In it for the long haul — Two decades of global union solidarity at Bridgestone Firestone

Patrick Young Graduate Student, Cornell School of Industrial Relations

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century as corporations globalized, buying and building facilities all over the world, workers and their unions struggled to keep pace by building an interconnected global labor movement. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that unions in the United States began dedicating resources to building global solidarity. And even then, many early efforts at global union solidarity were either paternalistic with unionists from the US setting out to ‘help’ workers toiling in sweatshops, or transactional, with US unions only reaching out overseas for support in a specific campaign. More recently many unions in the US and around the world have dedicated serious resources towards building global unions and transformative relationships with unions around the world, but progress has been mixed and we are still a long way from realizing a truly global labor movement.

One of the earlier efforts at global union solidarity was the campaign orchestrated by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) to win a union contract after an aborted strike at Bridgestone-Firestone. Writing in 2003, Juravich and Bronfenbrenner characterized it as “the largest and most comprehensive global campaign to date,” with activities in 86 countries around the world over the two-and-a-half-year period stretching from July 12, 1994 to November 4, 1996.[1]

That long fight and global campaign would become the first chapter in more than two decades of global union solidarity at Bridgestone-Firestone. By 2001 unions at Bridgestone-Firestone around the world formalized a global union network at a meeting in Tokyo.[2] The network mobilized in support of strikes led by Sindicato Unico del Neumatico Argentina (SUNTA) in Buenos Aires in 2004 and 2008 and Sindborracha in Brazil in 2012 and in support of the 5,000 Firestone rubber plantation workers in Liberia who won a union election in 2007 and a contract in 2008, the first democratic union in the country’s history.

The long process of building solidarity also proved transformational for workers on the shop floor. In 1995, the USWA’s early efforts to take the campaign global were nearly derailed when the anti-Japanese sentiments emanating through the campaign came to the surface. During a protest at the Japanese embassy, a striker was photographed holding a sign reading “Enola Gay, one more time.” When the photo was published in newspapers all over Japan, USWA President George Becker was forced to send a personal apology.[3]

By 2006, rank-and-file workers at the Bridgestone Firestone local in La Vergne, Tennessee, presumably some of the same workers who thought nothing of joining a protest with someone holding a virulently racist sign just a decade earlier, got word of a wildcat strike at the company’s plantation in Liberia and began collecting donations for workers before union officials were notified of the strike through their established global union networks.

The War in ‘94

In 1988, Japanese tire maker Bridgestone purchased a controlling interest in the Nashville-based Firestone Tire & Rubber Company for $2.6 billion. At the time the workers at the Bridgestone’s one truck tire facility in Lavergne, Tennessee, and workers at the five Firestone plants in Decatur, Illinois; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Des Moines, Iowa; Noblesville, Indiana; and Akron Ohio were represented by the United Rubber Workers.

After taking control of the plants, which they had not inspected prior to the purchase, Bridgestone managers learned that the plants were in worse condition than they had expected and would need $1.5 billion in investments to upgrade and modernize the plants.[4] The new Bridgestone-Firestone management also immediately introduced a Japanese-style program of cooperative management which the URW readily embraced. But after four-and-a-half years of losses totaling $1.2 billion management’s appetite for cooperation quickly faded.

In 1993 the company came to the bargaining table with the URW local in Lavergne, Tennessee demanding deep concessions and threatening to close the plant if significant labor cost reductions could not be achieved. The next year, when Bridgestone-Firestone entered contract negotiations over the master agreement covering the five legacy Firestone plants they were looking for a fight.

The company demanded steep concessions including decreases in the base pay, elimination of daily overtime pay, and a new four crew/twelve-hour continuous operation schedule. The union and the company met 40 times but made little progress. On July 7, 1994, more than two months after the initial contract expiration, the URW gave a five-day strike notice and on July 12, 1994, more than 4,000 members of the United Rubber Workers at Bridgestone-Firestone went on strike.

Management responded by bringing in a full complement of replacement workers to work with management and salaried workers to operate the plants and imported tires from Japan to meet demand. On December 27, 1994, Bridgestone-Firestone announced that it would be declaring the 2,000 replacement workers in the facility permanent replacements. Strikers were not fired, but if they wanted to return to work, they would have to wait for a position to open up before they would be rehired.

