Most people say the heyday of unions in the private sector is in the rearview mirror, but that doesn't mean that labor organizations don't still play a key role in many industries, including the tire and rubber industry.
Looking at the pure numbers can't be easy for labor leaders. Overall union membership was steady in 2015 from 2014, with 14.8 million wage and salary workers—or 11.1 percent—belonging to unions, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the private sector, though, the union membership rate was 6.7 percent, with 7.55 million union members. Manufacturing jobs are organized at a bit of a higher rate, at 9.4 percent.
And while there have been no U.S. tire plants organized in the past 25 years, the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers still represents about 18,000 workers at 19 tire plants in the U.S. The union's Rubber & Plastics Industry Council, including non-tire factories, has roughly 30,000 members, according to the USW.
That includes having bargaining units at five of six Goodyear factories, plus the plant outside of Buffalo now managed by Sumitomo; five of eight Bridgestone Americas factories; two of the four former Uniroyal Goodrich facilities now owned by Michelin; two of three Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. units; the Yokohama plant in Salem, Va.; and all three Titan Tire Corp. factories.
With the main master tire contracts up for renewal in 2017—though the two Michelin locals could opt out this year—all appears relatively quiet leading up to those negotiations.
And despite all the obstacles of operating an industrial union in today's environment, Stan Johnson, USW international secretary/treasurer, still sees value for workers that are union represented.
“Without collective bargaining, an individual only has the voice of a single individual,” said Johnson, who came from the former United Rubber Workers union himself. “If you don't have the right of representation or grievance procedure, in most cases you're an employee at will. The employer can essentially do anything they want, anyway they want, anytime they want.”
David Boone, president of USW Local 752 at Cooper Tire's Texarkana, Ark., plant said the role of labor continues to be to negotiate the best wage and benefits as possible, but also to keep jobs in the U.S.
“So often we miss the mark for what our international union does for us, with the tariffs that they filed,” he said. “We overlook that a lot, but if you don't have jobs here in the U.S., you have a problem.”