The United Steelworkers (USW) may have had good intentions when it planned nationwide protests against Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. at more than 150 retail tire dealerships, but for several of those dealers the message didn't go over too well.
As an act of solidarity, USW members across the U.S. opted to hold a “day of action” Jan. 14 protesting Cooper's decision to lock out 1,050 workers represented by USW Local 207L at its Findlay tire plant after the union voted down the company's last, best and final labor contract proposal in November.
According to a spokesman for the USW, the participating union members hoped to gain the support of Cooper tire dealers in their struggle against the company. But for independent tire dealer Dennis Leipold, whose Leipold Tire Co. store in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, near Akron was one of the picketed locations, it felt more like an attack on his business.
“That's what really angered me was their tactic,” Mr. Leipold told Tire Business. “Instead of coming in and telling us they had labor union problems over in Findlay and they wanted us to support them, they show up, interfere and disrupt and then they come in afterward and ask us to sign a paper saying we support them.
“You got things backwards here.”
Mr. Leipold said he declined to sign the letter supporting the USW's cause, and even had to call police after a few of the union's protesters blocked his driveway for a time.
“(The union members) have a valid point, but I'm not responsible,” he said. “Go to the CEO's home and the board members' front driveways, but don't bite the hand that feeds you.”
Bill Gault, store manager at Pittsburgh-based John Varney Tire & Auto, said he and owner John Varney were upset when protesters showed up at the shop on Jan. 14.
“On Saturday, probably about 30 people just walked right into the showroom here, one of them came up to me and said they were protesting the Cooper Tire strike,” Mr. Gault said. “I knew a little bit about it, but what I didn't understand was, why are they picking on me? I sell not only Cooper, I sell Firestone, I sell Goodyear, I sell anything that comes down the road—I don't understand why they picked me of all stores.”
Mr. Gault, whose company has sold tires for at least 10 years, said he told several other local dealers who handle Cooper tires about the protesters “because I wanted to warn them, and they were upset over it.”
A spokesman for the USW told Tire Business the “day of action” event was not designed to picket dealerships, but rather to inform the public about the situation between Cooper and its unionized workforce. “Classifying what took place as pickets is probably the reason they were disappointed,” he said. “We weren't there to picket. We were there to educate folks, that's all. We distributed handbills and held signs that called attention to Cooper's bad behavior.
“It's unfortunate that Cooper has forced its own employees to seek support from outside dealerships” he continued, “and forced its own employees to take their case to the public when their differences should be resolved at the bargaining table.”
Cooper Tire locked out its Findlay workforce Nov. 28 and hired temporary replacement workers to make tires at the plant. The company has cited concern of dual work stoppages at its Findlay and Texarkana, Ark., plant—where unionized workers and Cooper have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract to replace the one that expired Jan. 20—as the primary reason for locking out the workers.
No negotiations have taken place between the sides since December.
In a letter sent to its dealer members Jan. 13, the Tire Industry Association (TIA) informed them of the USW's plans. The letter included a copy of a posting from the USW promoting the action along with a copy of a letter Cooper Tire sent out to dealers warning them about the event.
“TIA feels that their (USW's) actions are not in any way hurting Cooper, but they are unfairly hurting the retailer,” said Mark Cook, director of communications for TIA.
Cooper Tire did not respond to Tire Business requests for comment on the protests.
The USW spokesman said the demonstrators were all volunteers made up of members of various local unions across the country, as well as other organized groups of supporters.
He said the goal of the event was not to target tire dealerships, but to “start a conversation with the tire-buying and -selling public about who makes the tires and what goes into it.”
“Having that opportunity to explain and educate people—especially the tire-buying public—having that opportunity is something we wouldn't have had if we didn't have people standing out there,” he said. “…Tire dealerships and service centers are the exact place you want to have that conversation with people.”
But for some dealers that message wasn't as clear as the USW intended.
“It would've been more productive had they walked in and said, ‘Hey, we represent the workers in Findlay, Ohio, and we'd like to have you support us to get the corporate and union back together in talks,'” Mr. Leipold said. “I would've signed it—but not after you come in and do the bully routine.”
Mr. Leipold noted that while the USW's goal may have been to inform people about the situation between Cooper and its employees, those who drove by the building may have seen it only as a protest of his shop. He added that the union members have valid grievances, “but they're wrong in the sense that you don't go picketing the guy selling their tires for 30 years.
“I'm a mid-American guy and so are my 25 employees. Don't try to disrupt my business with your pickets.”
Mr. Gault said the one positive thing that came from the protests was “it made people aware that we sell tires here,” but the event likely had more of an impact on dealers than on Cooper.
The USW spokesman maintained that “Cooper Tire picked the fight with a specific group of employees.... I think Saturday's actions across the country shows that it's not 1,050 people in Findlay, Ohio, it's hundreds of thousands of families throughout the country who are tired of their employers squeezing them.”