|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
By PETER T. KILBORN
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.