FINDLAY — It’s been an especially chilly few weeks for the 1,050 hourly workers locked out of the Cooper Tire plant over a contract dispute.
But on Monday, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) strode into the employees’ packed union hall to offer a warming dose of support.
“I just stopped in to wish you well and to say I’m with you,” the senator told the laborers and their supporters, as they gathered around to shake his hand and take pictures.
“I’m hoping any which way we can get you back to work. This company, this union, this whole plant means so much to this community. I’m here to offer support with anything I can do,” he said.
Cooper Tire locked the employees out of the Findlay manufacturing plant on Nov. 28, a day after union members rejected a contract offer.
The proposal would have increased the employee’s share of health-care costs and switched some employees and all new hires from a guaranteed pension to a deferred contribution retirement plan.
Employees and union leader Rodney Nelson said Monday their main objection to the offer, however, was that it set forth a new, five-tier wage system without specifying up front how much each employee would be paid. That amounts to asking workers to sign a “blank check,” Mr. Nelson said.
Company officials could not be reached for comment. However, the company previously has said the contract would have preserved wages for the majority of workers, so long as they stay in their current jobs. New employees or current employees who bid into different jobs within the plant would in some cases do so at a lower rate, the company said.
Negotiations between Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. and the United Steelworkers Union have been on hold since Dec. 13, but Mr. Nelson said the two sides are set to meet again next week.
Both sides have filed bad-faith bargaining allegations against the other with the National Labor Relations Board office in Cleveland. Mr. Nelson blamed the company for the standoff.
“It’s been a one-way street,” Mr. Nelson said. “We’ve got our hands stretched across the table at them. They’ve got their hands down by their sides.”
Cooper Tire’s sales rose by about 18 percent during the first three quarters of 2011 and top officials have received raises. The firm also recently announced plans to purchase a plant in Serbia for $17.3 million.
Nevertheless, the firm’s net income dropped more than half to $44.5 million, down from $100.3 million through September over the same period the previous year. The drop has been blamed on high costs for raw materials.
The company has brought in temporary workers to keep the plant operating during the lockout.
Shane Hanley, a 48-year-old union member, called Cooper Tire’s actions “not right.” He said the company should have allowed the employees to keep working while negotiations continued.
“It’s tough. It’s a hardship. Especially when you’ve got bills to pay,” Mr. Hanley said.
The firm maintains it has offered extensions of the current contract several times but said the union had not responded. Mr. Nelson said workers don’t need an agreement to go back to work. He also said his union wants the contract dispute resolved now and not postponed to a later date.
Senator Brown, who is running for re-election in November, attributed the workers’ predicament to what he described Monday as a wider assault on unions and the middle class by corporations and his political opponents.
He cited globalization and free trade, which he said allow companies to keep wages low. “I’m concerned about what this does to the middle class every time that a strong union gets hurt,” Mr. Brown said. “You can look at the productivity of the American worker continue to go up and corporate profits continue to go up, yet wages are stagnant and that’s a shrinking middle class.”
Mr. Brown also took issue with two-tiered wage systems, in which new hires are paid less than those who have been at a company longer but do the same work.
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