AKRON (June 12, 2015) — On May 22 Bridgestone Americas Inc. celebrated the 25-year anniversary of its truck and bus radial tire factory in Warren County, Tenn.
The plant opened roughly two years after Japan's Bridgestone Corp. acquired Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in order to make its big play into the North American market.
But the Warren County plant also holds another distinction: It is the last tire plant in the U.S. or Canada to have been organized by a labor union. And the way in which the then-United Rubber Workers (URW) union came to be the bargaining agent for hourly workers at the Warren plant is a scenario that never would be repeated in today's management-labor climate.
Five years before Bridgestone bought Firestone, it had purchased a Firestone truck tire plant in LaVergne, Tenn. The URW and Bridgestone had a good working relationship at LaVergne, and the tire maker's management in place at the time wanted the same thing at Warren County.
The deal to have Warren County be recognized by a “card check” campaign, rather than a traditional adversarial organizing drive, originally was hatched between then-URW President Mike Stone and Bridgestone executive Nori Takeuchi. The Japanese exec invited Mr. Stone to a secret meeting in Cleveland and laid out his idea to the union official. It had been nearly a decade since the URW had organized a tire plant, so this was an unexpected opportunity.
The formal agreement didn't become a reality until 1991. Kenneth Coss, who defeated Mr. Stone in 1990, and Sam Torrence, Bridgestone/Firestone's lead negotiator at the time, went to the plant together to get employees to sign the cards. Enough did and the site became a URW-represented factory.
Messrs. Coss and Torrence also were instrumental at the time in a program called Partnership for Involvement (PFI), for which the company and union won awards for their collaborative work approach.
The peace between the two sides, though, didn't last much longer. New management found a company losing money with no tangible results from the PFI program. URW members at LaVergne staged an ill-fated strike in 1992 that found a management determined to get better contract terms.
That was a precursor to 1994, when Bridgestone held firm in the “War of '94” URW strike against it and other tire makers, hiring replacement workers to staff its factories. The work stoppage led to the URW's merging in 1995 with the larger United Steelworkers (USW) union.
Since then, the USW organized three Goodyear non-tire facilities when the company signed a neutrality agreement in its 2003 master contract, but it has had no success organizing any tire plants in the U.S. or Canada since Warren County.