Fearing permanent job loss, URW Local 7 in Akron made an unconditional offer to return to work and more than one-fifth of the strikers at the other plants crossed the picket lines and returned to work. By this time the United Rubber Workers were in crisis and they were rapidly hemorrhaging money to cover strike benefits for workers who remained on strike. In late May, the remaining 2,400 strikers made an unconditional offer to return to work. Only 153 workers were called back to work.

In a seriously weakened position, the United Rubber Workers voted to merge with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) on July 1, 1995. The Steelworkers had faced their own share of challenges in recent years including massive job losses during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the 1986 strike at US Steel, and the more recent lockout at Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation.

While the union had given an offer to return to work at Bridgestone-Firestone and many members had, in fact, returned to work there was no contract in place and a large number of strikers were still out of work, having been permanently replaced and not yet called back to work. The USWA quickly leveraged its experience in global strategic campaigning to redouble efforts to get the displaced strikers back to work and win a fair contract.

Inside the plants, workers organized a full-scale shop floor campaign to challenge the working conditions that management had unilaterally implemented. Outside the plants, the USWA leveraged its experienced campaigns team and hired new staff to launch an aggressive global campaign to get the displaced workers back to work and win a fair contract.

Researchers from the USWA identified the Indy Car racing circuit as a major branding partner of Bridgestone-Firestone. At the time, all Indy-style races in the US, Canada, and South America used only Firestone Tires. The black flag, which in car racing is a symbol that indicates immediate removal from the track and disqualification, became the symbol of the campaign and the union launched an aggressive series of actions targeting Indy races.

The USWA pushed the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) and the AFL-CIO’s Center for International Solidarity (Solidarity Center) to dedicate resources to taking the campaign global. While the ICEM and Solidarity Center had both previously nominally supported the strike, neither took meaningful actions in support of Bridgestone-Firestone workers before the URW merger with the USWA. The ICEM assigned a full-time staff person to the campaign and the Solidarity Center in South America jumped into the campaign.

At the same time, and independently from the activity in the United States, the Brazilian rubber workers union, Sindborracha, was launching an effort to build FUTINAL, a network of rubber unions throughout South America. Sindborracha leaders were very politically sophisticated and recognized that they needed a concrete campaign to bring unions across South America together into a durable network, so they quickly moved to adopt the struggle of Bridgestone-Firestone workers in the US as the main project of their network. The USWA welcomed the support and assigned a full-time staff person to work with the network and eagerly participated in the network’s activities. By FUTINAL’s third annual meeting the USWA was invited to become a full member of the coalition.[5]

The USWA also recognized the importance of taking on top Bridgestone-Firestone management in Tokyo on their home turf. The union wanted to send a delegation of strikers to Japan to meet with union leaders and community organizations but quickly realized that, at the time, their relationships with the Japanese labor movement were very limited. The largest trade unions in Japan were reluctant to challenge Bridgestone-Firestone management and some of the nationalist and anti-Japanese sentiments that had been expressed by strikers and union officials created a barrier to building relationships with Japanese unionists.

In September of 1995, a delegation of 12 strikers and family members traveled to Japan to meet with Japanese trade unionists and hold demonstrations at Bridgestone-Firestone facilities. During the trip, the delegation also visited Hiroshima and the Peace Park, which proved to be an important symbolic expression of solidarity and commitment to building more transformative relationships with the union partners around the world.[6]

By early 1996 the ICEM convened the first World Bridgestone-Firestone Union Meeting in Nashville, near the company’s US headquarters. At the meeting, the network adopted a plan for coordinated actions around the world leading up to the second anniversary of the strike.

The “Days of Outrage” actions took place in 60 countries around the world. In Nashville, more than 2,000 USWA members and supporters marched on the company’s headquarters. In Japan, over 60 trade unions convened to commemorate the strike and demand that Bridgestone immediately return all workers to their jobs; in Argentina, Bridgestone-Firestone organized a two-hour strike, during which they held a general meeting on the strike; in Spain union members held demonstrations at three Bridgestone Firestone plants, and in Italy the three main trade unions at Bridgestone-Firestone organized delegations to meet with management to demand that the company settle a fair contract with the USWA. The ICEM also organized what is believed to be one of the world’s first ‘cyber-protests,’ creating a website to generate mass e-mails and phone calls to Bridgestone-Firestone executives.[7]

After the strike, the USWA tallied the scale of the campaign.

