Relations between former strikers and replacement workers at Titan International Inc.'s Des Moines farm tire plant are better than the union or company expected after a 40-month walkout.
But effects of the dispute still linger as the 600-plus production and salaried employees at the facility now work together to refortify Titan after four years of economic woes.
The work force has jelled better than anyone thought it would, said John Peno, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 164.
Only about 230 of 670 union members who struck in May 1998 returned to the plant late last year, and with more than 300 non-union workers-some hired as replacements during the strike-on site, confrontations were anticipated.
But Peno said there have been only a few minor incidents during the past six months. And the union has recruited about 240 non-union people, he said.
One area that can be improved is communication, Peno said. There are probably about 200 workers at the plant who speak broken or no English, and the language barrier hinders training and information flow, he said.
The union has tried to set up English as a Second Language classes, but progress is slow.
Maurice Taylor Jr., Titan president and CEO, said he's happy with the progress in Des Moines. During the week before Memorial Day, the plant enjoyed its best three-day production cycle since the strike ended. Titan also has hired about 60 additional employees this year, bringing production employment near 600, Peno said.
As has been the case since Taylor and Titan took over the Des Moines facility in 1994, the union and company still disagree on several issues.
Peno said he's been in a constant battle since the strike ended over short-term disability benefits for returning employees, a benefit negotiated in the current contract.
There also have been some problems concerning job-bidding and seniority, Peno said. He plans to take both issues to arbitration.
Taylor also disputed Peno's assessment of the union/non-union makeup at the plant. He said the number of returning strikers was closer to 185, and the number of non-union employees still exceeds those who are USWA members.
No matter the makeup of the work force, Taylor said things are positive and ``clicking along'' in Des Moines. But the plant-operating at below 70-percent capacity-and company are not close to where they should be, he said.
The firm posted a net loss of $2.9 million in this year's first quarter on net sales of $123.7 million. Taylor said he'd like to see the firm break even or post a small profit in 2002, but even the optimist in him isn't betting on anything.
``We're still cranking up and have a long way to go to get to where we were,'' the executive said.
``But if the economy cooperates and we keep improving in Des Moines and (Titan's) Brownsville (Texas tire plant), we should be in good shape by year's end.''