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Goodyear Strikers: Fighting For Us All

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Generally when one thinks of “labor news,” one thinks of the fate of today’s unions, the split between the AFL-CIO and Change To Win, or decisions by the courts and the National Labor Relations Board that undermine workers’ rights.

It turns out, however, that there are still a lot of real workers out there who depend on their unions to defend their jobs, their pay and their retirement. And more than depending on their union, they’re depending on a concept that has become rarer in this society: solidarity.

Not that you would know it from reading the papers, or listening to political debates or (with one exception) in the blogosphere  these days, but 15,000 of those workers at Goodyear Tire and Rubber walked off the job last week at 16 plants in the United States and Canada. The workers had  been working under daily contract extensions since July 22 when their contract ran out. They're fighting over life and death issues that have stricken masses of middle class Americans over the past decades – loss of well-paying jobs, salary and benefit cuts, and undermining of promised retirement benefits. Instead of shutting down, Goodyear is running its factories with management employees and scabs.

The workers are represented by the United Steelworkers of America which represents Goodyear employees in Alabama, Kansas, Ohio, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and in Collingwood, Toronto and Owen Sound in Canada. Goodyear is the third largest tire company in the world, behind Bridgestone and Michelin. The main issue of the strike is Goodyear’s failure to ensure the survival of at least two of its plants, in Tyler, Texas, and Gadsen, Alabama which were not put on the company’s list of “protected” factories.

The union, which made major concessions during contract negotiations three years ago is feeling betrayed:

"The company left us with no option," said USW executive vice president Ron Hoover. "We cannot allow additional plant closures after the sacrifices we made three years ago to help this company survive." In the 2003 agreement, the USW agreed to a closure of the Huntsville, Ala. facility as well providing Goodyear with additional financial flexibility by accepting wage, pension and health care cuts.

"We worked very hard with the company in 2003 to deal with a difficult situation," said Hoover. "While more work can be done, Goodyear has rebounded and other stakeholders have been rewarded accordingly. Now the Company seems determined to only take more away from our members."

To add insult to injury, the company's words had been quite praiseworthy of the union for helping the company regain profitability after its near death experience in 2003 when Goodyear lost more than $1 billion, and took on billions in debt. Things are looking much better for the profitable company these days, but instead of putting its money where its mouth it, Goodyear has instead fed its own mouth:

Goodyear has previously been vocal about the vital role the union played in its $1 billion turnaround plan led by CEO Robert Keegan. Keegan earned a $2.6 million bonus last year on top of a $1.1 million salary, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Four other top executives were paid a total of $2.4 million in bonuses, plus six-figure salaries.

"If the company was in financial trouble and management was willing to take cuts themselves, we would be willing to do whatever was necessary to save our company," said Darryl Jackson of Local 959 in Fayetteville, N.C., where about 2,150 tiremakers are striking.

The company, of course, is blaming "global competition:

We simply cannot accept a contract that knowingly creates a competitive disadvantage versus our foreign-owned competition and increases our cost disadvantage versus imports," Jim Allen, Goodyear's chief negotiator, said in a statement.

But Goodyear employees have decided to fight:

Steve Huston, who has worked at the Topeka, Kan., plant for 36 years, said he understood what was at risk. "Nobody is glad to be on strike, but we're trying to hold onto what we have and they are trying to take more benefits and wages from us," he said. Dan Colby, 38, who works at Goodyear's Tonawanda, N.Y., plant near Buffalo, said the strike would be a hardship on most employees, many of whom have families with small children. "We work hard and are deserving of what we get," he said.

In addition to the threatened plant closures, the company also wants to cut back on retiree health care. According to former USW local president, Doug Wrestler

Someone who retired 15 years ago after working 40 years with Goodyear may be bringing home just a $600-a-month pension plus Social Security, he said. Widows of Goodyear union workers who gathered at Local 2's union hall earlier in the week said that once their husbands died, the pensions stopped as well. That left many of them to rely solely on Social Security. If a new contract forces higher medical payments on them, that would be a real burden, they said.

In June, the USW reached an agreement with Michelin subsidiary BF Goodrich which it hoped to set as a pattern for upcoming negotiations with Goodyear.

Remember, these workers are sacrificing themselves not only for their brothers and sisters in the two threatened plants, but for all middle class Americans who are fighting to retain the pay, benefits, retirement and job security that they've fought for and won over the past half century.  Is it an exercize in futility, fighting the unbeatable forces of  globalization?  Maybe. But at some point, what do you have to lose?

So, don't buy Goodyear tires. And if you happen to be in the neighborhood of a Goodyear plant, go on down and walk the picket line for a while. Ultimately they're fighting for all of us.

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Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab

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