Editorial comment: Union lacks respect for differing views

Dec. 3, 2006

By Bob Ulrich, editor, Modern Tire Dealer

I want to be upfront about this: In my experience, unions are narrow-minded. Like any of the companies with which they negotiate, they have strong viewpoints about right and wrong. However, if you don’t follow their viewpoint, you are not only wrong, but also undeserving of respect. And that bothers me greatly.

I had been intimately involved in two major strikes in my life prior to the current strife between the United Steelworkers of America and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Back in 1980, the teachers in my hometown of Ravenna, Ohio, staged the longest teachers' strike in United States history. I had friends and family directly and indirectly involved in that strike, which tore the community apart for five months.

There was reported vandalism on behalf of the union, and a shunning of any of the teachers or replacements who put the students first by crossing the picket line. Numerous teachers were arrested. At the time, I didn't know whether or not the union or the board of education was in the right. I just know the union members were very disrespectful to anyone who didn't feel as they did.

Closer to home for our industry, Bridgestone/Firestone and the United Rubber Workers were involved in a very contentious strike in 1995-96. Again, I don't know which, if either, side was more justified in its demands. As senior editor of Modern Tire Dealer at that time, I do remember attending a union meeting in Akron, Ohio.

One union representative who was involved in the industry-wide strike back in the 1970s was leading the conversation. He was boasting about how, thanks to the union, the former Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. paid the price of its supposed insolence back then and was forced to close a number of plants over a 10-year span. He rallied the workers with this supposed show of strength. I wondered at the time how many of those in attendance realized how many thousands of Firestone workers had lost their jobs because of the union's actions.

Fast forward to today. Two months into the strike of 16 Goodyear plants in the U.S. and Canada, three incidents have occurred that, I think, demonstrate what union leadership is all about.

1. Not too long ago, we had been posting what we thought was fair coverage of, first, the negotiations between the parties, and second, the strike on www.moderntiredealer.com. We have worked hard at developing and maintaining very good relations with both Goodyear and the union, which has resulted in, to me, balanced coverage. One day, we printed an update from Goodyear North American Tire President Jon Rich. The union responded, but for some reason not to us. We couldn’t find it on the union Web site, and we weren't e-mailed anything. A union communications representative called and chewed the magazine out for not having it on the Web site – not politely, mind you. In particular, he claimed we were siding with Goodyear. While we were asking for the information, he hung up on us.

2. On Nov. 14, three days after the parties returned to the bargaining table in Cincinnati, Ohio, following a long layoff, union representatives rejected Goodyear's latest proposal and walked away from the table. (To date they haven't returned.)

3. On Nov. 28, three USW Local 2 members in Akron crossed the picket line. They reportedly claimed they had run out of money, putting their families in jeopardy. The union claimed otherwise, and criticized them indirectly through the press and directly with bullhorns outside their homes. "It's certainly disappointing in that they didn't have the resolve to stand up for what they went on strike for,' Kevin Johnsen, the USW's Goodyear contract coordinator, told us.

I have talked with union members, union executives and Goodyear representatives. I have read editorials in the local newspaper from both sides. I have visited YouTube to see a very dramatic and pointed ad posted by the union, and been privy to correspondence between Goodyear and its employees. Ultimately, I can only go by what I see and hear.

Based on all my experience, the union has a black-and-white view of things -- it is always right, and anyone who disagrees is wrong. Offer a differing opinion and the USW will take its ball and go home.

Maybe I wouldn't be so hard on the union (and based on my talks with the parties involved, I am lumping union leadership with union membership because the latter has told me to) if it wasn't so outwardly militant. The hyperbole and, in some cases, paranoia tainting nearly all of its press releases turns me off. Bottom line, the union appears out of line.

Goodyear says it needs certain concessions to be competitive in today's marketplace. The union believes Goodyear is undermining the domestic work force (i.e., unionized work force) and wants to move all its manufacturing overseas. Who's right? Who knows? Maybe both, maybe neither. For purposes of this editorial, I don't care. I only want to see more respect for other, and in some cases, conflicting, ideas and opinions. Mutual respect can only lead to a successful outcome.

According to the Ohio Historical Society's "Ohio History Central: An Online Encyclopedia of Ohio History," the Ravenna teachers strike and others like it "created a negative image for Ohio, causing non-residents to view the state and local governments, as well as teachers, as being uncaring about education and children. As a result of this view, numerous businesses and people refused to relocate to Ohio."

Without respect, nobody wins in the long run.