Today's United Steelworkers union is a bit different from a generation ago when the Pittsburgh-based trade organization burst onto the tire industry scene by merging with the United Rubber Workers.
While termed a merger, it was really an acquisition, in that the larger USW was brought in to save the URW during a time of deep labor strife. The Akron-based Rubber Workers were in the midst of what was termed as the “War of "94” strike against several of the major tire makers, but most prominently Bridgestone/Firestone.
The strike saw BFS and others—including Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp.—bring in replacement workers as the companies were intent on securing major contract changes and were willing to endure prolonged work stoppages.
The USW was seen as a militant group that could help the URW, which quickly went through its strike fund, by contributing the deep pockets necessary to stand up to the tire companies. Without the Steelworkers involvement, many former URW members believe a number of their plants wouldn't be around today.
Today's USW isn't nearly as militant in the traditional sense—not that it isn't willing to go on strike if necessary. But now the union has turned its militancy more toward other causes, especially in lobbying against trade agreements and successfully bringing petitions before the International Trade Commission to fight what it sees as illegal dumping.
Steelworkers' officials see this fight as part of its mission to protect American jobs. They see their battle as one that helps the entire domestic tire industry, benefitting not only members at USW-represented plants, but also at non-union facilities.
In dealings with tire and rubber companies, at least from an outside perspective, it appears the union has changed with the landscape. The president of the local at the Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Ala., said the relationship between labor and management there is one of constant communication.
A Bridgestone official even says the firm's relationship with the USW now focuses on a “solutions-oriented” approach. He said communication, engagement and professionalism are the keys to a successful union/management relationship.
The most obvious hurdle for the USW now is organizing. No tire plant has been organized since the early 1990s, and the new tire plant construction boom is all located in Southern right-to-work states.
While union officials remain optimistic they will organize some of these factories, the anti-union sentiments in many of these states—along with laws that favor employers—will make that task difficult at best for the USW.