LAVERGNE, Tenn. — A negative vote by union members at Bridgestone/Firestone´s LaVergne tire plant on a proposed production incentive plan has left the facility vulnerable to closure.
On Aug. 23, more than 68 percent of the voting members of United Steelworkers Local 1055 rejected an incentive program tied to improved productivity at the plant. Passage of the plan, which would have allowed participating tire builders to earn bonus money up to 20 percent above their wage rate, also would have given the factory security from closure into July 2009.
Between 320 and 340 workers within the tire-building sector would have been affected by the incentive program, according to Scott Smith, recording secretary for Local 1055. The union represents about 1,600 members in LaVergne.
During master contract negotiations between BFS and the USW in 2006-2007, the company told the union that the LaVergne tire operation was losing money and could not offer job security through the life of the upcoming contract. BFS said to remain competitive and viable, the plant´s production would have to improve, and the two sides agreed that an incentive program would be established to achieve that goal.
Under the contract terms, the workers would get a chance to vote on the issue within 120 days of the master contract´s ratification, which took place in late April.
Now that the vote has been taken and the deadline passed, BFS is not obligated to protect the LaVergne plant-which has been operating since 1972 and employs about 1,700-or invest part of $100 million slated for "protected" facilities, according to a company spokes-man.
"It´s a significant step in the wrong direction," he said. "To be globally competitive, we have to improve our efficiency. This gave the employees a chance to control their own destiny."
Current wages-between $13 and $26 per hour-would not be reduced or otherwise affected by the incentive system.
Plant security would have been completely off the table until 2009 if the USW members had accepted the incentive program, the spokesman said. Closing the factory is an option, although no decisions have been made regarding its long-term future, he said.
The bulk of members believed they didn´t have enough information on the incentive program to go forward with it, Smith said.
The program was not yet fully developed, there were few hard numbers to work with and the time frame for actual implementation after studies were conducted would have moved into early 2008, he said.
"It was difficult to support and just write a blank check for the company," Smith said.
One figure the union did receive but didn´t like was a 4-mph pace on the truck/bus production line, which translates into about 90 tires over a 12-hour shift, Smith said. He said making that many tires in one shift would be a "big feat."
Many tire builders struggle to get to 77 tires per shift, the current pace, and those who wouldn´t make that quota would be subject to disciplinary action for low production, he said.
The BFS spokesman said the company made a strong effort to share information with everyone, and educate the workers why improved production efficiency was necessary and how it would work.
But while the USW International supported it, local leadership campaigned against it, he said.
"We would have worked together to develop a plan and find out what the appropriate standards would be," the spokesman said.
He said BFS is not trying to single out the LaVergne plant, but that the company wants to see competitive production in all its facilities. "It´s a fierce challenge," he said. "The competition is making A-1 quality products and in many cases they´re doing it cheaper. We have to improve, and instituting an incentive plan would have moved in that direction."
Other BFS facilities have incentive plans, including the Warren County, Tenn., truck tire plant — where the workers also are represented by the USW — the spokesman said.
Smith acknowledged the production incentives at Warren County, but said the bonus system is plantwide. In the proposed LaVergne plan, the pace of tire building could affect the supply or curing departments as well, but workers there wouldn´t qualify for any incentives, he said.
Plus, workers at former BFS plants in Decatur, Ill., and Oklahoma City also operated under incentive programs, and those sites were closed anyway, Smith said. "It´s not necessarily a saving grace," he said.
A potential closure is not a concern for the majority of the unionized workers, Smith said, because they believe BFS will "do what they´re going to do." The work force in LaVergne consistently has met or exceeded the required tire production levels at the plant, he said.