TEXARKANA, Ark.—Members of United Steelworkers of America Local 752 are on strike at Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.´s Texarkana tire plant, citing health care issues as the main sticking points.
The 1,600-member local walked out at midnight March 12. The original three-year contract between Cooper and the hourly workers lapsed at midnight March 6 but was extended six days for further negotiations. The strike is the first at the Texarkana factory since 1978.
Health care for active USWA members and retirees is the major disagreement in bargaining, said Don Davies, staff representative for USWA District 12. The company´s proposal calls for increased premiums for less coverage, and no medical retiree benefits for new employees, Davies claims.
Cooper wouldn´t discuss specific negotiations, but Roger Hendriksen, the company´s director of investor relations and corporate communications, said virtually every Cooper employee makes some contribution to health care whether via premiums or co-pays.
With the increases in medical care costs, workers´ contributions are necessary, and management and salaried employees have dealt with it over the last several years, Hendriksen said. "In general, it´s difficult to control anything if those who benefit from it aren´t affected by the decisions," he said. "The end-user has to have some vested interest."
In 2002, when the last contract in Texarkana was negotiated, the union workers gave up some gains in wages to avoid medical costs. In February 2004, when the USWA reached agreement with the company at its Findlay, Ohio, tire plant, the workers donated their first-year cost-of-living payment to aid retirees with their health care costs.
Job security also is an important issue, Davies said. The Findlay contract guaranteed that 90 percent of the workers on payroll as of Jan. 31 last year would have jobs for the duration of the agreement. That pact expires Oct. 31, 2008.
The company´s offer for Texarkana doesn´t approach that level, Davies said. Recent industry contracts with Goodyear and Michelin North America Inc.´s BFGoodrich tire units have addressed plant security and investment specifically.
Other key elements of negotiations include job bidding and seniority and cost-of-living allowances. The company isn´t offering wage increases, but that isn´t as big of an issue as some of the other benefits, Davies said.
Contract negotiations between Findlay-based Cooper and the USWA in recent years have been difficult yet ultimately successful, but Davies said he was surprised at the company´s proposals.
"The practice with tire negotiations has usually been to keep contracts similar," he said. "What you see at one you often see at another. But it isn´t happening this time."
Hendriksen said Cooper also was surprised and disappointed with the union´s decision to strike. The extension had indicated a willingness to keep bargaining and work toward a resolution, and the company figured that would be the course the two sides would take over the following several weeks, he said.
Davies said production at the Texarkana factory, which manufactures about 40,000 tires per day, remained idle as of March 16. Local 752 has set up 24-hour pickets at the facility´s gates, he said.
At presstime, Cooper said it had no plans to restart production without the union work force. Hendriksen said the goal of the company is to continue to meet and resolve the remaining issues.
The two sides agreed to continue contract talks March 14, and discussions continued through March 15. Negotiators left that day without a firm future date to return to the table, according to Davies.
The tire maker is in a good situation with its inventory and will do everything it can to meet customer needs, Hendriksen said, whether it is via inventory or production at other plants.