AKRONStan Johnson is one of the top three officers within the United Steelworkers (USW) union, but he wasn't a fan of the former United Rubber Workers (URW) joining with the USW in 1995.
In fact, as a member of the URW's executive board, he vocally opposed uniting the unions at the URW's special convention to vote on the mergera move he now admits was a mistake.
At the time, the much smaller URW was in the middle of the War of '94, where prolonged strikes at several tire companies had eaten through the Akron-based union's strike fund. One of those plants was the Pirelli Armstrong Tire Co. factory in Nashville, Tenn., where Mr. Johnsonnow the USW's secretary-treasurerwas president of the local at the time.
The URW was in desperate need of a savior, and the bigger, better-financed Pittsburgh-based USW stepped in. During the merger convention, Mr. Johnson played a more prominent role than he had imagined.
It was not a position against the Steelworkers. There was no appetite to raise the dues within the Rubber Workers and remain a viable institution, Mr. Johnson said.
There was a lot of frustration that built up with present leadership at the time. I took the position in opposition saying that we should shop around more. I went into the convention, did the minority report from the board, and the convention was extremely animated.
In the end, the merger passed by a mere three votes.
As the merger concluded, I took the position from the floor that once the vote was done, it was done, Mr. Johnson said. We were Steelworkers, and I made a motion to make it unanimous so we didn't have to go through the turmoil of people being for or against.
Little did he know at that time where his future career path would lead. He met with then-USW President George Becker sometime later in Nashville at the Bridgestone/Firestone world conference. Mr. Becker said he wanted Mr. Johnson to join the USW staff.
Mr. Johnson's reply: Do you have any idea the kind of (grief) I would take for taking a position with the Steelworkers now?
Mr. Becker looked at him across the table, eye-to-eye, and said Do you have any idea of the (grief) I'm going to take for putting you on staff?
It was a magical moment, Mr. Johnson said. It was obvious that he was a person I already respected, but now could truly trust. I think it was reciprocal. From that discussion, we formed a bond and a relationship.
Mr. Johnson came to Pittsburgh in April of 1996 to run the union's rapid response political operation. From there, he held a variety of USW posts inside and outside of Pittsburgh before being appointed secretary-treasurer in 2009.
Mr. Johnson, along with presidents of a number of locals at USW-represented tire and rubber goods plants, said being with the USW definitely has been the right move in the long run.
The merger with the Steelworkers made a big difference, he said. Steelworkers had a better vision as to the need to be politically involved and an activist organization and how to engage better at those levels and through the International Trade Commission (ITC).
You learn from experience, and they learned. That has played extremely well for us in the tire industry.
We were too small, Mr. Johnson said of the Rubber Workers. There were too many attacks from too many fronts.
David Hayes, president of USW Local 12 at Goodyear's Gadsden, Ala., facility, said the USW has the clout to fight trade cases with foreign countries.
There's no way the Rubber Workers had the resources to do that, he said. It's regular with the Steelworkers. They're fighting for their workers to keep jobs in the U.S. With the decline of the Rubber Workers, there's no way they could have done that.
If it weren't for the merger, Hugh Bowen, president of Local 286 at ContiTech's Lincoln, Neb., plant, said his facility wouldn't be around today.
They have a lot more resources than we had as the Rubber Workers, Mr. Bowen said. They just have a lot more clout.
David Boone, president of Local 752 at Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.'s Texarkana, Ark., plant since 2000, also voted against the merger in 1995. It took about a year for him to realize that the URW wouldn't have survived on its own.
We needed somebody to fight for us, and that was the Steelworkers, he said. And believe me, the Steelworkers are fighters.
Mr. Johnson said it's not just the size of the USW that made the difference for the rubber and tire locals, but it also was the knowledge and expertise they brought to the table. A lot of us couldn't see it from the outside, he said. Sometimes you can only see things when you get inside and see what it is.
Reporter Chris Sweeney contributed to this report, which originally ran in Rubber & Plastics News, an Akron-based sister publication of Tire Business.