By William Schertz, Crain staff (TB)
Findlay, Ohio -- With contract talks between Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. and United Steelworkers (USW) Local 207L still ongoing and unionised workers still locked out of the tyre maker's Findlay plant, the company has brought in a temporary workforce to produce tyres there.
Media outlets reported dozens of workers were brought to the plant by white vans Dec. 5, passing union workers picketing at the facility's entrances. Cooper said it expected the plant to be back up to full production capacity within 30 days.
â€œWithout quality, cost-competitive products, there are no customers,â€ said Chris Ostrander, president of North American Tire Operations for Cooper, in a press release Cooper issued Dec. 2. â€œWithout customers, there are no jobs. It is essential that Cooper become more efficient in its existing operations to ensure the long-term viability of Cooper overall.â€
Cooper's top priority is to get unionised employees back to work so they can â€œcontinue earning a fair wage and benefits,â€ Mr. Ostrander said. Last week, the tyre maker proffered another offer to extend its current contract for a full year, but the USW declined.
â€œThe problem with a year is we got new union officers coming up here in the spring elections for union officers. We can't jeopardise the contract with new officers who are inexperienced in these negotiations,â€ Rod Nelson, president of USW Local 207L, told Tire Business. â€œWe got our problems now, we got to deal with it and put it behind us.
â€œWe're really not that far apart," Mr. Nelson said. "If we can get some guarantees and drop down some other issues, we'll be all right.â€
Union negotiators brought a federal mediator to their Dec. 5 meeting with Cooper, but Mr. Nelson said that little progress was made.
â€œThe company is not willing to bargain,â€ he said. â€œThey took a proposal to the negotiating table the first of October. They haven't moved off of it, and they're trying to bully their contract through. That's not what negotiating is about. We have some problems with that proposal and we need to work out our differences.â€
One of the biggest issues with the proposal is the tiered wage scale, Mr. Nelson said.
In a four-page letter recently addressed to the Findlay community through its local newspaper, Ostrander - who became Cooper's president almost a year ago - explained that the company wishes to re-evaluate job classifications at the plant and pay new hires an amount determined fair by the market. While Cooper said it would grandfather existing employees under their current pay scale during the life of the contract, the USW's Nelson said the fear among workers is that this will change once the contract is up.
â€œThere's some people on that who are going to take a big hit as far as their pay goes once those jobs get re-evaluated,â€ he said. â€œWe don't know what the standards are, we don't know what the company expects us to produce. There's a lot of unknowns there, and they won't put anything in writing.â€
The union also wishes to address medical premiums and a proposed stay incentive for newer employees that Nelson said would allow new hires to make more money than some long-term workers. â€œThat didn't sit very well with the membership there,â€ he acknowledged.
Nelson, who has served on the union's negotiation team for about 12 years, charged that Cooper has changed its tactics time this time around in bargaining to a form of bullying.
â€œ(Chris Ostrander) came in, put some threats down - we're not used to that. We've always done the right thing here at the Findlay plant,â€ Nelson said. â€œHave we extended contracts before? Absolutely. We worked until the middle of December the last contract and the middle of January the contract before. To have somebody come in saying we're not going to extend it out anymore, we're going to not deduct your union dues - he's doing this on principle.
â€œWe see it all over corporate America now,â€ he continued. â€œYou see it with the Senate Bill 5 issue in Ohio, you see it with the Republicans in Congress - they do not want to reach across and work with anybodyâ€¦. I'm totally shocked that my company I've worked with for 30 years is resorting to such tactics also.â€
The temporary workers hired by Cooper all have manufacturing backgrounds, Cooper said, but Nelson said he believes using workers inexperienced in building tires could pose a safety risk for consumers.
â€œMy people are out here burning barrels at Christmas time, and it's uncalled for,â€ he said. â€œWe got some of the hardest working people in tyremanufacturing out here locked out, and they got people in there building tires that aren't trained properly.â€
Cooper said it â€œremains committed to reach an agreement that will help ensure the long-term competitiveness of the Findlay plant.â€