AKRONMost people say the heyday of unions in the private sector is in the rearview mirror, but that doesn't mean that labor organizations don't still play a key role in many industries, including the tire and rubber industry.
Looking at the pure numbers can't be easy for labor leaders. Overall union membership was steady in 2015 from 2014, with 14.8 million wage and salary workers in the U.S.or 11.1 percentbelonging to unions, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the private sector, though, the union membership rate was 6.7 percent, with 7.55 million union members. Manufacturing jobs are organized at a bit of a higher rate, at 9.4 percent.
And while there have been no U.S. tire plants organized in the past 25 years, the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers (USW) still represents about 18,000 workers at 19 tire plants in the U.S. Its Rubber & Plastics Industry Council, including non-tire factories, has roughly 30,000 members, according to the union.
That includes having bargaining units at five of six Goodyear factories, plus the plant outside of Buffalo, N.Y., now managed by Sumitomo Rubber Industries Ltd.; five of eight Bridgestone Americas factories; two of the four former Uniroyal Good-rich facilities now owned by Michelin North America Inc.; two of three Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. units; the Yokohama plant in Salem, Va.; and all three Titan Tire Corp. factories.
With the main master tire contracts up for renewal in 2017though the two Michelin locals could opt out this yearall appears relatively quiet leading up to those negotiations.
And despite all the obstacles of operating an industrial union in today's environment, Stan Johnson, USW international secretary/treasurer, still sees value for workers that are union represented.
Without collective bargaining, an individual only has the voice of a single individual, said Mr. Johnson, who came from the former United Rubber Workers union himself. If you don't have the right of representation or grievance procedure, in most cases you're an employee at will.
The employer can essentially do anything they want, anyway they want, anytime they want.
David Boone, president of USW Local 752 at Cooper Tire's Tex-arkana, Ark., plant said the role of labor continues to be to negotiate the best wage and benefits as possible, but also to keep jobs in the U.S.
So often we miss the mark for what our international union does for us, with the tariffs that they filed, he said. We overlook that a lot, but if you don't have jobs here in the U.S., you have a problem.
Mr. Johnson said the USW believes people should have more rights and the ability to challenge what they feel are unreasonable actions. We all have a right to collectively band together and bargain an agreement that's to the benefit of all, he said. That's the basis of the labor movement.
He also maintains that the USW has proved that manufacturing facilities can be operated competitively in the tire and rubber sector. He pointed to the Bridgestone Americas plant in Warren County, Tenn., which has been touted by the company and union as being among the most productive Bridgestone facilities worldwide.
Jason Fisher, vice president of labor relations at Bridgestone Americas, said the most important labor relations issue the firm faces is not unique to his company.
It is the need to remain competitive in a quickly evolving global marketplace, he said. The productivity, efficiency and flexibility of our manufacturing operations are critically important components of meeting that need.
Of the plants contacted, Bridgestone Americas was the only tire company with plants organized by the USW that agreed to answer questions for this report.
Current relations between the USW and the tire companies it bargains with seem pretty good right now, with a decent line of communications, according to John Russo, a retired professor from Youngstown State University who is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor.
He said that wasn't necessarily the case during the first part of the 21st century, when conflicts were the norm, and numerous unfair labor practice charges were lodged.
I just don't see in the landscape right now that sort of action going on, Mr. Russo said. Both parties seem to be willing to resume the bargaining in sort of a positive joint effort.
It appears that issues that have to be dealt with such as globalization and new technology can be handled during normal bargaining rather than with activities that involve more conflict, he said.
While it's true that companies on balance hold most of the leverage in today's economic environment, that doesn't mean they're ready to go to war with the union, Mr. Russo said.
They understand that within this market, they realize the cost of invoking a strike or a struggle can be very costly in terms of losing market share in this increasingly competitive market. I think the idea is both parties have the incentive to sort of work closely together.
He said the top issues important to unions today include healthcare, dealing with technology and maintaining successor agreements. Companies want to control labor costs to remain competitive in the global economy.
I don't think wages and benefits will be as important as it's historically been, Mr. Russo said. There will be pressure on that, given the sense of inequality and injustices that's going on in the country right now.
Unions continue to remain relevant to provide a counterbalance of power in the workplace, said Sandy McNair, a partner in the Cleveland law firm Schwarzwald, McNair and Fusco. They also can help generate institutional programs that individuals cannot, such as seniority systems, pensions and bidding systems.
All of those things that a union can negotiate when it's representing all the workers and do that in a collective way that cannot be done when an employer can pick and choose how he or she wants to deal with the work force, he said.
Another employment attorney, though, said he doesn't see how labor organizations in mature industries such as rubber and steel can stay relevant going forward.
