BY BRIAN WILLIAMS
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina - The strike by some 1,450 members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) against Continental General Tire Co. remains solid as the work stoppage enters its fifth month. Workers interviewed by Militant reporters on the picket lines January 16-17 remain upbeat and confident of victory.
"When we went out most of us knew it would be a long haul," said Cedrick Davis, who has worked in the plant seven months. "This strike is bigger than Continental General Tire and our union."
"This strike has made us a union, before we were just an organization," chimed in Rose Sanders. "They fused us into one big powerful union."
Bruce Nash, a member of the union's health and safety committee with 27 years at the plant, said, "This is not about money. This is not an economic strike. It's about busting the union and demoralizing the union."
At a January 12 news conference held outside the plant gates and attended by some 300 strikers, USWA vice-president John Sellers announced a stepped-up media campaign to present the union's point of view to the public. Full-page ads were placed in several newspapers, including the Charlotte Observer, and Wall Street Journal. Radio messages were to be played on eight Charlotte radio stations, as well as in Mayfield, Kentucky; Bryan, Ohio; and Mt. Vernon, Illinois, where the company's other plants are located. While putting forward the union's just demands, the Charlotte Observer ad also reveals the national chauvinism promoted by the USWA officials when it states, "German Executives are double-crossing American working families." Continental General Tire is owned by capitalists from Germany. The ad points out that the company took $90 million in wage and benefit concessions from the workers in the last contract. The strike began September 20 over unfair labor practices, wages, and pensions that are below industry standards, unfair down time and incentive practices, outside contracting of union work, and the company's demand for concessions in work schedules, mandatory overtime, health insurance, and seniority.
Continental General Tire claims to be running the plant with 530 replacement workers, but production levels are far below the 33,000 tires produced each day prior to the strike. Only four of the 1,450 union members have crossed the line. Vance Security thugs continue to patrol the plant. The company argues for a new round of concessions from the union in order to "remain competitive" with a nonunion tire plant being built by Bridgestone/Firestone in Aiken, South Carolina.
`We're saying enough is enough'
"For three years we've been preparing for this strike," stated striker Danny Adams. "We gave into them last time. This time we're saying enough is enough."
In 1995 the workers took deep concessions. Since then the company has been implementing mandatory overtime and raising the production rates. Continental is getting 25 percent more production than in 1994 at less wages. Some workers are scheduled for three different shifts in a seven-day period and then forced to work on their next two off-days, Adams noted.
"The company wants to go from five to four shifts and eliminate some 130 jobs," stated William Dunlap. "With the four- shift schedule, we'd only get one weekend off per month. That's no life."
In mid-November the company informed the strikers that if they didn't return to work by November 17 they would be replaced. That night some 300-400 workers gathered in front of the plant. "We stood together and nobody crossed," stated Rose Sanders. "At midnight we rushed toward the plant and stopped at the white line where the company property begins. We rallied and hollered at them all night."
On December 20, the company announced that they were cutting all insurance coverage for the striking workers. "They thought they would break us by now, but we're holding together. They haven't broken anybody," recounted Sanders. "Our attitude is that we will survive this. We are not as oppressed as the company thought we would be."
A number of strikers proudly pointed to the support they have won throughout the community and from working people in the area. At Continental's plant in Bryan, Ohio, some 300 workers donated $7,000 to the Charlotte strikers. Members of the United Auto Workers from the Freightliner truck plant in nearby Mt. Holly, North Carolina, "come by all the time with food and contributions," commented Joel Klitzka. Other working people, from airport workers to members of the Communications Workers of America, have also been very supportive.
While this reporter was visiting the picket line, a member of the International Association of Machinists from the Philip Morris plant who used to work at Continental General Tire stopped by, as he does every week.
In Mt. Vernon, Illinois, where the company's plant is still nonunion, the USWA is making plans for another union certification vote after the strike in Charlotte is settled. Andy Hodges, secretary of USWA Local 850, told the Militant about his recent trip to the Mt. Vernon plant. "I was there January 13-15 and spoke to meetings of union supporters. The union lost the vote last January, but the pro-union workers there, organized in their `Bucket Brigades,' do weekly collections at the gate. So far they have sent over $9,000 to help our strike." Hodges added that the company pressured the local radio station in Mt. Vernon to pull the union's radio ad.
Strikers have also spoken to members of USWA Local 665 at Continental's Mayfield, Kentucky, plant.
"We're going to win," stated Billy Jack, who has 27 years at this plant. "Either we win or they put a `for sale' on it. One of the two. There's life after General Tire."
As we left the picket line, Nash urged us to visit the picket lines of 800 Steelworkers on strike against International Nickel in Huntington, West Virginia.
Brian Williams is a member of USWA Local 2609 in Sparrows Point, Maryland. Floyd Fowler and Dan Fein from Atlanta contributed to this article.
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