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Grading the union

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No union has been in the news of late more than the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union. You know them as the United Steelworkers (USW).

Between contract negotiations with the Big Three domestic tire manufacturers and its fight for tariffs on Chinese consumer tire imports, the USW has been front and center in every media outlet in the country.

In the past, that has been a recipe for public relations disaster for union leaders. I have written about how, in my opinion, they write press releases that border on defamation when they are faced with viewpoints counter to their own.

Whether their bullying has hurt or helped their rank and file members is a debate for another time. For now, I would like to grade the USW on its actions and reactions in 2009.

Labor negotiations. Grade: A.  In June, the USW began serious contract talks with Michelin North America Inc., Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations LLC. All three companies were working under three-year contracts that were set to expire in July.
Goodyear and the union agreed to extend their existing contract twice during the negotiations. Michelin and the union extended their contract once.

Bridgestone and the USW let their contract run out. However, they continued to negotiate under the terms and conditions of the expired contract on a day-to-day basis.

The union gets high marks for agreeing to keep the discussions moving without openly complaining about, well, anything. Even when Goodyear secured “unprotected status” for its Union City, Tenn., plant during the talks — which gave it the right to close the factory if need be — the union respectfully kept quiet.

Michelin’s BFGoodrich Tire Manufacturing division was the first to reach a tentative contract with the union (Aug. 15, three years). Goodyear was next (Aug. 30, four years), followed by Bridgestone (Sept. 19, four years). All were ratified by union members.

[PAGEBREAK]“Our priorities were to protect our plants and our jobs while maintaining good, affordable health care in a difficult economic climate,” said USW International Vice President Tom Conway about the contract with Goodyear.

In a “Solidarity Alert” as the deadline drew near prior to the Goodyear pact, the USW wrote that “Though a strike remains a possibility, the committee remains focused on obtaining an agreement.” Based on the entire alert, I didn’t read this as a threat, just a fact.

Request for Chinese tire tariffs. Grade: B-. In April, the USW petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission for relief from a “surge” in consumer tire imports from China under Section 421 of the Trade Act of 1974. It was well within its rights to do so. In addition, the union acted according to the section’s provisions throughout the rule-making process

USW International President Leo Gerard said it was the USW’s responsibility to “defend” its members. It did so successfully, directly tying the 215% increase in Chinese consumer tire imports from 2004-2008 to the closing of plants and the loss of thousands of jobs.

When Gerard said the decision leveled the playing field between American- and Chinese-made tires, he was just echoing what U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said on Sept. 11 following President Barack Obama’s decision to impose additional tariffs.

I have to downgrade the union for its post-victory comments, however. Not for patting itself on the back and boasting (a little) following five months worth of effort, but for resorting to hyperbole.

“China and its agents here in the U.S. tried every trick in the book to protect their interests,” said Gerard. “They paid for trumped up studies to support their efforts and used front groups to lobby their cause and to influence politicians.”

Combatants on both sides did what they could to convince the ITC and, ultimately, the president to side with their views. For example, the USW greatly overstated the cause-and-effect between the increase in Chinese imports and the closing of six domestic tire plants.

There were no tricks or “trumped up studies” based on what I read. Gerard’s comments were a distortion of the facts.

This is not a picky point, because under section 421, the president can revisit his decision in March 2010.

In the past, I have been pretty hard on USW leaders like Gerard for their inflammatory remarks spoken at inappropriate times. This time, the union gets passing marks.    ■

If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail me at bob.ulrich@bobit.com.

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