A USW defeat at Cooper Tire

March 20, 2012

Shaun Harkin analyzes the concessionary agreement that ended a lockout by members of the United Steelworkers Local 207L in Findlay, Ohio.

EVEN AS workers at Cooper Tire voted February 27 to lock in a two-tier wage scale at Cooper Tire, the company reported earnings of $209 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, an increase of more than five times over $40 million for the same period in 2010.

Workers at the Findlay, Ohio facility voted by a margin of 627 to 321 to ratify a new contract that cements concessions made in the previous contract. The vote ended the company's three-month lockout and laid the basis for workers to return to work.

Last November, an overwhelming majority of the 1,050 United Steel Workers (USW) Local 207L members who work at Cooper Tire voted to reject management's contract proposal. In response, workers were locked out following Thanksgiving.

The ratified contract failed to achieve the objectives the workers voted for in November--the reversal of major concessions agreed to in 2008.

That year, as the economic crisis put the union under tremendous pressure, USW members accepted two major company demands: a two-tier wage rate for new hires and a wage freeze. This meant $30 million in concessions by workers over the life of the three-year contract. New workers now start at $13 an hour, half the rate for senior workers.

On the picket line at Cooper Tire & Rubber
On the picket line at Cooper Tire & Rubber (Alex Read | SW)

In an interview, Robert Greer, Local 207L's rapid response and political coordinator, said:

I don't agree with ours--or any contract--that keeps intact a two-tier wage system for newer employees. Companies have been using this to divide their membership and employees for years now. Starting at $13 an hour is not a living wage, and taking away retirement benefits from newer members since 2009 isn't justified. The company's promise to 163 members for cost of living allowances (COLA) in the last contract was broken.

Many other workers voted against the contract because they shared the same sentiment. Why should they accept concessions when the profitable Cooper Tire now has facilities in North America, Mexico, China, England and Serbia?

WHILE LOCAL 207L forced the company to back down on some proposals, management succeeded in gaining further concessions.

Cooper Tire withdrew its proposal for a five-tier wage plan, but the two-tier wage and benefits plan remains. Any workers hired after 2009 will have their wages capped at only 85 percent of what workers hired before 2009 make. Workers hired after 2009 will get to the top pay level after 30 months, instead of the 48-month wait that Cooper management proposed in November.

Management also gave up a proposal to reevaluate the pay level of most jobs, but the union conceded that five jobs the company has identified as being "overpaid" will be re-evaluated, and compensation reduced for new workers.

What's more, workers hired since 2009 will no longer receive a defined benefits pension, and will be forced into a 401(k) retirement plan.

In November, Cooper management offered workers a one-time $2,500 signing bonus. In the ratified contract, workers will get lump-sum payments spread up over time. Those hired before 2009 will receive $800 in a few weeks, and $800 in each of the next two years. Those hired since 2009 will receive $1,200 now and again in 2013. Then they will get a 10-cent-per-hour pay raise in 2014, and raises of 15 cents and 20 cents per hour in 2015 and 2016. But workers will be forced to pay more for health benefits, undercutting any wage increases.

In November, Cooper management pushed to cap vacation at five weeks. In the new contract, workers hung on to six weeks of vacation each year after 25 years of employment with Cooper Tire. Vacation for new workers will be capped at five weeks.

During the summer, the union allows Cooper Tire to hire students to cover for vacationing workers. In the November proposal, the company wanted to hire up to 100 students. However, the ratified contracts permits only about 15, reducing the possibility management will use students to undercut overtime pay.

Cooper Tire's incredible profitability means workers could have won much more. But management was determined to maintain the two-tier wage and benefit plan and drive for further concessions.

A more aggressive strategy was needed to confront this and give workers more leverage. For example, Cooper Tire faced simultaneous contract negotiations with four different groups of unionized workers. USW also represents Cooper Tire workers in Texarkana, Ark, and Clarksdale, Miss. Both local unions recently negotiated new contracts with the company. Fleet drivers represented by Teamsters Local 20 in Findlay, Ohio, also recently negotiated a new three-year contract with Cooper Tire management.

Cooper Tire claims the lockout in Findlay cost $11 million in lost production and payments for scab workers, but combined action at all the locations would have hit the company even more effectively. Instead, management was allowed to negotiate the new contracts to make sure they didn't expire at roughly the same time in the future.

A coordinated strategy would have required the backing and leadership from the USW International, but the lack of a coordinated strategy flows from the national leadership's acceptance of the inevitability of a two-tier wage and benefit system.

The USW, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, is the largest industrial union in the U.S., with over 700,000 members and 500,000 retired members. In 2008, the USW merged with British and Irish unions to create a 3 million member trans-Atlantic union. This represents a network that can be tapped for solidarity and combined action.

As USW Local 307L activist Greer pointed out:

The lockout did bring more solidarity to our local. Our members realize that together, we can help each other and can stay strong to fight for future earnings and a fairer contract. Workers in America need to unite with unions for a voice in the workplace. Unionizing the workforce should be paramount, to get wages up and the return of retirement benefits.

Greer was part of a delegation of Cooper Tire workers touring the Midwest with locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers to build support for both struggles. The tour targeted ACS distributors, but the USW pulled out the union and Cooper Tire negotiators reached a tentative agreement.

FROM WISCONSIN to Verizon to Cooper Tire and Serious Materials in Chicago, union workers across the country are showing they are prepared to resist. But corporations, despite huge profits, are emboldened and sharpening their decades-old war on organized labor and the working conditions for all American workers.

Resisting this employer militancy requires a fighting strategy from the labor movement. But both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win federation have continued to rely on electing Democrats as the only alternative. But this strategy is flawed, has failed and will keep failing.

The unions will throw hundreds of millions of dollars in members' dues money and hundreds of thousands of organizing hours into the upcoming election. Instead, resources are desperately needed in the fights at union-busting companies like Cooper Tire--and in campaigns to organize more workers into unions.

USW Local 207L members voted to reject a concessionary contract in November last year because they didn't accept the idea that we should make do with less. When our side declares its intent to fight, we need to back it up with a strategy to win--a return to class-struggle strategies and tactics developed over the last century by workers and organizers who built the unions and working-class power.

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