On the line at Cooper Tire

Shaun Harkin explains the high stakes in a Midwestern labor battle.

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

LOCKED-OUT members of United Steel Workers Local 207L are standing strong in Findlay, Ohio, with round-the-clock pickets at the Cooper Tire & Rubber plant and company headquarters, and a mass solidarity rally planned on December 17.

The Wall Street Journal described this struggle as an "old-school labor brawl," but in reality, it is nothing other than a blatant continuation of Corporate America's decades-long assault on unions and working-class living standards. The company-imposed lockout highlights management's complete disregard for workers who are the backbone of the company's operations.

Eric Fitzpatrick, an almost 30-year veteran and third family generation Cooper Tire worker described what's happening in an interview:

This use to be a family business. Everyone was treated as family, but in the last 10 to 15 years, they hired in people at the top with no ties to the community. These people don't care about the community...

Now, it's all about corporate greed. They tell us we have to take concessions but they're taking huge profits themselves. None of the top executives are saying anything. They're trying to starve us to death, but we're going to take care of our own. They're trying to make the young ones here suffer--those just off unemployment benefits. We're going to stand together through thick and thin.

What you can do

Join a solidarity rally on Saturday, December 17, at 1 p.m. in Findlay, Ohio, at Dorney Plaza at the Hancock County Courthouse. Download a flyer for more information.

Circulate a YouTube video and sign a petition calling on Cooper Tire to end the lockout. Messages of support and contributions can be sent to USW Local 207L, 1130 Summit St., Findlay, Ohio, 45840. Donations to help provide Christmas presents to union members' children should be earmarked for the "Christmas Fund."

For further information and updates, visit the USW Local 207L website.

When workers rejected Cooper Tire management's "last and best" contract offer on November 23 by a vote of 606 to 305, executives locked them out after the Thanksgiving weekend.

Chris Ostrander, president of Cooper's North American Tire Operations, revealed management's contempt for its workforce when he said, "We want to protect these folks from themselves. We want to make this plant competitive for the long term." Putting workers out on the street in the winter and denying them a desperately needed paycheck before the holidays is a very strange way to "protect these folks."

United Steel Workers (USW) Local 207L represents the 1,051 workers at the plant. The contract with Cooper expired on October 31, with no new deal reached after three months of negotiations. The union offered to work with the existing contract for another month, but company negotiators demanded a year-long extension with no changes.

But workers have more confidence now to take a stand, following the rise of the Occupy movement and, in Ohio, the defeat of an anti-union law, known as Senate Bill (SB) 5, in a referendum vote in November. As USW member and veteran tire treader Dave Roether said, with the "defeat of SB 5, the Occupy movement and Wisconsin, we decided we had to stand up and say enough."

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COOPER TIRE workers have every right to say enough.

Cooper Tire CEO Roy Armes received $4.7 million in compensation last year, 19 percent more than in 2009, when he "earned" $3.9 million. His 2010 compensation included an $888,000 salary, a $1.2 million performance-based cash bonus, $1.3 million in stock awards, $957,000 in stock options and $294,499 in other perks, including $258,669 in contributions to his retirement plan; $18,013 in personal and family travel; $11,000 for financial planning services; and $8,829 for a company car.

In 2008, with Cooper management threatening to shut down the plant based on claims that revenues had declined by $219.4 million that year, workers reluctantly accepted steep concessions--a wage freeze and a two-tier wage rate for new hires to help get the company out of a financial hole. Over a three-year contract, this amounted to $30 million in concessions by union members, with new hires getting paid $13 an hour, half of what veteran union members make.

Since then, Cooper Tire has seen a dramatic return to profitability, recording income of $83.6 million in 2009 and $163.9 million in 2010. Now, with Cooper out of the red and CEO Armes and other executives shamelessly grabbing millions for themselves, workers are demanding the company give back the concessions from 2008.

Local 207L President Rodney Nelson explained why union members rejected the contract offer this time around: "They have to understand that people are not going to keep working for less and less. We are not asking for more, we are asking to get back the concessions we gave them."

Compared to Armes' bloated compensation, the union's demands are far from outlandish. They include lower medical premiums and a return to a single wage scale for all workers.

But Cooper management is rewarding workers' willingness to sacrifice by demanding even more sacrifices. While the company has been flush enough with profits to reward executives with bonuses and spend as much as $23 million on a company jet, according to reports, it wants to make the wage cuts forced through during the recession permanent.

There are other concessions, too: replace pension benefits with 401k plans, reduced vacation time, retain the two-tier wage rate and increased productivity. To lock-in the permanent cuts, the company dangled a $2,500 contract signing bonus in front of workers.

Teresa Brown, a 12-year Cooper Tire veteran, described the sentiment of many picketing workers: "My husband and I both work in there. We have a kid in college, and I don't know how I am going to pay for college--all because they want to be greedy. They're just trying to bully us."

Cooper management has escalated the confrontation by bringing in over 150 scabs to continue light truck tire production, paying them $17 an hour plus a meal allowance. According to picketing workers, the company is claiming it is maintaining 10 percent of production and threatening to increase it to 100 percent with scab workers by the end of the month if workers don't agree to their terms.

But veteran worker Eric Fitzpatrick said he would be surprised if management could reach even 50 percent production. "We've been maintaining and working with that equipment for years, keeping it together with bubble gum and wire," he said. "No one's going to be able to come in and figure out how to use it like us. And anything they produce will be junk, which isn't good either."

Once it heard the company planned to bring in "replacement workers," the union sent out an alert to unions in the North Ohio area to join workers in Findlay to create a "human chain" around the plant on December 2. The call for solidarity received a tremendous response, with hundreds of workers, family members, community members and other union members lining the sidewalks surrounding the Cooper plant and nearby headquarters.

The USW Local 207L leadership has filed unfair labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). According to a USW statement, the charges cover:

the company's demand that bargaining unit members ratify a contract absent the full details of an incentive plan that could possibly result in major wage cuts. Cooper insisted that its incomplete proposal would have to be accepted, ratified and implemented before necessary studies would be finalized. That meant workers would vote on a proposal not knowing if their wages were increasing or decreasing and by what amounts...

[Other charges] include refusing to bargain by conditioning continuation of talks on the union moving from its current negotiating position; falsely declaring impasse; disparaging the International union in meetings with bargaining unit members; and unilaterally changing conditions of employment by canceling scheduled work and extending the Thanksgiving holiday shutdown until the lockout began on November 29.

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THE STRUGGLE of Local 207L members epitomizes what is happening across the country. Unions in both the private and public sector are being pressed for concession after concession--while CEOs and shareholders line their pockets.

Cooper Tire workers are rejecting the logic of concessions and austerity. This will be a hard fight, especially if Cooper attempts to use scab labor.

However, this fight can be won. Ohio's Republican Gov. John Kasich thought he had struck a blow against collective bargaining for public-sector unions across the state when he rammed through SB 5 after taking office--only to see the anti-union law overturned in a November referendum, and by a wide margin of 61 percent to 39 percent.

The struggle against SB 5 galvanized Ohio's labor movement and demonstrates the spreading mood of resistance. Cooper Tire workers are showing that resistance in their struggle for a just contract.

Solidarity from other unions in Ohio and across the Midwest, from the Occupy movement and from everyone who oppose the upside-down priorities of Corporate America will be crucial in winning the battle at Cooper Tire.

Occupy Toledo, Occupy Detroit, Occupy Cleveland and Occupy Columbus activists are among those who are mobilizing along with other unions to stand with USW Local 207L members this Saturday in Findlay. It's time to show Cooper Tire bosses that our side is ready to stand united.