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Could Cooper Situation Ring the End for the USW?

January 17, 2012
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As they watch the events - or non-events - unfold at Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.'s hometown Findlay, Ohio, tire plant, do you think other tire plant USW workers are growing wary of - even angry with - their union?

And do you think those feelings could bring an end to the USW's representation of all tire and rubber workers? 

USW Local 207 workers have been locked out of their workplace for nearly two months, and no tangible negotiations have been held since Dec. 13. So since Nov. 28, some 1,050 plant workers have been without a paycheck, and only recently qualified for state unemployment benefits. Nice Christmas with no income, eh? 

The USW International, which is purported to have a whopping $150 million strike war chest, has managed to deliver just a fistful of $100 grocery store vouchers. Not a single dime of its strike fund – regardless of its supposed size – has fallen on a single worker in Findlay. 

Workers have gotten by thanks to the kindness of neighbors and friends and strangers. The Salvation Army and local United Way have helped with some money and food, and a local non-profit nursing home gave holiday turkeys to some of the workers, according to reports. 

Yet, the USW International can find plenty of dollars to take some of those Findlay workers and some of its well-paid execs on a junket to Serbia (of all places) to pow-wow with the union leadership of a Trayal plant Cooper is buying. Sure the sympathetic “We feel your pain, Comrade” greetings they received were probably comforting, but exactly what did all of that travel and food money get them? Are Serbian tire builders coming to America? Or are more American jobs getting shipped out? Hard to tell from this publicity stunt. Certainly did nothing to improve the lot of the locked out workers, or get Cooper and USW back to the bargaining table. 

Then this past weekend, the USW held a national “Day of Action” in which it called on members to picket outside of Cooper tire retailer stores. The USW claimed that 125 such events were held across the country, with USW members and supportive members of other labor unions marching arm-in-arm. Again, not exactly sure what this did to get the two sides back to the table; one would think ticking off the customer would not be a sure way to influence Cooper. 

For its part, Cooper’s company line is plain: The USW members failed to ratify the deal we had worked out, and failed to extend the previous contract and return to work until we can get a deal. 

It has repeated that statement quite a lot, most recently when it denied that there was a negotiation session with Local 207 and a federal mediator scheduled for Jan. 12. Local 207 officials thought they were going back to the table. Instead they got to go nowhere. 

Next, consider the curiosity of the USW authorizing a strike vote at Cooper’s Texarkana, Ark., plant, but not wanting to tie any job action there with negotiations at the Findlay plant. Are the two naturally connected, or did I miss something? Isn’t the USW supposed to be representing – and supporting – workers at all unionized tire plants, and supporting local decisions made by its Locals? 

For decades, unions played one plant against another, one tiremaker against the other. That’s where the term “master contract” came from. Back in the day, most tire companies all had their plant contracts come due on the same day. One company would be designated as the “target” and that company and the union would negotiate. If all went well, a contract would be hammered out and ratified, and then that contract served as the “pattern” agreement with the other tire companies. 

Most of the time, it didn’t go well, so the union – the United Rubber Workers until that dissolved and the plant workers sold their souls to the USW, which was considered to be a far more aggressive union – would play one company against the other until it all got worked out. 

Now, that was an admittedly simple explanation, but the point is this: The tactic of playing one off the other is a time-tested means to an end. Kids do it to their parents every day. If in 2012 the adults running the union don’t want leverage one plant against the other, what exactly is the USW in Pittsburgh afraid of? 

On Jan. 20, Cooper’s contract with its workers in Texarkana comes to an end. What will be the result there? Cooper has strongly stated that it does not want to have once separated, individual deals with the USW end up with the same due date. Cooper doesn’t want to risk losing all of its remaining U.S. tire production to a strike or other labor-induced action. 

Previously, contracts with Findlay and Texarkana workers ended months apart, which gave Cooper time to work out new deals without the threat of losing a massive chunk of its U.S. production. Cooper still has a very productive non-union plant in Tupelo, Miss., that turns out about 42,000 passenger and light truck/SUV tires per day, compared with the 54,000 PLT/day production of Findlay and Texarkana – combined. (Cooper closed its non-union Albany, Ga., plant two years ago.) 

Cooper has to be looking at this situation with some trepidation. The USW, perhaps, would want to push Cooper to one contract/one date. On the surface, the other two things Cooper could do are: get back to the negotiating table in Findlay and work out a new contract that is backdated and runs on an odd-year cycle compared to a deal in Texarkana, or it could risk a run-in with the National Labor Relations Board and arbitrarily impose a “last best offer” deal on Local 207 and order them back to work – on a backdated contract, of course. 

Either way, doesn’t seem like the USW International will be much of an impediment. 

Of course, the other option is to close the 94-year-old tire plant – the second oldest tire plant still in operation in the U.S. and Canada – and move on. The Findlay plant is Cooper’s smallest in North America, producing an estimated 22,000 tires per day. That is not at all what Cooper management wants to do – and not at all what the “If-We-Tariff-They-Will-Build” USW wants to have happen – but that option remains in play even if it is at the far end of a very long table. 

