of Business Management. ``I would place the chances of a strike at 50-50.''
Here are the bare bones of the upcoming negotiations:
* Goodyear will sit down with USWA representatives in Cincinnati in early March, working to renegotiate the master contract that expires midnight April 19 for nine Goodyear facilities and two Goodyear-Dunlop Tires North America L.L.C. plants. Three of Akron-based Goodyear's Kelly-Springfield plants will not see their contracts expire until July.
* Bridgestone/Firestone is set to start negotiating in early March, probably in St. Louis, with a contract deadline of April 23.
* Michelin will begin negotiations in mid-March in Knoxville, Tenn., to rewrite a master contract that ends April 23.
History has proved that ugliness is always possible in tire-industry labor negotiations.
In 1976, more than 60,000 members of the then-United Rubber Workers (URW) union went out on strike for four months. The ``War of '94'' saw Bridgestone/Firestone workers strike for 10 months in 1994-95, and the Nashville-based tire manufacturer hired thousands of non-union replacement workers. The BFS strike led directly to the merger of the URW and the USWA in 1995.
Sometimes negotiations can be affected by events no one can foresee. The USWA chose Bridgestone/Firestone as its target company in April 2000, anticipating relative peace after the bitterness of 1994. On Aug. 2, 2000, however, the company announced a recall of 14.4 million tires amid growing publicity about tread separations and fatal accidents.
Both sides professed satisfaction with the contract ratified Sept. 20, 2000, but that contract didn't prevent BFS from shutting its Decatur, Ill., plant in increments in 2001, with the loss of 1,800 jobs.
Ironically, some observers alleged that labor strife at Decatur in 1994-95 led to poor quality control at that factory-and that, in turn, caused the tread separations that led to the recall and, eventually, the closing of the Decatur facility.
If there is any tire maker that is likely to have trouble in labor talks in 2003, it's Goodyear. The firm is coming off a year that saw its financial results tumble into the red, its market shares erode, its stock fall into single-digit values for the first time in 11 years and its CEO step down.
``Goodyear is in the difficult position of going to the union and saying, `We would have liked to have turned things around this year, but you haven't been able to help us do that,''' Mr. Meyer said. ``They probably will put it a little more strongly, but that will be the gist.
``The union, for its part, will come back with, `Our members would at least have been able to hold their own, if it weren't for people at the top making some very poor decisions,''' he added.
Management and labor will be coming into negotiations from very different perspectives, Mr. Meyer said, and they will be like two ships passing in the dark: they could either pass each other safely and reach their destinations, or they could collide.
``Half the time that situation leads to a strike, and half the time it leads to compromise,'' he said.
Mr. Meyer admitted, however, that the situation is particularly hard to read this year. ``Neither side is talking, so it's difficult to look into the glass ball,'' he said.
Goodyear didn't go into detail, but a company spokesman said: ``We anticipate some challenges in this round of bargaining, no question about it. Certainly we need to get some reductions in our medical benefits costs, which are going up 15 to 20 percent per year.''
The USWA was just as reticent. ``We're starting to meet, starting to ascertain what our key negotiating items are,'' a spokesman said. ``Everything will depend on the climate that will exist in the spring, and what might be a reasonable bargaining position then.''
Much of the negotiations in the tire industry, as in other industries, will deal strongly with the impact of globalization, according to the USWA spokesman. ``The questions are: `Where are companies investing? Where are they putting new technologies? And how do they plan to service the North American market?''' he said.