Skid Marks At Bridgestone

Just three years ago, labor relations between Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and the United Rubber Workers were a model for industry. The No.3 U.S. tiremaker felt so confident of its relationship with workers that it voluntarily allowed the union into its new plants. Together, in 1991, the two sides negotiated a three-year national contract without a strike.

Fast-forward to 1994. Today, the company and some 4,200 workers at six locations are battening down for a long siege in a strike that began July 12. And things are turning nasty. On Aug. 2, URW President Kenneth L. Coss accused the Japanese-owned Bridgestone of being the "ringleader" in an "unholy alliance" with three other foreign tiremakers--Japan's Yokohama Rubber Co. and Sumitomo Rubber Industries Ltd., and Italy's Pirelli Group--all of which have seen strikes since June. Calling the companies "invaders," Coss says all four are demanding "parallel deep concessions." Bridgestone denies any such alliance.

BLACK INK. The company's labor relations began sliding, outsiders say, with the arrival in 1991 of a few chairman at Bridgestone/Firestone, Yoichiro Kaizaki, a cost-cutter who has since moved up to head the parent company in Tokyo. A strike at one plant in 1992 hurt the Akron union's credibility with the company. Later, officials who had backed cooperation departed. Now, Bridgestone Corp. is determined to wring major productivity gains out of its lagging U.S. operations. "We have a compelling need to change our competitive position in the marketplace," Vice-President Charles R. Ramsey told workers in a May 26 letter.

Ironically, the dispute is coming just as Bridgestone/Firestone is showing signs of turning around. Firestone has posted more than $1 billion in red ink since Bridgestone bought it in 1988 for a pricey $2.6 billion. Gradually, though, the company has restored relations with dealers, reinvigorated the Firestone brand, and gained market share. Last year, the unit pulled into the black, netting $6 million on $5.1 billion in sales.

That's not enough, Bridgestone says, claiming that it spends $5 more than its rivals to make a tire. Under the company's proposal, a spokesman says, employees would make a substantial $65,000 a year in wages and benefits.

The union would like a pact similar to the one it approved with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in June. Both companies say they pay about $30 an hour in wages and benefits, but Goodyear will increase pay and benefits close to 16% over three years. Bridgestone/ Firestone's "last, best and final offer" would produce 15%, the company says. But most of that gain would come from cost-of-living payments that workers would earn by meeting productivity goals set by the company.

Such a deal is anathema to the rubber workers. John W. Sellers, the union's Bridgestone/Firestone coordinator, also is incensed by a long list of cutbacks, ranging from reduced health-care coverage to a proposal to allow 12-hour work shifts 14 days a month. Bridgestone argues that similar shifts have been adopted at competitors' plants.

The company is girding for a showdown. The striking URW plants account for less than half its North American capacity, and it has stockpiled inventory. But the URW isn't backing down. Pointing to rivals such as Goodyear, Sellers declares: "The answer to being competitive is not to reduce the standard of living of the worker." With that kind of rhetoric flying, it could be a long fight.

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