“The scope of the campaign was truly extraordinary — 3.6 million handbills, nearly a million “Don’t Buy Bridgestone-Firestone” stickers and bumper stickers, 250,000 campaign buttons, 115,000 small black flags and 25,000 “Don’t Buy” t-shirts were distributed; 63,000 yard-signs were displayed. Thousands of separate campaign events involved over 60,000 USWA participants and volunteers; 1,100 separate USWA locals were involved. Camp Justice was occupied for 246 days; the campaign reached 86 countries, including 16 visited by replaced Bridgestone-Firestone workers; and 43 foreign workers visited the US to lend their support.”[8

By fall of 1996, the company was seriously feeling the pressure and agreed to resume negotiations with the USWA. On November 4, 1996 the USWA announced that it had reached a settlement to end the strike. The agreement included gains on nearly all of the major issues that had prompted the original strike and guaranteed reinstatement for nearly all of the strikers. While the terms of the contract fell below the industry pattern that had been agreed to by Goodyear two years earlier, the campaign was almost universally recognized as an absolute victory for the union.


Formalizing the Network — Continuing the Fight

While most union campaign case studies end after the contract settlement, the original strike at Bridgestone-Firestone proved to be only the first chapter in the long story of global union solidarity at Bridgestone-Firestone. The settlement was an amazing victory for Bridgestone-Firestone workers, but they still faced a long road ahead. Many of the workers in the Bridgestone Firestone plants had been hired as replacement workers during the strike and the workforce was deeply divided. The USWA knew that if it did not keep the pressure on by working to reorganize and build power at the local union, the company could take advantages of those divisions and extract concessions in the next round of bargaining. Further, throughout the campaign the USWA had made strong commitments to working in solidarity with Bridgestone-Firestone workers around the world and, if it hoped to maintain those relationships, it had to live up to those commitments.

In 1998 at the ICEM World Rubber Conference in Malaysia the USWA proposed the creation of World Councils at each major rubber company that could coordinate solidarity activities and take on campaigning work to support bargaining and organizing. The Bridgestone-Firestone World Council committed to holding annual meetings to keep the work moving forward. The Japanese Rubber Workers Confederation (JRC) agreed to host the meeting in Japan every other year, and the meeting would be held in another country on the alternate year.

The USWA also worked to build up bilateral relationships with other tire workers around the world. The USWA and the German chemical workers’ union agreed to annual worker exchanges with meetings at local union halls and plant tours to help build relationships across borders and directly engage rank-and-file members in the process. The Steelworkers continued to participate in annual FUTINAL meetings and organized regular meetings and exchanges with Sindborracha in Brazil.

By 2000 the USWA found itself in another round of challenging contract negotiations with Bridgestone-Firestone. This time, unlike 1994, the local unions were prepared for a fight. The Bridgestone-Firestone World Council, FUTINAL and the ICEM were also all fully engaged. The company once again came to the table demanding an aggressive list of concessions from the union but when the contract expired, rather than striking the USWA decided to continue working without an agreement while escalating campaign activity.

Then, in August of 2000, Firestone and Ford were forced to 14.4 million tires after the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) learned that the tires were responsible for an alarming number of rollover deaths in Ford Explorers. More than 271 people were killed and more than 800 were injured when the treads on their Bridgestone-Firestone tires separated from steel belts causing the tires to blow out and vehicles to roll over. Researchers from Princeton would later learn that many of these defective tires had been manufactured during the strike when replacement workers were working alongside union members creating dramatic labor strife on the shop floor.[9]

At the height of the Ford Explorer rollover scandal, USWA members at Bridgestone-Firestone issued a strike notice and the company quickly caved, agreeing to meet the union pattern. Importantly this agreement also brought the plants in Lavergne Tennessee and Warren County into the pattern agreement, preventing the possibility of any future strike while other union plants were continuing to work.

