Rubber Workers With Nerves Of Steel

Only a year ago, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. triggered a diplomatic flap when it permanently replaced more than 2,000 strikers. The U.S. eovernment put pressure on Bridgestone Corp., the tiremaker's Tokyo-based parent. Walter F. Mondale, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, complained to the Japanese Foreign Minister at a White House lunch. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich jumped in, and even President Clinton lashed out publicly.

The high-level government squeeze play didn't work. The subsidiary continued using replacement workers, and in May the beleaguered United Rubber Workers union officially ended its strike at five U.S. plants. But in July, the 90,000-member union got a shot in the arm by merging with the more powerful United Steelworkers (USW). The White House's tough words seemed mild compared with the harassment campaign unleashed by the 560,000-member USW. The tiremaker became the target of worldwide demonstrations and campaigns by foreign unions (table).

By mid-October, the company agreed to return to the bargaining table. Officials deny that the USW campaign was a reason, but on Dec. 5, Bridgestone President Yoichiro Kaizaki met with Steelworkers President George Becker in Tokyo. Sources close to both sides say they expect to reach a new deal by mid-December. Says Becker: "Bridgestone is a good employer in Japan, and by the time we're finished, it's going to be a good employer in the U.S., too."

Even a partial victory over Bridgestone would give labor a badly needed boost, given that workers there once seemed headed for a major defeat. In July, 1994, 4,200 workers walked out after the company refused to agree to terms the union had won from Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. a month earlier.

Bridgestone/Firestone wanted 12-hour shifts, pay hikes tied to productivity, cuts in health benefits, and lower pay for new hires. The company built inventory with help from its Tokyo parent and managed to keep customers supplied. Hundreds of demoralized strikers drifted back to work, and management began hiring permanent replacements last January.

TOKYO TACTICS. Even before the union merger, the company had been the target of the USW, one of the most aggressive unions in its use of corporate campaigns. The USW has been paying full-time wages to 150 members, who have taken leaves from factory jobs. Helped by thousands of volunteers, the union mounted weekly demonstrations against Bridgestone stores. On busy Saturdays, it conducted simultaneous protests of 100 or more participants at two dozen malls in Ohio and other states. One target: Sears, Roebuck & Co., a major Bridgestone distributor. The union also aired radio ads in more than a dozen local markets at $15,000 to $20,000 each and picketed Japanese consulates around the country.

The USW carried its campaign across the Pacific, too. It asked for help from Rengo, the main Japanese labor federation, which includes Bridgestone members. When Rengo balked, the USW teamed with Zenrokyo, a small left-wing union. The USW shipped over a 15-foot-high puppet of legendary labor organizer Mother Jones, and the two unions held joint demonstrations outside Bridgestone offices. Rengo, embarrassed by being upstaged, asked Kaizaki to meet Becker. "The company realized [the union] wouldn't go away," says Vic Thorpe, head of a Brussels-based labor federation that also lobbied Bridgestone.

The two sides now are making headway on many contentious issues. The toughest one: Becker insists that all strikers return to work, but Bridgestone refuses to fire any of its permanent replacements. If the two eventually settle, the U.S. and Japan can scratch Bridgestone off their list of conflicts.


The United Steelworkers' campaign:

HIT THE STREETS The union held up to 200 demonstrations a week against the company in 500 cities worldwide

APPEAL OVERSEAS Sent delegations to join protests by foreign unions that agreed to target Bridgestone overseas

ENLIST HELP FROM SYMPATHIZERS Lobbied the cities of Boston and Buffalo and some companies to cancel Bridgestone contracts

GET POLITICAL Convinced the Clinton Administration to protest Bridgestone's labor stance in high-level diplomatic meetings

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