CHARLOTTE, N.C.-A company-imposed March 15 deadline is fast approaching and Continental Tire North America Inc. and the United Steelworkers are no closer to an agreement on the fate of the Charlotte plant and its workers than they were a month ago.
The two sides will meet again March 9 and 10 to deal with cost-cutting proposals at the facility and the Conti-USW contract, ratified in September 1999, that expires April 30.
If they don´t have a pact in place by mid-month, Conti plans to lay off workers, according to Rick Holcomb, legal counsel for the company. "We will also have to consider other options as well," he said, without elaborating.
However, while he said it is premature to talk about closing the Charlotte tire-making facility, he did not rule out the possibility.
"We certainly hope we can move to more substantive areas other than language changes in the contract," Holcomb said, referring to meetings held with the union Feb. 20-21 when he claimed USW negotiators didn´t present a plant cost-cutting counterproposal but instead focused on collective bargaining agreement language.
"That´s because they (the company on Feb. 16) gave us a 111-page contract to replace our current contract and provided us with a letter stating they wanted to reopen contract talks," said Local 850 President Mark Cieslikowski. "We started going over the contract and those talks will continue at upcoming sessions," he said.
Holcomb said that so far the union has given no indication it favors any of the firm´s plans. But if talks between the two sides remain stalled at the March 15 deadline, he said the company still will make itself available to continue negotiating.
Union officials believe that no matter what they do, a contract agreement won´t be reached by March 15 and layoffs will occur, Cieslikowski said. "Our contract doesn´t expire until the end of April, but they want this done March 15. They said from the beginning that without a contract there would be layoffs."
He charged that the firm is "putting a gun to our head. It´s totally illegal. This is no way to negotiate."
The division between the union and Conti is pretty wide. In fact, they still haven´t agreed on the amount that must be trimmed. The tire maker said it needs $32 million in manufacturing cost cuts at the factory while the USW maintains the firm has not supported that claim with facts.
Conti has three plans on the table. The latest proposal, presented Feb. 16, includes wage cuts of 15 percent, rather than an earlier plan calling for $3-an-hour reductions across the board. Conti also would put $1 million a year into a fund to help defray some of the cost impact on retirees as a result of a new medical plan during the life of the contract.
That proposal is being reviewed by the union, Cieslikowski said. He added it may or may not have a counterproposal for the company March 9. "We just don´t know. We have a lot to go over on the contract, which involves everything, and we don´t separate the proposal from the contract."
The company originally said it needed to cut 35 percent of the workers´ wage and benefits package to achieve its $32 million in cuts. Conti suggested trimming the average plant worker´s salary and benefits package to $26 an hour, $18 in wages and $8 in benefits. The firm gave workers the option of making deeper wage cuts in exchange for more benefits.
Its alternative plan called for a work force reduction of 510 hourly and salaried employees starting on March 15, when the firm would begin laying off 240 hourly workers.
Another 270 hourly and salaried positions would need to be eliminated around June 30. The company employs about 1,050 at the factory, 850 of them USW members.
USW negotiators countered with a proposal they said chopped costs at the factory by $16 million. But Conti maintained the plan nets only $1.7 million in savings.
The union has been evaluating and costing-out the firm´s latest proposal and the contract. "One thing is noticeably absent. There are absolutely zero job security provisions to maintain future productivity in Charlotte," said Ron Hoover, USW executive vice president.
Hoover also lashed out at a statement attributed to Rick Ledsinger, Conti´s vice president of human resources and chief negotiator, in a news release stating that "it was time for the union to get serious about preserving jobs in Charlotte."
Hoover said it´s "an insult for him to state publicly that the USW or the Local 850 leadership is not serious about the company´s slash-and-burn proposal at the Charlotte plant. We´ve been working for months to engage the company in a constructive dialogue on how to maintain production in Charlotte."
He added that problems at the plant weren´t created overnight, and they won´t be resolved overnight.