AKRONRepresentatives of the United Steelworkers (USW) said the union believes its main mission is to protect American jobs.
That means in order to be successful, it needs to be able to work with management. It's not always an easy task, but it is necessary.
It's been a phenomenally tough period, said Stan Johnson, USW international secretary treasurer. The industry has changed so much in the U.S., really beginning in that late 1980s-early 1990s period when there were so many foreign companies coming in and buying U.S. assets.
And foreign firms that do choose to set up shop almost always select a state without a union presence. Recent examples include Bridgestone Corp., Continental A.G., Giti Tire Co. Ltd. and Group Michelin in South Carolina; Kumho Tire Co. Inc. in Georgia; Yokohama Rubber Co. Ltd. in Mississippi; and Hankook Tire Co. Ltd. in Tennessee.
U.S.-based Goodyear dodged the issue altogether when it chose Mexico over its home country for its latest North American tire plant, a decision Mr. Johnson described as disappointing.
Collectively, those seven plants represent nearly 8,000 jobs the USW is not organizing.
The landscape certainly has changed over the years, but Mr. Johnson said the union just keeps adapting with the times. As trade becomes more prominent, the USW fights to ensure the playing field is fair, petitioning the International Trade Commission three times in the last year to bring antidumping tariffs against tire imports from Asia, specifically China.
The need of the union to change in the way it reacted became a necessity, he said. We started facing certain foreign competition, then there was a substantial number of plant closures that happened across all manufacturers.
We reacted to that, and we modified how we both negotiated. We started negotiating protections, not just contracts for the workers that worked in the facilities, but protections for the facilities themselves.
But at the end of the day, union and management need one another. Robert Hughes, president of Overland Resource Group, a third-party organization that aims to have employers and unions work together to improve performance, said many places in the market have organized labor. If it exists, divorce isn't really an optionwhich means the sides can either fight or collaborate.
He added that unions can lead to a more active employee engagement process if both union and management are out selling it.
I've yet to see a local union do better while the organization that their work force works in does worse, Mr. Hughes said. Even though not typically seen as the role of unions to help the company do better, it is clearly in their best interest if it's done well, and it's done right.
Mr. Johnson said back in the 1990s, when the rubber industry was represented by the United Rubber Workers, the union would strike every contract and sometimes once or twice in between bargaining cycles. But that has changed.
Strikes are always an option, he said. We try to be intelligent in exercising that option. It's certainly on the table. We don't promote it as a response, certainly.
We should make every effort to resolve differences before strikes occur, just like the company should make every effort to resolve differences before they determine to lock out. It goes both ways.
We're not confrontational by nature; we're cooperative by nature. We have no desire to have less than an optimum relationship with any employer. We are partners. We work with them to make sure that operations are productive and efficient and effective.
We have a desire to make sure they're making money, and hopefully lots of it because the more they make, the more our members have a chance to share in the profits of it.
David Hayespresident of USW Local 12, which represents Good-year's Gadsden, Ala., facilitysaid that since 2000 the relationship between Local 12 and management has become more cooperative. In 1999, Goodyear was going to transform Local 12 to a mixing facility, removing tire production.
Mr. Hayes said after the massive Firestone tire recall and Ford Explorer rollover incidents, Goodyear needed more tires and gave Gadsden its tire production backand in turn, jobs for recently laid-off workers.
The second chance sparked a new relationship. He said every week the union meets with the plant manager, human resource manager and the production manager. Today there is constant communication and collaboration on issues.
It's changed dramatically due to global competition, Mr. Hayes said. It's changed the relationship you've got to have between the unions and the company. You used to not have to worry about places like China, India and Vietnam. You'd only have to worry about your competition here in the U.S.
With the global economy, now you've got to be competitive worldwide. It's changed how you do business. You have to work together more. We want our companies to be profitable because if you don't have a company and you don't have a plant, you don't have a union.
Trust is also critical. Sandy McNair, partner at Schwarzwald McNair & Fusco L.L.P., a Cleveland-based law firm, said sides build trust through honesty and sharing information in a way that is accurate and not spun one way or the other.
It's very hard to be intellectually honest, which is what mature collective bargaining, mature relationships between employers and unions require, he said. I think sometimes it's too easy to discount the other side's problem, and I think you have to be able to assess in an intellectually honest way your situation and their situation.
Jason Fisher, vice president of labor relations at Bridgestone Americas, said in an email the firm's relationship with the USW is generally positive. He stressed that the company is committed to working with union leadership toward keeping its plants and employees successful.
Mr. Fisher said Bridgestone's relationship has evolved from a traditional us vs. them dynamic to a solutions-oriented approach. He cited communication, engagement and professionalism as critical traits to a successful union/management relationship.
It is not about whether the company or union wins or loses. It is about what we can do to ensure the long-term success and viability of our operations, to the benefit of our teammates, company and communities, his statement said. While improvement is needed in some areas, we are farther along in this journey than we have ever been, and the competitive environment demands we continue to push farther.
Master negotiations for most of the major tire firms are about one year away, but Mr. Johnson indicated that Locals for the Michelin/BFGoodrich plants in Tuscaloosa, Ala., (Local 351) and Fort Wayne, Ind., (Local 903) could exercise their right to opt out in 2016. Contracts at Goodyear and Bridgestone don't expire until 2017.
The next round of bargaining, regardless of who the employer is, is going to be an interesting round of bargaining, Mr. Johnson predicted.
There's clearly an obvious movement afoot to build more facilities here and have more production in the U.S. I think that puts us in a strong position to bargain, at least initially. We did some things to try to help the industry a couple of contracts ago with two-tier wage systems and such. We'll look to continue to close those gaps and look to improve the wages and benefits of our members.
Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.'s contract was extended because of its proposed merger deal in 2014 with India-based Apollo Tyres Ltd. That deal ultimately fell through, but the union secured three-year contract extensions for Local 207 in Findlay, Ohio; Local 556 in Clarksdale, Miss.; and Local 752 in Texarkana, Ark. Findlay's contract is set to expire in 2020, the others in 2019.
Local 752 President David Boone said Cooper challenged the clause in the master contract that gave the union the right to approve any merger or acquisition attempt. He said the USW stepped up in a big way, and by winning an arbitration hearing, the union was able to negotiate increased wages for new hires.
We have a good relationship with Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., he said. We play adversarial roles, we disagree on a day-to-day basis, but at the end of the day, we realize we have to do what it takes to keep this plant open. We're all going in the same direction. We just have a different route to get there as management does, but we're all trying to get there together.
If you respect the union, you'll have a healthy relationship. Reasonable people disagree, but at the end of the day if there's respect there on both sides, you have a healthy relationship. We try to be open and honest, and if they're wrong, believe me, we'll step up and tell them they're wrong.
Messrs. Boone, Hayes and Bowen said one of the biggest issues coming up is the two-tiered wage system.
Most plants had to give concessions in the 2006-08 round of negotiations because of the recession. New hires were started on a lower tier than legacy workers, but the union has been fighting to close that gap in each contract and will continue to do so in the next round.
That, and continue to protect its plants from closure.
My father worked in the tire plant before me, Mr. Johnson said. At the time, I thought it mattered what circle you had on your back, but with more experience and knowledge, you learn it really doesn't matter what the logo is on your back. What matters is that you have one.
This article ran in Rubber & Plastics News, an Akron-based sister publication of Tire Business. Editor Bruce Meyer contributed to it.