PITTSBURGH - "Bridgestone/Firestone ain't seen nothing yet," United Steelworkers of America (USWA) President George Becker told 200 local union representatives last weekend. Becker had called them to Pittsburgh in response to the Jan. 27 breakdown of negotiations between the union and B/F.
"We thought we were making progress," a union staff member said of the negotiations that had begun in November. "But it was like it's always been -- B/F negotiators made an offer and told us to think it over. Then they walked out and headed back to company headquarters in Nashville."
Becker called the meeting to map out strategy for a stepped- up campaign against the Japanese-owned transnational corporation and world's largest tire maker. "We made an unconditional offer to return to work," he said. "We did not surrender unconditionally."
Roger Gates, president of USWA Local 713-L attended the Pittsburgh meeting. "We're going to turn up the heat," he said. "We've got to get every union member in the United States involved and we've got to involve unions in other countries. The companies have gone global and so must we."
Gates said the fight against B/F would "set an example" for other companies. He said the USWA would host an international meeting of unions representing workers throughout the B/F empire. "We're not going to go fishing on the weekends," he said. "We're going to stick with it until we get the job done."
B/F forced the United Rubber Workers (URW) to strike on July 12, 1994. The strike, which involved 4,200 URW members in six states, ended officially nearly a year later when the union made an unconditional offer to return to work on May 22, 1995. In July the URW merged with the Steelworkers and the merged union launched a campaign to force B/F to rehire some 1,000 URW members who had been "permanently replaced" by scabs during the strike.
The union received a major boost on Jan 31 when Roberto Chavarry, acting regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), upheld USWA allegations that B/F had willfully prolonged the strike, illegally fired more than 1,000 workers and committed a long list of lesser violations. The board will seek reinstatement of all Bridgestone workers with full back pay and benefits.
"While we're pleased the NLRB has vindicated our position," Becker said, "we'll be satisfied with nothing less than a fair contract that returns our members to their jobs' He said the union was "mystified" by the company's change in attitude, and its "blatant disregard for the law and the harsh treatment it has accorded its workers, our members."
The USWA-led campaign against B/F began almost before the ink had dried on the merger agreement with the URW. In the months since the union has organized protests at B/F outlets in more than 200 cities and towns urging consumers to boycott the company's tires. In Massachusetts and New York the efforts resulted in several towns and the city of Buffalo agreeing not to buy B/F tires for their vehicles.
The union also sent a delegation to Japan where they marched to the gates of Bridgestone headquarters in Tokyo. While in Japan, the group visited Hiroshima and laid a wreath at the memorial commemorating victims of the U.S. atomic bombing of that city in the closing days of World War II.
"That was really something," Howard Scott said of the ceremony. He added that the delegation was "warmly and cordially greeted" by "our union brothers and sisters throughout Japan."
As the campaign accelerates, the union plans to target the Japanese embassy and consulates. Union members will be showing up at car races and other sporting events to inform patrons of what B/F has done to thousands of union families.
Discussions are also underway between the USWA and the United Auto Workers to explore possible ways of bringing additional pressure on B/F. More than 500 members of the clergy have organized Religious Leaders for Justice at Bridgestone/Firestone with headquarters in Cleveland. The USWA has also established a B/F hot line at 1-800-798-6489 where readers can find out what they can do to help.
Fred Gaboury contributed to this article.
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