OKLAHOMA CITY—The last tire came off the assembly line at Bridgestone/Firestone´s Oklahoma City factory on Dec. 16, and management and workers viewed the passing quite differently.
For the company, it was a business decision, a facility that wasn´t profitable because it made tires in the low-end of the market where demand was decreasing and competition from low-cost imports increasing.
For members of United Steelworkers Local 998, which represents 1,200 hourly workers at the 37-year-old plant, the closing is part of the landscape of a much larger problem: the continued erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base.
Steve Brooks, BFS vice president of manufacturing operations, said that even with substantial new investment-the company had pumped about $45 million into the unit since 2002-market forces made it "virtually impossible" to restore the plant to a competitive position.
The company first said in April it was considering the closure, making the decision final in July.
BFS earlier in the year had employed 1,400 at the Oklahoma City factory with the capacity to make 43,500 passenger and light truck tires a day. Its main product line was 15-inch tires with some 16-inch lines, and the capability to manufacture down to 13-inch tires. Layoffs started in October, when 400 workers were let go, and daily production at the end was 26,200 tires, according to Brooks.
He said the company will have a small staff at the plant throughout next year disassembling equipment. Some of the items will be moved to other Bridgestone facilities and the rest either sold or scrapped.
Part of bigger story
Workers, though, see the closing as part of a bad trend.
"The government or the state is not going to do a damn thing for the working people," said Tony Carr, Local 998 vice president and a nearly 34-year veteran of the factory. "The industrial base of this country is going overseas. We´re not the first plant to be closed, and we won´t be the last. We´re just in a long line of plants that are leaving this country."
Especially with strategic resources such as rubber, the country must be careful about losing capability to make vital goods domestically, he said. As the industrial strength of the nation continues to slip away, Carr said the U.S. will become dependent on the rest of the world for industry and become a "giant consumer" of goods made elsewhere.
"The U.S. is in a serious situation in my opinion," he said. "At some point in time, somebody is going to say, ´What the hell did we do?´ We will leave ourselves vulnerable. The story isn´t just us. It´s about the demise of American industry."
Workers at the facility are pretty tough, he said, but the initial announcement still came as a bit of a shock. Carr said the union had worked well with the plant manager and production manager over the past several years to make improvements at the tire factory.
The Local 998 vice president doesn´t buy the company´s explanation of why it is closing the factory. He charged the parent company is disconnected from the workers and made no serious offer to save the Oklahoma City operation once the preliminary word came out. That was evident, he claimed, by the firm turning down state money that could have been used to install molds for tire sizes that are in demand. "Bridgestone/Firestone´s legacy to the rubber industry is to screw pattern bargaining," Carr said. "They decided to shut down the plant. It´s not a coincidence that it came just at contract time. They made it impossible for us to do anything to save the plant."
Ending still unwritten?
Carr said the USW still has some hopes of saving the factory. The closing will be part of the master contract negotiations with BFS that will resume now that the Goodyear strike has been settled. The union will propose not shutting down the plant.
Failing that, the two sides would negotiate a closure agreement to determine severance benefits for the workers.
Hourly workers also are eligible for preferential hiring rights at other unionized BFS plants, as well as benefits under the Trade Readjustment Assistance program, which gives assistance to those who lose jobs because of increased imports or a shift in production out of the country.
There also are unresolved charges the USW filed with the National Labor Relations Board. A positive resolution, Carr said, would be an NLRB or court order to reopen the plant.
"I think that would send the best message to companies shipping jobs out of the country that they need to make better decisions about what impacts workers and communities," he said.
Meanwhile, the company will continue with the job of removing equipment from the facility and getting the 2.6 million-square-foot factory ready for potential sale.
"When looking at a manufacturing facility, there´s an unbelievable amount of stuff, from the offices to the production area," Brooks said.
With all the money spent on upgrades, some of the equipment will be moved, such as calenders, extruder lines and conveyor systems. He said most of the usable machinery will be moved by the end of the first quarter, with the other equipment taken down throughout the year.
The factory, Brooks said, is in good shape from an environmental standpoint, being recognized under the Environmental Protection Agency´s National Environmental Performance Track program.
"Long term we want to leave this as a marketable and usable facility with no baggage," he said.