LaVERGNE, Tenn.-A United Steelworkers union local has filed charges against Bridgestone/Firestone with the National Labor Relations Board for allegedly interfering with a gate collection for workers at the BFS plantation in Liberia.
The company, however, claims the local failed to follow long-established procedures for notifying plant management. The union also is severely mischaracterizing the working and living conditions of the 6,000 workers on the 118,000-acre natural rubber plantation, a company spokesman said.
According to the charges filed Feb. 22 by USW Local 1055, which represents the BFS plant in LaVergne, the company made a unilateral change in the working conditions of the LaVergne employees when it refused permission to allow the collection for the Liberian workers.
Before this, the union routinely took collections for various causes with the company´s full permission, said Local 1055 President Lewis Beck. Last year, Beck noted, the local also participated in a collection drive instigated by BFS for the schoolchildren on the plantation, a drive that resulted in more than 30 20-foot containers of school supplies being sent to Liberia.
Plant management would have been happy to allow the collection if the local had only told them in advance, the spokesman said. The company has a long-standing and explicit policy forbidding any solicitations that haven´t been pre-approved, no matter what persons or groups are involved, he said.
"If they´d gone about it the right way, there never would have been a problem," the spokesman said, noting that management at BFS´ Des Moines, Iowa, facility had approved a collection for the Liberian workers by the union local there.
Beck said he heard the union local at the BFS plant in Noblesville, Ind., also had collected money for the Liberians.
According to a USW news release, a delegation from the union visited the BFS plantation last year and allegedly found appalling conditions, including unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, the use of child labor and a $3-per-day average wage.
BFS has said repeatedly that these charges are false. In a fact sheet on its Liberian operations, the company claims the wages it pays its workers are among the highest in Liberia, a country with an 85-percent unemployment rate. The firm also says it has more than 7,000 children enrolled in schools it funds; doesn´t employ anyone under 18; is rebuilding the housing and 96-bed hospital destroyed during the nation´s 1990-97 civil war; and still harbors thousands of refugees left homeless and destitute by the war.
The union also repeated the charge that BFS withheld more than a third of Liberian workers´ wages, a claim over which the workers struck for nearly two weeks in February. The company said it never withheld any wages in Liberia, and that the accusation stems from confusion over the currency differential between the U.S. dollar-in which BFS must by law pay its Liberian workers-and the severely devalued Liberian dollar.
Beck said the union visit to Liberia had nothing to do with a visit to the BFS Liberian plantation of the International Labor Rights Fund. That organization is suing the company in Los Angeles federal district court, making substantially the same accusations as the union.