Labor Advocate Online

Rubber Bounces Back
Goodyear Workers Currently On Point In Fight For Middle Class Jobs
by Bill Onasch

Their Future On the Line

Ten years ago impressive struggles erupted in Decatur by workers fighting to preserve middle class jobs. Simultaneous strikes at Staley, Caterpillar, and Firestone earned that small central Illinois town the designation of the “War Zone.”

The Decatur strikers did a good job in mobilizing support from their community. More than that, they reached out for solidarity on the national, even international levels and found great sympathy.

The Kansas City Labor Party at the time made support for the War Zone a top priority. Caravans made the 300 mile trek to giant Saturday rallies in Decatur. The party twice sponsored visits from Staley Road Warriors, once in conjunction with a Missouri AFL-CIO state convention.

Unfortunately, the exemplary struggles in Decatur were unable to inspire emulators as well as sympathizers. National union leaderships dedicated to “partnership” with the boss were not prepared to consider the kind of bold, effective, now largely illegal actions that had built industrial unionism in the first place. Eventually, each in their separate ways, the Staley, Caterpillar, and Firestone struggles went down to defeat.

The bitter fruit of these losses not only had to be eaten in Decatur. Caterpillar and Firestone were under national agreements. The poison of take-backs at those companies spread like e coli throughout the UAW and Rubber Workers (now part of USW.) After tasting blood in Decatur, and strengthened by the dynamics of Globalization, the bosses insisted on menus of continuing concessions in these once mighty bastions of industrial unionism.

The U.S. tire industry is now concentrated in four companies. Firestone had already been acquired by the Japanese based Bridgestone at the time of the Decatur battles. French based Michelin picked up Goodrich. Goodyear gobbled up Dunlop and Kelly-Springfield. German based Continental rounds out the list.

Goodyear remains the number one tire producer in the USA, number three in the world. It is also the only “American” company surviving though it too has extensive and growing operations and markets offshore.

In 2003 Goodyear pleaded extreme poverty, raising the specter of a bankruptcy liquidation. The workers agreed to substantial sacrifices in an effort to save the company and preserve jobs. The company’s fortunes did turn around and this year top corporate executives rewarded themselves with seven-figure “performance bonuses.” 

But they were hardly grateful to their “partners” in the USW leadership, much less their “associates” churning out profits on the shop floor. In negotiations this year the bosses came in with a litany of new draconian take-backs and plans for further plant closings. In another testimony to their financial health, Goodyear obtained a billion dollar line of credit to tide them over during a strike. They were clearly spoiling for a fight—and they’ve got one. 

USW workers are seething at what they see as betrayal by Goodyear. They are alarmed about not only what more concessions will do to present workers but also their effect on retirees and their own children. They believe they have earned a middle class life style and that their employer can afford to provide for it. They’ve surrendered enough—nothing more will be given up without fierce struggle.

A month into the strike Goodyear advanced both threats and a deceitful propaganda offensive. They hoped to sow fear and dissension among strikers and their families, maybe even prod some of them into scabbing.

The union quickly responded. From the Akron Beacon Journal,

“Jim Allen's [company chief negotiator] posting the other day on the company Web site would make the naive believe that there are no valid reasons for 15,000 USW members at 16 plants across North America to be on strike,’ the Steelworkers' response said.

The union, which has been on strike since Oct. 5, said Goodyear's proposals would:

• Reduce wages by as much as 40 percent for hundreds of workers who, for health reasons, have to leave their current job.

• Restore pension money while doubling health-care premiums.

• Change the way cost-of-living increases are calculated, leaving more than half of the Steelworkers with no cost-of-living increases for the life of the contract.

• Eliminate benefits, including disability insurance, and in some cases cost employees up to $1,000 in additional annual medical expenses.

• Create a retiree medical trust plan that would run out of money within a few years and then leave the company with no further responsibilities.

• Worsen the current profit-sharing formula and eliminate retiree profit-sharing.

• Close the Tyler, Texas, plant and eliminate protection for all other plants if its competitor Bridgestone Firestone fails to provide plant protection to its plants or fails to ratify an agreement with the USW in six months.

• Create a new hire/support unit that would pay workers $13 an hour with no health care, pension, seniority, vacation and other benefits and let them work any shift or job in a plant.

Shawn Saving and Jeff Humfeld With LP Banner In Topeka

Saturday, November 4, along with other Kansas City Labor Party members, I attended a solidarity rally organized by USW Local 307 in Topeka in response to the latest company offensive. My guess is that about 750 were present for the spirited event. The big majority were Goodyear strikers and families but there were also substantial numbers from unions such as the Teamsters, CWA, AFT, NEA, IAM, Carpenters, ATU, and I’m sure others as well. Undoubtedly even more, especially from the Kansas City area, about an hour’s drive down I-70, would have been there were it not for the distraction of the midterm election.

Reminiscent of Decatur, a common theme of speakers—including Democrat congressional candidate Nancy Boyda—was the strike being a defense of endangered middle class jobs. 1500 decent paying jobs at stake are especially vital to the living standards of towns such as the Kansas capital with a population of only 125,000. Many Goodyear plants are in even smaller communities.

USW Local 307 President Robert Tripp Addresses Rally

By all accounts, strong solidarity has been expressed by the community with numerous ordinary working people stopping by the picket line to drop off doughnuts and soft drinks; drivers honking horns; Girl Scouts taking the initiative to organize a food drive for striker families. The Teamsters presented a 5,000 dollar check to the union strike fund.

The only sour note I heard in regard to solidarity—not from the platform but from individual unionists I spoke with—was the fact that union building trades crafts have been crossing the picket line to complete a new state of the art radial truck tire line inside the Goodyear plant.

The presence of a prominent Democrat politician on the solidarity stage was a good thing. I have no reason to doubt her personal sincerity in forcefully speaking in support of the strike. But it would be a mistake to count on much coming through the present political Establishment. They are part of the problem, not our salvation. We need a party of our own to deal with the issues of Globalization, health care, pensions and anti-labor laws from a working class perspective.

At the same time it must be acknowledged that the Labor Party is still more of a vision than a political force. We don’t suggest that fights be deferred until we take political power. The bosses have the power to set the agenda, to choose the battles today. Part of building a genuine labor party is participating in those battles along side our union sisters and brothers on the firing line.

There is much to be done to support a strike. We can help on the picket line, get the truth about the issues out to the community, and help collect money and food to get the strikers through tough times. Perhaps at some point there will be a consumer boycott organized.

The Topeka strike will be the main feature on this Thursday’s Heartland Labor Forum radio show, broadcast on KKFI, 90.1 at 6PM, also available for listening on the show’s web site.

This is an important strike. It deserves the support of all working people.

November 5, 2006

The camera shy author

Bill Onasch, a retired ATU bus driver, represents Midwest chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council. In 1979, while president of UE Local 1139 in Minneapolis, he was a leader in a bitter, ultimately successful six-week strike against Litton Microwave.


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