The United Rubber Workers union has accepted reality.
Reality is a declining membership.
Reality is Japanese-owned Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. defeating the union in its long strike at five locals.
Reality is a future of potential ``Bridgestone/Firestone'' union-busting tactics at other URW-organized facilities.
For the URW, reality isn't pretty.
The proposed URW-United Steelworkers of America merger is the URW's admission its power base has eroded, its glory days are over. Times have changed, and it's time for the union to change.
A union's clout is only as strong as the size of its membership list. The URW that had 189,000 members in 1970 now has fewer than 98,000. The union has no choice but to latch onto a stronger partner.
Rubber product companies that have URW-organized shops will see some changes in style, but not much in substance, if the merger goes through as expected. Aggressive companies have the upper hand in labor negotiations today for a variety of reasons, and that won't change. Perhaps the most telling difference will be in union organizing efforts, where the URW has fared poorly over the years. However, at Bridgestone/Firestone, at least, decertification of the union is probable.
Internally, the ramifications for the URW could be significant. The union's bureaucracy could be cut, membership dues could rise, and the independence of what once was truly a powerful institution certainly will disappear. Yet, union members might feel more secure in their jobs because a larger organization is behind them.
The URW's fate might have been different if the union showed more foresight in the past. It was apparent by the late 1970s that trouble was ahead for U.S. rubber companies and their employees because of plant inefficiency, pressure from foreign competitors and the turmoil in the automotive sector.
Labor and management faced the same crisis, and should have developed a partnership. Instead, for its part, the URW focused on pay increases and COLA, and viewed efforts to alter work rules and scheduling as ``concessionary.'' With a few exceptions, the union hierarchy catered to a membership that refused to acknowledge the rules of the game had changed.
With that attitude, the URW never had a chance.