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Firestone shuts Decatur plant
Corporate killers make workers pay

by LEE SUSTAR | July 6, 2001 | Page 16

DECATUR, Ill.--The decision by Bridgestone/Firestone to close its tire plant here is the result of management's relentless drive to make workers pay for corporate greed. By shutting down the plant and eliminating 1,500 jobs, Bridgestone/Firestone is hoping to scapegoat workers for its faulty--and deadly--tires.

Firestone tires have contributed to more than 200 deaths and hundreds more injuries in the U.S. in accidents involving Ford Explorers and other SUVs. The tires were poorly designed--and many of the faulty ones were built by scab labor in Decatur during a strike in 1994-95. Ford told its customers to under-inflate the tires--which only made the problem of tread separation worse.

Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford executives knew about the deadly combination of Explorers and Decatur-built tires as early as 1996. But they did nothing until they were exposed by the media.

Now workers at the Decatur plant--who rebuilt their union after a bitter defeat in a 1994-95 strike--will see their lives wrecked, too.

"I'm still kind of in shock," said Paula Griffin, who worked at the Decatur plant for three and a half years before she was laid off last October. "They said they were going to bring us back after the summer shutdown--and that by the end of the year we should all be back there working," she told Socialist Worker.

Instead, if management has its way, the plant will shut its doors for good.

"This is going to totally devastate their lives," Paula said. "A lady on the Chamber of Commerce said that everyone will find jobs. But you can't take someone who was making $20 an hour and give them a job making $6 an hour."

One tire worker who was laid off along with Paula is trying to support her family on little more than half of her old pay--after her husband was injured while working at the Archer Daniels Midland plant in Decatur, leaving him unable to work. Now more than 1,000 other laid-off workers face similar plights.

"A majority of these people are going to lose their homes," Paula said. "A lot of the young people are going to have to get out of town."

Decatur became a symbol of corporate greed in the mid-1990s when three of the city's main employers--Bridgestone/Firestone, Caterpillar and the food processor A.E. Staley--all forced workers out onto the picket line in a drive to break union power.

Yet Decatur also became synonymous with workers' resistance as activists from three different unions declared central Illinois a "War Zone." Dozens of rank-and-filers crisscrossed the U.S. to build solidarity.

But union leaders weren't prepared to stop management's mass scabbing operations--which opened the way to devastating defeats.

"Today if you get hired in at Caterpillar, you start at 50 percent of regular pay, with no benefits--and maybe you get hired eventually," Paula explained. "They're working away at trying to kill the union."

Paula isn't the first member of her family to suffer at the hands of Decatur's greedy corporations. Her father-in-law, Mike Griffin, was among the more than 700 workers locked out at Staley--and became a "road warrior," traveling to build support for the War Zone struggles. He lost his job as a result.

"The attacks here in Decatur were designed to break the back of organized labor, and they did it," Mike told Socialist Worker.

Today, he said, there's "a culture of darkness of Decatur. But the struggle isn't over. There's just too much injustice. There was a fire here, and the embers are still glowing. It's going to flare up again."

"We should have taken it over"

THE COLLAPSE of the strike at Bridgestone/Firestone in 1994-95 was one of the worst defeats for organized labor in decades. More than 2,000 workers were fired during the struggle, and the union was left with virtually no shop floor rights.

But workers didn't give up. Their union, the United Rubberworkers, merged with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), which renewed the fight for a contract.

After a year of campaigning --including labor marches and job actions in eight different countries--Bridgestone/Firestone finally agreed to rehire the fired workers, pay $16 million in back pay, increase wages and improve pensions. By last September, the USWA won an improved contract covering Bridgestone/Firestone plants across the U.S. by threatening to strike again.

Now in Decatur, Bridgestone/Firestone workers are discussing the lessons of their long struggle.

"One of the problems during the War Zone was that we didn't listen to the activists who came here and said you have to take over that plant and stop scabs going in," Harlan Smith, vice president of USWA Local 713, told Socialist Worker. "We had 8,000 people at these rallies. We should have taken it over--at all three of the locations.

"You can sit back, and have good speakers, and have a good feeling inside. But meanwhile, people inside are stealing your job. It doesn't have to be violent. If you have enough people, you can take it over. I'm not advocating violence. It's just standing up for your job. And you have to do what you have to do in order to defend your job."

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