BY GARY BOYERS AND CHUCK GUERRA
WOODBURN, Indiana - "I'm tired of being treated like a piece of meat. I'm a human being. I's like to be treated that way." Rick Rowe, a mechanic with 20 years' seniority at the Uniroyal Goodrich tire plant outside of Fort Wayne, was echoing the sentiments of his 1,200 co-workers, members of United Steelworkers of America Local 715. They are on strike against company demands to unilaterally change work rules for union members.
Steelworkers struck the Woodburn plant October 24. This is the seventh strike since the plant opened in 1961, but the first since Michelin acquired Uniroyal Goodrich seven years ago. On November 10 the company began removing equipment to produce mini-spare tires. Michelin bosses had previously threatened to do this if the strikers didn't return to work.
Strikers on the picket line explained that there are no wage issues in dispute. These have been settled in the master contract with Uniroyal Goodrich this summer and in local negotiations before the talks broke down. The union made several monetary concessions, including tying future wage increases to the profitability of all three plants under the master contract and allowing the recalculation of production and bonus rates on various machines.
The union refused to agree that the company could arbitrarily change work rules without any union input, however. Michelin negotiators argued that the union could file a grievance against any new work rules it opposes.
Phil Slattery, a tire builder with five years' seniority, told the Militant that under this setup, a worker with six months to go before retirement could be fired for returning from a break one minute late, and replaced by a new-hire who starts at 70 percent of base pay. A local labor studies professor told the Journal Gazette, a Fort Wayne daily, that while "some tire manufacturers are able to revise a limited number of work rules without union approval," what Michelin wants appears to be broader than its competitors. The president of the Northeast Indiana Labor Council told the Journal Gazette that he doesn't know of any unionized companies in the area that can alter work rules at will.
Michelin also wants to expand its ability to eliminate job classifications and move people between departments. This would undermine previously won bidding and seniority rights. The union also objects to workers accused of violating company rules being immediately suspended or fired. The union wants an accused worker to have a hearing with a union representative present before any disciplinary action can be taken.
No negotiations have occurred since early November, and none are scheduled. The local school board has requested that a mediator be brought in, citing fears that a potential closing of the plant could have an impact on its budget. While Local 715 has agreed to talk, Michelin has refused.
The company is moving ahead with plans to shift production out of Woodburn. The mini-spare tires are to be built in a new, non-union plant in Ardmore, Oklahoma. They are the only products built in Woodburn that go into new cars; the remainder of the plant's production is for replacement tires sold through tire dealers. The company also announced plans to move the T/A line for full-sized pick-ups from Woodburn to its USWA- organized plants in Tuscaloosa and Opeleika, Alabama. About 240 jobs would be lost in Woodburn through the elimination of these products. The company had previously announced that the mini- spares line would be eliminated by 2000, Slattery reported. Michelin now says that it will lower the workforce at Woodburn to 800 by that year. There are 600 fewer workers in the Indiana plant today than when the last contract was approved in April 1994.
The Woodburn plant was opened by BF Goodrich in 1961. Uniroyal Tire and Rubber merged with Goodrich in 1986, and four years later Michelin bought Uniroyal Goodrich. Local 715 has a history of militancy. It was the last Uniroyal Goodrich local to accept 12-hour, rotating shifts, defying Michelin's threats to shut the plant down if the new schedule wasn't agreed to. These shifts were finally included in the 1994 contract. The local also raised thousands of dollars to support Bridgestone/Firestone workers during their 1994 - 95 strike. Local 715 president Ray Wiseman was fired from the plant in February of this year, reinstated as part of the master contract in June, and then fired again in July. Steelworkers from the Bridgestone/Firestone plant in Noblesville, Indiana, sent a delegation to the Woodburn picket lines in mid-November, bringing a check for $500 with them.
Gary Boyers and Chuck Guerra are members of USWA Local 1299
in River Rouge, Michigan.
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