Labor Standoff at Goodyear May Set the Stage for Other Union Negotiations

November 1, 2006
It’s been a very long time since an employer has announced plans to close a plant and lay off thousands of workers in the middle of a strike. But on Monday, October 30, that’s exactly what Goodyear Tire & Rubber did when it announced it was shutting down its plant in Tyler, Texas, a move that will result in the loss of 1,100 jobs.

Labor relations experts fear that the increasingly contentious situation at Goodyear might be a preview of employer/labor negotiations in coming months, particularly as GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler enter union contract negotiations in 2007.

Goodyear’s announcement came 25 days after more than 15,000 workers represented by the United Steelworkers union walked off the job after failing to come to an agreement with Goodyear over their contracts.

The United Steelworkers attributes the impasse to the fact that it believes its workers made major concessions in 2003 in good faith that there wouldn’t be more closings and cuts in the next round of negotiations, says Wayne Ranick, a union spokesman.

"In 2003, we accepted cuts in wages, pension and health care benefits and we allowed them to close one facility," he says. "Now they want more plant closures."

On top of announcing the closure of the Tyler plant, Goodyear also told the union that it had started to hire temporary workers, Ranick says. Both moves by the employer are going to make negotiations even harder and more contentious, he says.

"These announcements are going to make coming to an agreement much more difficult," he says.

But Goodyear insists that the cuts are necessary to remain competitive. "We won’t accept a contract that puts us at a cost or competitive disadvantage," says Ed Markey, spokesman.

Goodyear’s hard-line stance may signal to all employers--but particularly to the Big Three automakers, which are prepping for union negotiations--that public favor today is with them and they can make such bold moves, says David Gregory, a professor of law, labor and employment at St. John’s University in Queens, New York.

"An employer closing a facility in the middle of a strike would have been unthinkable 40 years ago," he says. "But today the social momentum has shifted."

At the same time, the situation at Goodyear shows that unions will have to fight for their lives to get what they want, says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

"The auto manufacturers are a little bit more mature in their dealings with the unions than Goodyear. But on the other hand, the United Auto Workers is not going to give anymore," he says. "They feel like they have given all that they can."

Experts agree that the Goodyear situation may set the stage for how contentious contract negotiations between unions and employers might be going forward, but they doubt that there will be mass strikes in the auto industry.

"While there is certainly a real confrontational feeling among the rank-and-file workers in the auto industry, the United Auto Workers understand that work stoppages are not an effective strategy," says Robert Bruno, an associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Any employers considering taking a hard-line stance like Goodyear’s need to really consider the consequences, Chaison says.

"After you do something like what Goodyear is doing, you can’t just shake hands and say let’s forget about the past," he says.

--Jessica Marquez