The Rubber Workers union can celebrate a potentially major victory in its long-running feud with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.
When the National Labor Relations Board converted the 10-month strike by the former United Rubber Workers against Bridgestone/Firestone to an unfair labor practice strike, the company was ordered to rehire the union members who struck. Besides the recall, those URW members who agreed to return to work May 22 will be eligible for back pay, which could total millions of dollars.
If the decision holds-it faces a legal challenge by the company-the URW can claim at least a partial victory. The union will remain as the bargaining agent for workers at Bridgestone/Firestone, and many members will return to their jobs with back pay.
At the same time, 500 of the original workers who struck have retired, and 1,300 crossed the picket line. And the long, costly battle with Bridgestone/Firestone helped push the URW to merge into the larger United Steelworkers of America.
It's surprising, in some ways, that Bridgestone/Firestone would stumble in its attempt to bring the union to heel. The company seemed to be operating carefully to avoid the fate of Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp., which, in a similar situation, had to recall 1,000 workers at two plants when the NLRB converted a walkout to an unfair labor practice strike.
Perhaps Bridgestone/Firestone's strategy wasn't so foolproof, after all.
Whatever the outcome, the Bridgestone/Firestone decision won't reverse the downward trend of unionism in the rubber business and industry in general. The pendulum has swung decidedly away from the union movement, and hasn't shown any sign yet of swinging back.
Asbestos, MOCA, natural rubber latex, nitrosamines, benzene-the rubber business has had its share of health-related problems over the years.
Now it's airborne residue from radial tires. A medical study links such rubber dust to an alarming increase in asthma worldwide, especially among children living in urban areas.
More investigations are under way by the medical community. Whether this proves to be a false alarm or a real problem, the rubber industry should get in front of this issue by offering to participate in these studies.