CHICAGO - After a bitter 27-month strike and lockout, Bridgestone/Firestone (B/F), the world's largest tire manufacturer, has been forced to come to terms with the Steelworkers union (USWA).
Under terms of a tentative agreement reached earlier this month, B/F has agreed to rehire all strikers, grant an unconditional amnesty to more than 40 union members discharged for alleged strike-related misconduct and make lump sum payments totalling $15 million to strikers who were not recalled when the union agreed to return to work in May 1995.
Union members will vote by mail within two weeks and ballots will be counted by mid-December. During the battle, the union had organized a national consumer boycott and mobilized solidarity with unions representing B/F workers in 14 countries.
The strike began July 12, 1994 when B/F refused to accept the pattern established between the United Rubber Workers union (URW) and other tire companies insisting, instead, on wage and benefit cuts and around-the-clock production with seven-day weeks and 12-hour shifts. It ended in May 1995 when the union agreed to return to work unconditionally and B/F, which had continued operations behind union picket lines, refused to rehire all strikers.
The USWA "inherited" the strike in July 1995 when the URW merged with the larger union. Within days, the merged union launched a wide-ranging corporate campaign. to mobilize support for a decent contract at B/F. "We may have agreed to return to work unconditionally, but we did not surrender unconditionally," USWA President George Becker said at the time.
The USWA conducted a militant, imaginative corporate campaign that saw picket lines at B/F outlets across the country. Steelworkers demonstrated at the Indianapolis 500 and other car races demanding that B/F be "black flagged." More than 30 city councils passed resolutions refusing to use of B/F tires on city vehicles.
The union maintained a Camp Justice across the street from corporate headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. and sparked many steelworkers and other union supporters to run for public office on a platform of fighting for a settlement of the strike.
In March 1996, the USWA organized an international meeting of unions representing B/F workers in Nashville and delegations of U.S. rubber workers traveled to Japan, France, Brazil, Argentina, and other countries where B/F has plants.
The agreement provides for a $750 signing bonus, wage increases of 75 cents an hour over the life of the contract and B/F dropped its demand for increased co-pays for health insurance. If approved, the agreement expires on Sept. 1, 1999, the date that other contracts in the industry terminate.
Sources in USWA headquarters told the World that the question of continuous production with seven-day weeks and 12-hour shifts had become a "non-issue" in final negotiations. It was removed from the bargaining table and left for resolution in local negotiations The union also agreed not to press unfair labor charges previously filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
Local union officers expressed caution on how the membership might react to the agreement. Becky Bradish, recording secretary of USWA Local 310 in Des Moines said she was cautiously optimistic. "Working in a rubber factory, especially in the summer heat, is a hard enough job for eight hours a day - 12 hours is something else. I haven't seen the contract. We'll know more in a week or so. Meanwhile, I'm cautiously optimistic."
When reached at the office of USWA Local 138 in Noblesville, Ind., Charley Gibson pointed out that at his plant B/F never imposed 12-hour shifts, even when operating with strike breakers. "I doubt that the company would find it effective because the quality of the product would go down if workers were forced to work 12 hours a day, three or four days a week."
Though B/F claimed rising profits and production throughout the struggle, it could not ignore the negative effect of the union's relentless pressure on its public image and the clear evidence that the union would never quit the fight.
Many of the lessons learned in the fight at B/F need to be applied to the prolonged battles at places like Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, Diamond Walnut at Watsonville, Calif., Uno-Ven Oil at Lemont, Illinois.
National and international labor solidarity, combined with independent political action and coalition-building, are crucial steps towards winning greater victories for labor in the coming period.
-Fred Gaboury contributed to this story.
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