Strikes and Solidarity at Bridgestone in Latin America

In 2001, at the height Argentina’s financial crisis, Bridgestone-Firestone refused to negotiate a new contract with Sindicato Unico de Trabajadoores del Neumatico Argentina (SUNTA) at its facility in Buenos Aires. When the contract expired, SUNTA continued working under the terms of the old agreement for over two years. Then, in October of 2003 Bridgestone-Firestone unilaterally changed shift schedules at the plant eliminating 73 jobs, a clear violation of the agreement. SUNTA took the issue in front of the provincial Labor Ministry, which ordered the company to reinstate the workers with full back pay.

The company not only refused to comply with the Ministry’s order, but it also refused to resume contract negotiations unless SUNTA agreed to drop the issue of the fired workers. In response, the 750 members of SUNTA at the facility struck and launched an aggressive campaign to restore the jobs and win a fair contract. Shortly after the start of the strike, a delegation from the USWA traveled to Buenos Aires to support the strike. ICEM solicited support from other unions around the world to raise funds and solicit support. Back in the US, the USWA organized plant-gate collections to raise money for striking workers.[10]

By September of 2004 after eleven months of intermittent strikes and following an eight-day blockade of the plant, SUNTA won an agreement with Bridgestone-Firestone that reinstated some employees and provided back pay to 20 others.[11]

A New Day in Liberia

In 1926 Harvey Firestone signed a 99-year lease with the Liberian government granting the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company one million acres of land (to be chosen by the company) for an annual rent of 6 cents per acre to start a new rubber tree plantation with trees imported from South America. Today, around 5,000 people live and work on the plantation, tapping rubber trees by hand to create latex for tires produced in Bridgestone-Firestone tire plants around the world.

Many of the workers on the plantation are second or third generation rubber tappers, having grown up on the plantation, often working as children to help their parents meet Firestone’s daily quotas. In late 1990, Terry Renninger, then president of Bridgestone-Firestone’s Libera operations told the New York Times, “The best way to think of it is an old Southern plantation.”[12]

In January of 2006 workers at the plantation launched a wildcat strike demanding better working conditions and elections for a new independent union. Workers at Bridgestone-Firestone facilities in the United States learned about the strike and quickly organized plant-gate collections to support the Liberian strikers. Bridgestone-Firestone attempted to block members of USW Local 1055 in Lavergne, Tennessee from holding the collection at their plant, prompting the USW to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).[13]

The government of Liberia intervened, and Firestone agreed to improve housing, medical facilities and schools, but workers still did not have an independent union. That fall, the United Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center sent a delegation to Liberia to support workers and assist in building a union structure and planning for an election.

The next spring workers struck again, demanding elections for an independent union. They faced aggressive repression from company operatives who attacked demonstrating strikers, killing one worker and beating and teargassing others. The Liberian government again intervened and set a date for new union elections. When the election was held that July, the USW and the Solidarity Center sent a delegation to monitor the election. The aggrieved workers’ committee that had organized the two strikes won the election by a large margin.

Negotiations between the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL) started in early 2008 (after yet another strike demanding that the company recognize the new union). By that summer, Bridgestone-Firestone management agreed to a new contract that offered 24% wage increases, a 20% reduction in the daily tree tapping quota, and mechanized transportation for carrying latex to weigh stations so tappers would no longer be forced to walk miles carrying 150 pounds of latex yoked to their backs.[14]

Weeks later, Tashiaki Hojo, President of the Japanese Rubber Workers’ Union Confederation (GOMU-RENGGO) and chair of the Bridgestone-Firestone Global Union Network welcomed FAWUL as the newest member of the network at the network’s eight steering committee meeting in Las Vegas.


Evolving Power Resources

In analyzing the campaigns at Bridgestone Firestone, it is useful to examine the different types of power resources that the unions involved enjoyed over the three major episodes. The Power Resources approach identifies a taxonomy of four different power resources available to trade unionists in achieving their demands. Structural power refers to the position of workers in the economic system, associational power refers to the power workers exert by banding together in collective action, institutional power is a type of secondary power that arises when workers’ gains are formalized into their industrial relations systems, and societal power refers to workers’ connections within civil society and their ability to frame the discourse around their struggles.[15]

Over two decades of global union campaigning and networking at Bridgestone Firestone that started with the URW strike in 1994 different unions were able to leverage different types of power resources, and the power resources that were available to Bridgestone Firestone workers worldwide evolved dramatically. The URW’s initial strike in 1994 was a mobilization that relied heavily on the associational power of workers in Bridgestone Firestone’s US tire plants standing together against their employer’s demands for dramatic concessions.

