PITTSBURGH — Bridgestone/Firestone and the United Steelworkers enter contract negotiations Jan. 30 in St. Louis with their own bargaining objectives in mind, but both sides will try to avoid a strike like the one that ended at Goodyear last month.
For BFS, it is critical to secure a contract that allows it to be globally competitive and addresses the long term, a company spokesman said.
"We need an agreement that keeps us on a solid path toward a goal of sustainable profitability," he said. "We can´t compromise or jeopardize the long term to get a contract that works in the short term."
The USW believes — as it showed in its negotiations with Goodyear and BFG — that securing capital investment at union-represented plants is a key to remaining globally competitive. The Steelworkers´ BFS Policy Committee also is targeting several other issues as keys to maintaining job security and plant protection, the union said, including:
— eliminating the "contracting out" of bargaining unit work;
— getting a successorship clause which guarantees union recognition in case of a plant sale;
— reducing the level of overtime to maintain employees´ health and safety; and
— creating new job opportunities for workers.
When an agreement is reached, the new deal will cover more than 6,000 workers at eight U.S. BFS tire and rubber product plants. Talks will end several months of inactivity as the Goodyear/USW negotiations — and eventual strike — took center stage.
The Steelworkers and Goodyear settled on a three-year agreement Dec. 28 after an 86-day strike by about 15,000 workers at 16 company sites in the U.S. and Canada. The union previously inked a three-year deal with Michelin North America Inc.´s BFGoodrich tire manufacturing unit — the industry´s bargaining target — in August. That three-year contract covers about 3,400 employees at three BFGoodrich tire plants.
Both of those agreements run into 2009.
Negotiations between BFS and the union started in June, recessed during BFGoodrich talks, started again briefly in the fall, then broke off again in favor of Goodyear-related sessions. Bargaining committees for both the USW and BFS planned on meeting separately the week of Jan. 15 to examine the Goodyear pact and revamp their strategies for the upcoming talks, a USW spokesman said.
Dealing with issues
Job security and retiree health care benefits were the driving issues in the Goodyear dispute, and the company settled its concern in the health care area by agreeing to contribute $1 billion toward a trust to help fund current and future retiree medical costs. Escalating insurance premium and prescription costs will make the health care issue a factor in the BFS talks as well, the USW spokesman said.
Plant protection, too, has been and will be a common thread in the contract discussions between the union and each tire maker. The companies have been reducing North American capacity because of low-cost competition abroad and diminishing demand in some domestic tire sectors.
BFS in December produced the final tire at its USW-represented Oklahoma City tire facility, and the two sides still need to settle on closure language affecting the 1,200-plus production workers there. The company employed more than 1,400 at the site in mid-2006.
Goodyear announced in June it was reducing production within its private-label tire business, then in October said it planned to close its Tyler, Texas, manufacturing plant. Contract language dictates the Tyler site will remain open through 2007.
The company on Jan. 4 said it plans to stop tire production at its Valleyfield, Quebec, tire plant by the end of the second quarter. The hourly workers there are unionized but not represented by the USW.
Michelin cut its mass-market tire capacity as well this year via a plant closure in Kitchener, Ontario, and a production reduction in Opelika, Ala., both USW-represented sites.
Pattern or no pattern?
Examining the contracts between the USW and the competition is part of the negotiations process, the BFS spokes- man said, but the end result still has to be in the best interests of BFS, its "teammates," and its individual business strategy. "Remember, the pattern bargaining process is one set up by the union, not the companies," he said. "Many items and issues will be different from each other while some will be similar."
While he didn´t specify any strategies, the spokesman said issues like job security and ticket guarantees would be addressed at the bargaining table, as would Oklahoma City closure language. "Sometimes things come up or each side takes positions you aren´t expecting," he said. "You just have to wait and see."
David Meyer, associate professor of management at the University of Akron, said coming off the strike at Goodyear, the union would rather not have to go to the same extremes to reach its goals with BFS. However, if the USW believes it took the strike to accomplish what it did with Goodyear, it would do it again and survive, he said.
However, Meyer also doesn´t believe BFS has the same degree of problems Goodyear faced regarding capacity and a growing, aging work force. While negotiations between the union and BFS will be tough and perhaps even fragmented, the mix of issues may not be as pressing, he added.
"BFS may want to get some of the concessions they´re looking for, but Goodyear had to have them," he said.
No matter what is looming before them, BFS and the USW are anxious to get to the bargaining table, the spokesmen said. The two sides didn´t settle their 2003 bargaining season contract until the summer of 2005, and Ron Hoover, USW executive vice president, said before talks began last year he´d like to see negotiations concluded in a timely manner.
Of course, that was before the union called for its strike against Goodyear.
"We want to get in there, because uncertainty isn´t good for business," the BFS spokesman said. "Both sides will be ready, and we want to provide the best job security we can to remain successful. If talks go well, it bodes well for us and our teammates. We´re optimistic we´ll get through the process and get a good contract."