It's a tough fight for the union, said Mark Bloch, a partner in the labor and employment practice group of Cleveland-based Walter Haverfield L.L.P. They don't have the leverage anymore.
While decent to work with on an individual basis, he argues that the Steelworkers too often are seen as fighting the battles of the 1950s and 1960s. They're out of touch with new manufacturing, and they're out of touch with new employees, Mr. Bloch said.
Even the political clout of trade unions will decline over time as membership drops. It's all a question of declining value, he said. If you're running for office, you need money and you need votes. They have a little money. They don't have the votes they used to have.
Robert Hughes, president of the Overland Resource Group, a third-party consultant that looks to help employers and unions work together to the benefit of both, said it is more important than ever for unions to do a better job of understanding how business works and who their audience is.
The demographic of today's work force has changed, and the attitude toward work is somewhat different, he said. For example, workers are less likely to stay at one job their entire career, and may have different needs, such as transportable benefits.
If labor is going to make the headway they want to make, I think they've got to figure out how to crack the code in that direction, Mr. Hughes said.
He said he doesn't believe the perception of unions being combative in all cases, as the public may believe. Organized labor can work with management, and management can work with organized labor, he said. It can be a helpful partnership.
Mr. Johnson said the USW never has problems selling the value of the union during organizing campaigns, but with current laws, organizing is not that simple.
We only have a problem when the employer starts hiring anti-union law firms and starts manipulating the process, the USW officer said. They fire leaders that are stepping forward in an attempt to organize. It's fear in retaliation, not the desire not to have a union.
The union keeps communication open with nearly every non-union tire facility in the U.S., and he said there is no lack of desire to organize.
I think people believe, by and large, that union representation is a good thing for them, for their industry, their families and the community, Mr. Johnson said. It's simply a matter of the political landscape and the lack of the ability to have the laws changed that would allow people the opportunity to join unions.
Mr. McNair agrees that today's laws make it difficult to mount successful organizing campaigns. The laws effectively allow companies to break laws blatantly without fear of meaningful penaltiestactics, he said, that remain common today.
The law really has to change so that people do have a voice and once they exercise that voice, if the employer violates the law, then there are real consequences, Mr. McNair said. One reason unions are more successful in the public sector is that public sector (employers) don't do the same kind of tactics to snuff out organizing drives.
All of the new tire factories have been slated for right-to-work states in the South, along with Mexico. Mr. Johnson said there were a lot of discussions with Goodyear leading up to its announcement that Mexico would get the new project.
We have a decent relationship with Goodyear, and they intend to try to maintain that; so do we, he said. They understood and knew our disappointment and frustration, so we bargained to keep the relationship as it should be going forward.
Mr. Johnson maintained the USW can work with employers to have the most efficient operations, and that labor costs are only one piece of the equation. We understand companies have the desire to pursue the lowest cost, but we don't always agree that it is the best strategy for them, he said.
Mr. Bloch said no manufacturer will put up a factory in a unionized state if it can avoid it. With the right-to-work rule, it would be the equivalence of malpractice for a company to put a plant in a union state, he said.
Companies such as Goodyear can put their offices and intellectual processes in states such as Ohio, but not large-scale manufacturing. It's not because of NAFTA, and it's not because of anything else, Mr. Bloch said. It just doesn't make sense.
And while conventional wisdom might say the USW has little chance at organizing new plants in right-to-work states, the union has far from given upeven in South Carolina. The union does, in fact, have a number of long-standing tire and rubber locals in right-to-work states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Virginia.
It's difficult to combat (right-to-work laws), but what you do is educate the people, Mr. Boone said. We meet the new hires and take them through member orientation, and 99.9 percent of the ones that are hired join the union. We share with them what the union is all about.
Mr. Johnson said the USW will monitor closely how things go at some of the plants put up by tire makers based in South Korea and China. It's going to be interesting to watch how they adapt to the U.S. system and whether or not they can adapt in such a way where people are satisfied working for them as employers, he said. It's certainly not the landscape they're accustomed to operating in.
Even statements by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley about her state keeping unions out haven't deterred Mr. Johnson.
South Carolina is as much in play as any other state in the union, regardless of her public proclamations, he said. (The USW) is succeeding there. We have not organized a tire facility, but we're organizing in South Carolina. We'll get it. It's just a matter of when, where and how. Something is going to turn it, and when it turns, it will all turn.
When the conditions are right, we will organize regardless of the state. When people decide to have a union, we will be there, and they will have a union.
Reporter Chris Sweeney contributed to this report, which originally appeared in Rubber & Plastics News, an Akron-based sister publication of Tire Business.