By Christmas of that year, however, the URW was confronted with the realization that over the past decade workers in the United States had lost substantial institutional power. While the use of permanent replacement workers had been rare in US industrial relations for the better part of the 20th century, by 1981 President Ronald Regan made the firing of striking workers the official policy of the United States government when he fired more than 11 thousand members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). When Bridgestone Firestone announced its plans to make its strikebreakers permanent replacement workers, a move that would have been unthinkable a little more than a decade earlier, the effect was devastating.

The realization that workers had lost so much institutional power divided the URW’s associational power. In the aftermath of management’s announcement that it would be making its strikebreakers permanent replacements, one local union voted to return to work and hundreds of individual members at other sites broke rank.

In the two years after the URW’s merger with the USWA, the union worked hard to build societal power by building alliances around the world and mobilizing major demonstrations targeting the company’s major branding events on the Indy racing circuit. This societal power was incredibly weak at the start of the strike in 1994, but by the time Liberian rubber workers launched their wildcat strikes in 2005, the global Bridgestone Firestone network had been strongly institutionalized and the unions were well networked with human rights organizations concerned about conditions on the rubber plantation.

The emergence of the global union network also led to a modest increase in workers’ structural power. Throughout the strike in the United States in 1994, Bridgestone Firestone was able to make up for losses in production in the US market by importing tires from other plants around the world. The company’s continued operations around the world also provided the company with important sources of revenue while production was disrupted in the United States. Through the global union network Bridgestone Firestone, virtually all of the company’s major production facilities around the world are networked together. The actual gains in structural power, however, are more modest because the different unions around the world have not yet leveraged their combined structural power in coordinated strike action or global bargaining.

Additionally, with the ouster of Charles Taylor in 2003 and the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005, Liberian rubber workers saw a significant shift in their institutional power. For decades they had been poorly represented by a company union and were unable to seek recourse through the corrupt government. But when Taylor, a despot and war criminal, was ousted and a new democratically elected government took power, workers could now count on the government to intervene to contest Bridgestone Firestone’s worst human and labor rights violations.

In it for the long haul

Taken independently each of these episodes — the URW/USWA strike in the US, the SUNTA strike and campaign in Argentina and the FAWUL organizing and contract campaign — are powerful stories of global union solidarity. But something unique and particularly powerful about the work of the Bridgestone-Firestone Global Union Network is the duration, scale, and scope of the solidarity activity. Over a two-decade period, the network mobilized impressive campaigns in support of major labor disputes in three different continents.

The story of global campaigning at Bridgestone-Firestone underscores the importance of long-term networking and relationship building. When workers in the United States went on strike in 1994 it was a full year before workers at Bridgestone-Firestone engaged in any meaningful international solidarity and almost two years before the global network came together. Before the strike, the USWA had very limited relationships with trade unions in Japan and the union was forced to address the racism and xenophobia in its ranks and build new relationships in the midst of an overwhelmingly challenging fight.

In 2000 the global union network was mobilized in support of USWA members well before bargaining even started in the United States. When SUNTA struck in Argentina, the entire network was able to quickly mobilize in support of the displaced workers. Later, when workers in Liberia organized their wildcat strikes in 2006 unions around the world immediately recognized the significance and potential of their struggle and quickly mobilized to support FAWUL.

As companies continue to grow and integrate their global businesses unions will need to continue to expand and adopt models that rise to the scale their employers. While the strategic importance of building global union solidarity is self-evident to many in the labor movement, the barriers are also very real. Building global solidarity requires long-term relationship building and the dedication of serious resources. It takes time to break through cultural barriers, develop shared understandings of dramatically different labor relations systems, and develop strategic alignment. Unions around the world are facing dramatic challenges at all levels and dedicating the time and resources to building global solidarity and structures that can facilitate global campaigning is challenging. But the experience at Bridgestone-Firestone, through three dramatic and challenging labor disputes, offers a powerful example of what it takes to build solid global union networks and the potential of global union solidarity in building power for workers.


Reposted from Medium

Posted In: Allied Approaches