In reading some of the reports from the front lines in Findlay, there is no doubt plenty of USW Local 207 members are beyond pi@@%# with their union. Findlay workers feel at once abandoned and betrayed by their union. No money has come from the mega-strike fund, and the USW has flagged tying Findlay and Texarkana together, leaving workers wondering just what their union dues are buying them. 

As you can imagine, Findlay workers have plenty to say about Cooper management, which they shared with the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). “The people in the Ivory Tower aren’t willing to take pay cuts,” one worker told the WSWS. “My average pay is $21 an hour, and you have to budget for that. Then you come in and they say, ‘You have to slash your budget.’ How do I cut more? Right now I’m just trying to make my house note.” 

Reports on the WSWS also say locked out workers have grown frustrated, and are angry to be left in the dark by the union concerning negotiations and the company’s action. And while they claim that they are still standing solid, some of those who are locked out are lashing out at their union. 

“The Steelworkers is one of the richest unions in the country,” said one Local 207 member. “We haven’t got a raise in seven years but union dues have steadily gone up.” 

“It used to be a union. Now they’ve made it a business,” said another. “We’re all divided. The young guys are not getting a pension. Soon they are going to be the majority in here. Then the company will offer them a small raise if they vote to get rid of our pension.” 

A 20-year veteran said, “It’s going back to the 1930s. I lost $30,000 a year when they changed working hours and eliminated overtime after eight hours of work. We’re working 12 hours a day. People fought and died for the eight-hour day and now it’s gone.” 

“You keep hearing the economy is getting better,” said one worker to the WSWS. “Whose economy? They don’t want to talk about my economy. People can’t live this way. The lower classes outnumber those on top. That’s why the people who have had enough are driving out all the dictators in the Middle East. You can only suppress the majority for so long.” 

“Obviously, nobody wants to be locked out,” another said. “Everybody has to look at the big picture. There's a lot of issues over there. Job security is a big one, and I know they said we had to take pay cuts to keep our job security, but I don't know how far you can cut people's wages before enough is enough.” 

Local 207 workers claim they “took concessions last time,” that “last time” being the three-year deal they signed in 2008 when the economy was sliding rapidly. After that, claims the union, Cooper saw years of profits, and top execs got “double-digit pay increases in the year following the union concessions.” 

We have no access to Cooper’s human resources data, but for 2008 the tiremaker posted a $219 million loss. In 2009 it gained $52 million in net profits, and recorded another $140 million in net earnings in 2010. Through the third quarter of 2011, Cooper was up $44.5 million. So from Jan. 1, 2008, Cooper’s net-net profit has been a whopping $17.5 million. 

Regardless of their math challenges, union workers felt betrayed by the company when they got locked out on Nov. 28. 

“As a group we said enough was enough,” another Local 207 member told the WSWS. “One of the managers told us the new proposal was going to save the company $5 million to $7 million. I asked, ‘What about the $30 million you already took from us in 2008?’ He didn’t answer.” 

“The people in the Ivory Tower aren’t willing to take pay cuts. My average pay is $21 an hour, and you have to budget for that,” another frustrated worker to the WSWS. “Then you come in and they say, ‘You have to slash your budget.’ How do I cut more? Right now I’m just trying to make my house note.” 

So, if and when contact(s) with Cooper are resolved, just how will tire plant workers view their union moving forward? Will they feel secure and well-represented? Will they feel used and betrayed? Will they feel they have received value – some or any value – for the heavy dues they are obliged to pay? 

Or will they abandon the USW and find another labor body to represent their interests? 

Many older industry observers have said the USW was never the URW, never understood the lot of tire and rubber plant workers, and never seemed to make much of an effort to do so. The USW was and is STEEL, and little more. When the URW faulted and fell, it was a marriage of convenience, though rubber workers surely felt the bigger, stronger, more aggressive USW was right for them. 

No one could envision the Cooper-USW contract talks to ever be a watershed event, one that could peel tire and rubber workers away from the mighty USW. While there is no telling what the long-term relationship damage the situation in Findlay may cause, there should be little doubt the USW’s hold on the tire industry appears to be slipping. 

If you wonder about that, consider these unsolicited comments from a worker at Cooper’s non-union Tupelo, Miss., tire plant: 

“I work at our Tupelo, Miss., location. It is a non-union plant. I love my job and my co-workers are my family and friends. I will be shipped off to either Ohio or Texarkana this weekend to build tires and train willing and non-greedy individuals because the sorry bastards in those two facilities are unwilling to be status quo with our benefits package. Look at profit margins over the last 25 years throughout our company. The Tupelo team is why Cooper Tire is still open. I will not complain nor will I back down. Guess what USW? Your peoples’ retirement is funded by the sweat of Tupelo's brow. We lost our retirement in 2008 to keep YOUR jobs. I'm sure you sleep well at night, though. We work 12-hour shifts, too. If your people can't handle the job, maybe it's not the job for them. We will save the day once again, but this time I'm afraid you guys lose.”