PITTSBURGH (April 3, 2009)—United Steelworkers negotiators will have familiar subjects on their minds when contract talks with the tire industry's Big Three begin later this year, but rather than making gains in those areas, the main objective will be preservation.
That won't be easy. Michelin, Bridgestone and Goodyear—plus many other tire makers—have made production and job cuts or postponed expansion projects in recent months, both in North America and globally.
And if the union is to reach its goals in a challenging economic environment, it likely will do so without its rubber industry leader. Ron Hoover, United Steelworkers executive vice president and head of the organization's Rubber/Plastics Industry Conference, plans to step down from his position on June 1.
Hoover, a 45-year veteran of the United Rubber Workers and—following their 1995 merger—the USW, made the official announcement at the R/PIC's pre-negotiations policy conference in Pittsburgh the week of March 9. Master contracts with the Big Three tire makers expire in July, and the R/PIC traditionally holds the conference before the beginning of talks in the three-year tire industry cycle.
The R/PIC represents about 45,000 workers, according to the USW. About 11,500 of those are Goodyear employees, 4,500 Bridgestone workers and 3,200 from Michelin/BFGoodrich, the union said.
Job and plant security, investments at unionized tire facilities, retiree benefits, health and safety and tiered wage scales are among the important issues the USW wants to emphasize in this year's bargaining, a union spokesman said. Most of those were at the top of the list in 2006 as well, but a highly competitive tire market made negotiations difficult.
Most notably, workers at 16 Goodyear tire and rubber product sites in North America went on strike in October 2006 and stayed out for 86 days. Also, in the months surrounding contract talks, several plants either closed or reduced capacity significantly.
Bridgestone shut down its Oklahoma City facility, and Goodyear closed its Tyler, Texas, factory and axed tire production at Valleyfield, Quebec. Michelin sliced production by 30-40 percent at its BFGoodrich site in Opelika, Ala.
Reduced demand in several segments—particularly in mass-market passenger tires—was already a problem three years ago, leading to many of those cutbacks.
Now, an overall recession makes maintenance a priority, the spokesman said.
“We want to generally protect what we have,” he said. “We want to protect our staffing levels, help prevent closings and encourage investments in our plants.”
Late last year, USW-represented workers at Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.'s Findlay, Ohio, and Texarkana, Ark., tire plants reached separate contract agreements with the company, securing jobs and production for the next three years. However, Cooper announced it would shut down its non-union Albany, Ga., passenger and light truck facility within the next year.
In addition to plant and job preservation, the USW wants to ensure that health and safety standards aren't compromised, especially as manufacturers are making efforts to cut costs, and close the gap between “old” and “new” employees the union says is becoming wider in current tiered wage systems. Earlier this year, Hoover used the world “havoc” to describe the situation with new hires and their wage levels and fringes.
USW officials are unsure if Hoover will participate in the 2009 bargaining round. Contract discussions are due to begin June 1, the effective date of his retirement.
Hoover has been head of the R/PIC since Sept. 1, 2005, when he succeeded John Sellers. Before that appointment, he served the URW and USW in numerous positions, including as Sellers' assistant, a URW staff member, a bargaining committee coordinator, and a member and two-term president of Local 307 in Topeka, Kan. That local is made up of hourly workers at Goodyear's Topeka tire plant.
Hoover will be succeeded by Stan Johnson, currently director of USW District 9 in Nashville, Tenn. Like Hoover, Johnson's roots are in the URW, and he also previously served as the USW's organizing director.