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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Feb 29, 2012, 1:36 pm

A Lockout Ends, but Some Cooper Workers Unhappy With Two-Tier Contract

BY Mike Elk

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More than a 1,000 locked-out Cooper Tire workers will soon be back on the job in Ohio—but not all are happy.

On Monday, United Steelworkers (USW) Local 207L members ratified a five-year contract that will end a three-month lockout of 1,050 unionized tire plant workers in Findlay, Ohio. In a letter to membership, Local 207L leaders didn't paint the contract as a grand victory. “We feel that this is the very best we could do without risking further financial harm to our families, community, and our customers that we need to keep the plant thriving and prosperous.”

The Findlay workers were the last of four USW-Cooper worker unit left to bargaining a new contract. In January, 400 USW Cooper workers in Texarkana, Ark., agreed to a contract. Another group of USW members who produce inner tube markers in Clarksdale, Miss., agreed to a contract last week. And Teamsters representing drivers at the Findlay tire facility announced last Friday they had reached a deal with Cooper.

Why does all this matter? Because with other Cooper workers reaching separate deals, Local 207L members' ability to get a good contract by negotiating in solidarity with other union locals—or even combining with other Cooper shops to demand an overarching contract—was declining. They had less leverage.

The new Findlay contract calls for capping the pay of employees hired after 2009 (a second tier of employees) at 85 percent of the pay made by employees hired before 2009. Cooper agreed to withdraw a proposal to implement a five-tier wage system and agreed with USW to maintain the current two-tier system.

Under a previous two-tier, three-year contract, people hired after 2009 had their pay maxed out at 80 percent, so the new contract is an improvement for new employees. Cooper also agreed to withdraw a proposal to change the bonus productivity incentive system in ways that were unclear and vague in the contract language and resulted in the Steelworkers filing an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against Cooper Tire.  

Cooper Tire also withdrew a proposal to freeze all contributions to employee pensions, but the deal would eliminate defined pension plans for employees hired after 2009. (They will have a 401(k) instead. The plan also calls for an increase in employees to health contributions, but without an accompanying increase in pay. Steelworkers though did agree to switch from a three year contract which they typically had to a five year contract with Cooper Tire.

News of the contract details reached me while I was traveling with several Cooper Tire workers on the Journey for Justice tour, which brought locked-out workers from both Cooper and the American Crystal Sugar companies together. The tour's stops for Cooper Tire were cancelled once a tentative agreement was reached late last week.

Upon reading the contract on the Journey for Justice bus, Cooper employee Linda Jones said she would not vote for the contract. “I would vote no on this contract. It hurts the young people. It’s a great contract for me, but it’s bad for other workers," said the 34-year Cooper veteran. "You gotta stand up for what’s right for everybody, it’s just not about you.”

Simon Traucht, who has been working for Cooper for seven years, spoke to the Findlay Courier about how he thought it would be impossible for new hires at Cooper Tire to raise a family on the wages they would be paid under the contract. "Some of these guys out there in the warehouse ... top pay is $14 an hour, and they can't even reach that for three years. How are you going to buy a house? How do you send your kids to college on $14 an hour? It can't be done."

Despite the misgivings of some members upset with the contract, the contract did pass with 66 percent of members voting in favor. USW Local 207L President Rodney Nelson said, “Our brothers and sisters have once again made their voices heard. As a committee, we are proud to have remained united and delivered a fair contract, despite Cooper’s best attempts to divide us.”

In an interesting twist, USW did not drop its unfair labor practice charges against Cooper. Typically, when a union settles on a contract, it agree with companies to also settle NLRB complaints. If Cooper is found to have illegally locked out workers, as the union claims, it would be liable for the back pay due to workers during the three months they were locked out.

“We look forward to an answer from the NLRB on those charges” USW District 1 Dave McCall said. “Cooper will not escape accountability for its actions.”

Full disclosure: United Steelworkers union is an In These Times sponsor. To learn more about the magazine's sponsorship program, go here.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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