Titan International Inc.'s Natchez farm tire plant has been idle for more than a year and a half, and with the current state of the economy and the agricultural market, that isn't likely to change.
Maurice Taylor Jr., Titan CEO and president, said at the end of 2001 it would be 12 to 18 months before he would consider reopening the facility-if he could afford it. But a year later, Taylor said he ``wouldn't bet money on'' the mothballed factory opening its doors during 2003.
``We can only build up when the market allows us to,'' he said. ``It takes a lot of time. And first we have to fill Des Moines (Iowa) and fill Brownsville (Texas).'' Titan's main farm tire plant is in Des Moines and its all-terrain vehicle and specialty tire production is housed in Brownsville.
The workers who would be staffing the Natchez plant if it was in operation aren't optimistic about their plight, either. ``No one's sure it will open again, at least under Titan,'' said Leo T. Bradley, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 303.
Dec. 9 marked the one-year anniversary of the union's ratification of a new five-year contract with Titan, ending a long, bitter strike dating back to September 1998. USWA Local 164 in Des Moines ended its own strike-the longest in rubber industry history-with the company in September 2001.
But including the strike and the mothballing, it's now been more than four years since Local 303 members worked inside the Natchez factory. Bradley said he's hopeful the markets the facility has traditionally served will turn around, or possibly that the plant will be sold.
Under the agreement reached last year with the union, Titan was only obligated to maintain the plant through November of this year. Now, if Titan decides to close the facility, the union will be helpless to stop it.
Local 303 members also are waiting to receive payments they're still entitled to get as a result of the contract settlement and the bankruptcy process. The former plant owner, Condere Corp., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1997 when the facility operated as Fidelity Tire Manufacturing Co. Titan officially took over the plant in September 1998.
On Dec. 4, the union filed a motion in U.S. Bankruptcy Court of Mississippi to push Titan along in making payments-regarding issues such as payroll deduction and vacation time-totaling more than $1 million, said David Jury, a USWA attorney. The union had worked with Titan attorneys during 2001 to effect the payments, and the bankruptcy court approved it in June, he said. No hearing on the motion has been set.
Titan also owes several hundred thousand dollars agreed to in last year's contract pertaining to National Labor Relations Board charges, Bradley said, plus a portion of the Des Moines workers' payroll donated on Local 303's behalf.
In Des Moines, the factory is running at 60-70 percent of capacity, Taylor said. The plant went on unscheduled shutdown for a week during Thanksgiving and also will go idle for two weeks during Christmas.
The agricultural and construction markets are down, and the outlook isn't great for 2003, he added. The timing of a real turnaround in Titan's main markets is uncertain, but Taylor now is pointing to 2004.
The work force now is at about 550 at the Des Moines site, with about 430 union members, said John Peno, USWA Local 164 president. The transition of bringing unionized and non-union workers together went well-especially with Titan using replacement labor during the strike-and many former replacements have joined Local 164, he said.
There still are some maintenance and safety problems at the plant, Peno said, and some contract issues regarding insurance and job bidding procedures that still haven't been resolved. Overall, though, despite the economic woes hurting production, the post-strike situation in Des Moines has been better than anticipated, he said.
The Brownsville plant currently produces ATV and other specialty tires up to 38 inches, supplying many of them to the Mexican market, Taylor said. There are 200-plus workers there, he added.
In its most recent financial statement, Titan reported a third-quarter net loss of $17.7 million, with more than half coming from a write-off on its investment in Fabrica Uruguya de Neumaticos S.A., a Uruguayan tire and rubber company. The firm had net sales of $104.7 million during the quarter, up 4.1 percent from the like period in 2001.