Union workers at Titan International Inc.'s Des Moines farm tire plant are re-introducing themselves to the job after ending their 40-month strike last fall, but the transition is anything but easy.
However, leaders from both sides look forward to improved operations at the facility-and the company overall-in 2002 as labor peace and economic woes are put behind them.
Integrating more than 200 workers into a plant after a 40-month strike is a difficult task, and the transition for members of United Steelworkers Local 164 in Des Moines ``hasn't been smooth,'' said local President John Peno.
Less than 40 percent of the original 670 workers who went on strike in May 1998 are back. About 230 workers decided to return after the labor dispute ended, about 145 opted for an early retirement plan Titan offered, and the rest found jobs elsewhere, Peno said.
The union also has filed grievances with the company over issues concerning short-term disability insurance not being offered to every returning worker; job-bidding at the plant; and new production goals. In the case of short-term disability, Peno said the union negotiated the benefit and the members have to pay the premium, so everyone should have it. Titan and the insurance carrier each have told the union the responsibility for the issue lies with the other entity, he said.
``Stuff like that just creates anxiety in the plant,'' he said. ``Our members aren't stupid. They know what they agreed to.''
Peno also claimed the production goals are being set for workers using machines in need of repair. ``We have maintenance people looking at a lot of the machinery, but the process takes time,'' he said.
On a positive note, Local 164 has signed up about 230 former replacement and non-union workers to be members, Peno said. Relations with the replacements have been better than anticipated, and a unified work force in Des Moines could be a big part of turning Titan's fortunes around, he said.
Titan's sales and profits sunk from 1998 through last year, based on the recent recession, a depressed farm market and the strikes in Des Moines and at Titan's Natchez, Miss., tire plant. The company posted net earnings of $34.8 million on sales of $457.5 million in 2001, both down from the year before.
Maurice Taylor Jr., Titan president and CEO, said the company survived the strike and the recent economic crisis ``with a lot of bullet holes.'' He said he's more concerned with his current work force getting back ``in the groove of building tires'' than with grievances.
But like Peno, he wants the workers to get in place, settle in and get ready to increase capacity in Des Moines rather than move around as much as they have in the past few months. The factory is operating at about 70-percent capacity, and Taylor wants that figure to be up to at least 85 percent by year's end.
``For four years, we haven't had enough product to really do anything,'' he said. Titan has secured deals with original equipment manufacturers-including private brand agreements such as the one with Caterpillar Inc.-and the military in the past year, and Taylor has said its bookings haven't been this high since before the strike began.
Despite expectations for profits in 2002, Taylor cautioned the ag market still is down about 35 percent from 1997. The economic climate has been the main reason Titan is much leaner-down about 40 percent to 3,000 employees from about 5,000 less than three years ago-than in the past.
Titan also has an idle factory-and an idle unionized work force-in Natchez. Taylor said he'll decide the fate of the plant there by year's end, basing it mainly on how big and how fast its private branding business takes off.
Options include re-opening the plant for mixing or overflow tire production; moving machinery to the firm's Brownsville, Texas, facility, which houses some of the company's all-terrain vehicle and consumer tire business; and selling the factory.
USWA Local 303 in Natchez settled its strike with Titan in December, but the plant had been mothballed since the previous spring. The workers there can do nothing now but await Taylor's decision.