NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Mark A. Emkes knows that Bridgestone Americas Holding Inc. has to deal with the high cost of manufacturing in the U.S.
That covers dealing with the continued spiking cost of both raw materials and health care. But that also includes taking a look at the labor situation at its union plants, said the Bridgestone Americas chairman and CEO.
"We need to address labor and sourcing," Emkes said. "We´re going to invest in areas where we´re going to get a good return on our investment. And we´re also going to invest in areas where we have a good labor climate."
Bridgestone Americas finally reached agreement this summer on contracts at its United Steelworkers-represented factories in the U.S. after more than two years of on-and-off bargaining. The two sides will begin negotiations again early next year as part of the tire industry master contract talks.
What Emkes would like to see during those negotiations is a less confrontational approach than bargaining often has been between the two sides.
"I would love to see that relationship change to a relationship similar to what we have with our union in Mexico and with our union in Brazil," he said. "It can be win-win, and that´s the way it is in Mexico and Brazil. Why can´t it be that way here?"
He said several years back when competitors were closing tire plants in Mexico, the union leader representing workers at the Bridgestone plant there came and asked how they could work together and make the operation competitive.
As a result, he said, the unit made money and earlier this year Bridgestone revealed plans to build a tire factory in Mexico using its latest technology. "There´s no mystery to how that happened," Emkes said. "It was because of a very positive labor environment, and I´d like to see us have that environment here in the U.S."
He said workers need to understand that when the company´s competitive, it´s good for everyone. "That means the company can produce a tire, sell a tire and make money," he said. "That means more investment, more growth and more jobs for union members as well."
Blaming work rules
As is often the case when looking at union-plant costs, Emkes pointed to restrictive work rules as the culprit—not wages and benefits or even worker attitudes. He said he has visited all the firm´s factories—both union and non-union—talking to workers on all shifts.
"I very rapidly came to the conclusion that whether it´s union or non-union, the vast majority of people on the factory floor are just good people," he said. "They want to work hard. They want to make a quality product. They want to get paid and they want to go home."
So it all boils down to work rules that are flexible at non-union sites and inflexible at union facilities, he claimed.
A Steelworkers spokesman said the union has to wonder how many work rules are left in the BFS factories it represents. Many of those rules were eliminated during the 1994-96 set of negotiations, known as the "War of ´94," he said, so the USW would need to know which rules Emkes specifically is referring to.
"Our position is we are more than willing to explore avenues that lead a company to firmly commit to invest in our plants," he said. "That is the key to having a modern, competitive and highly productive plant."
While union plants will continue to get capital investment to promote safety and quality, garnering funds for expansions might be in question, Emkes said. "You have to look at return on assets," he said. "If they´re not competitive, why would you expand a factory that´s not competitive?"
Emkes said the firm does have union shops that are profitable, so it can be done. He also admits he doesn´t have all the solutions, but wants to see the issues on the bargaining table. "I think if rational men sit around a table and we´re really serious about being competitive, I think that´s something that would be addressed."
He said he hasn´t met Ron Hoover, newly elected USW executive vice president in charge of its Rubber/Plastics Industry Conference, but looks forward to doing so in the near future.
The USW spokesman said he doesn´t know Hoover´s schedule, but that "Ron is the type of person who has no problem sitting down with someone, looking them straight in the eyes and talking to them."