Tire Workers Make Concessions, Lose Jobs and Pensions
[from The New York Times]

December 14, 2001

An Illinois Tire Plant Closes and a Way of Life Fades


DCATUR, Ill., Dec. 13 Steve Collins is a skilled tire builder. For 17  of his 22 years at the Firestone plant here,  he worked nights. His wife has not worked  for 13 years, since the second of three  children was born. On his wages, now $23  an hour or about $46,000 a year, he said, "I  built the house, got the toys the boat, the  cars." 

But when the factory closes for good on  Friday, Mr. Collins will be among 1,500  Firestone workers who will be out of jobs. When the last tire  leaves the  two-million-square-foot plant, Mr. Collins, 45, will be just  three months  short of the 23 years he needs for a full and immediate  pension and lifetime  health insurance.

It is more than a year since some models of Firestone tires,  most made in  Decatur, were cited in the rollover deaths of at least 271  occupants of sport  utility vehicles, mostly Fords. A federal government analysis  found that the  tires were defective, and that their treads could separate  during use. Millions  of tires were recalled. 

The Ford Motor Company, the Bridgestone Corporation of Japan  and its  Bridgestone/Firestone subsidiary, based in Nashville, dispute  the causes of  the rollovers. And after the rollovers, the 90-year  association between Ford  and Firestone came to an end. But workers, who have never been  implicated, see themselves and their plant as the scapegoats.  "It's a slap in the face," said Bobbe Mathews, whose husband,  Jesse, is a tire  builder. "I know he makes good tires." Roger Gates, president of Local 713 of the United  Steelworkers of America,  the plant's union, said"Tires do fail. But when tires fail,  vehicles shouldn't  turn over and kill somebody." 

However commonplace the jolts of plant closings have become  for American  communities, the shuttering of the 38-year-old factory here  seems a case  apart. The usual reasons competition from cheaper imports  and American  companies moving production abroad do not apply, because  American  factories still hold their own in making tires.  Bridgestone bought Firestone in 1988 and operates nine other  North  American tire plants. Earlier this year, it was refurbishing  this plant. 

 "Everything was looking positive then," said John McQuade,  vice president  for manufacturing at Bridgestone/Firestone in Nashville. 

Then the economy intruded. The Decatur plant, already about  25 years old  when Firestone bought it, became a victim of the stalled  economy's sagging  tire market. "It was the oldest and smallest plant," Mr.  McQuade said, "so it  became pretty obvious to move its production elsewhere." The  rollovers had  nothing to do with the decision, he added.

About 1,000 of the plant's workers are in the same situation  as Mr. Collins short of a full pension and health insurance for life.  Instead, these workers  will get two years of health insurance and at 55, they can  start collecting part  of their pension, typically 40 percent. "I'll find a job, construction maybe," Mr. Collins said. Decatur, population 81,860 last year, down 2,025 from 1990,  is an  unabashedly muscular community of ranch houses, backyard  sheds and  chain-link fences. Its skyscrapers are smokestacks. 

Without a  Starbucks, a  Borders or a Banana Republic, Decatur's shopping strips cater  to middle  incomes and below.  With contracts negotiated by Local 713, Firestone workers  like Mr. Collins  and Mr. Mathews could own houses, raise families on one  income and plan  to send children to college or to well-paid industrial jobs.  But with the closing, old aspirations are fading fast. "The  Great American  Dream is to buy a five- year-old car," said Mike Hassinger,  51, who for 30  years drove a fork-lift truck at Firestone.  

With $6 to $8 an hour, mostly part- time jobs proliferating  in stores,  restaurants and motels, and more well- paid health care jobs,  "our latest  survey shows more white-collar jobs than blue collar for the  first time,"  Mayor Terry Howley said.  "I was the youngest guy at Firestone when I started," said  Larry James, 60,  who retired with a full pension in October, after 38 years. A  quality control  inspector, he held shop floor jobs, then salaried, necktie  jobs, then factory  jobs again. 

"I got married at 21," he said. "I had a son about eight  months later and two  years after that another son." At 24, Mr. James bought a  house. He sold it  six years ago and built another. "I got my sons through  college," he said. For  amusement now he hunts birds and mushrooms.

Workers here are angry in part because they accommodated the  shifting  production demands that, they were assured, would keep the  plant running  and help Firestone stay competitive. To end the big strike in  1996, they gave  up the eight- hour work day.     

"We worked 12-hour days two days on, two days off, then  three on and  two off, then two on and three off," said Doug Chandler, 47. 

The new  scheduling meant everyone had to work every other weekend. Dick Cours, 64, recoiled at the changed family and daily  routines, so he  retired when the new schedule took effect. These days he  hunts mushrooms  with Mr. James. 

Tim Ternous, 44, a painter at the plant, has no such  agreeable options.  Burned once before with the closing of a coal mine in  Colleen, Ill., he has  worked for Firestone for only 14 years, so he still needs a  wage. "I'll  probably have to hit the road somewhere," he said.  

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