It's put up or shut up time for the Rubber Workers union and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., thanks to Saturn Corp. For two years the union members of Bridgestone/Firestone have fought to recover jobs lost when the tire maker turned to strikebreakers to keep its plants open. The public relations machinery has worked overtime for both sides: United Steelworkers of America members picketing in Japan and at the Indianapolis 500, company officials seeking plaudits for giving workers Independence Day off, etc.
Since the start of the labor dispute, there has been one outlandish attack and counterattack after another by the union and company. Without a doubt, this has been the ugliest bit of labor strife in the tire industry in 20 years.
One of the major tactics employed by the union to gain the upper hand has been the organization of a boycott against Bridgestone/Firestone tires. Up until now, there has been no way to judge whether that effort has succeeded.
Now there is. Saturn's decision to allow its retailers to take Firestone original equipment tires off new vehicles at a customer's request clearly will show if there is public sentiment for the boycott.
Bridgestone/Firestone has supplied all the tires used on the hot-selling Saturns-about 1.2 million tires last year alone. Workers at Saturn's plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., are represented by the United Auto Workers, which supports its union brethren at the USWA. The UAW's lobbying, along with some requests from customers, apparently prompted Saturn to offer the tire switch.
A couple of scenarios now might develop.
Saturn customers who support the boycott could ask for the tire change in sufficient numbers to give Saturn pause about signing an exclusive contract with Bridgestone/Firestone in the future. That could put pressure on the tire maker to kiss and make up with the union.
Indeed, two dozen Saturn consumers have asked for and received different tires since the labor dispute began two years ago.
Or, so few people might ask to have the Firestones removed that the boycott will be shown as a scam-similar to the Groupe Michelin boycott the former United Rubber Workers union sponsored for years, to no avail.
Either way, the claims of at least one side in this public relations struggle will be exposed as a lot of hot air.