PITTSBURGH – Until there is a flat or a broken belt, usually in the dead of winter, middle of nowhere, tires or rubber belts are not even a blip on the radar. Unless, that is, you’re a rubber worker.

Tens of thousands of workers and their families, first members of the United Rubber Workers and now, since the 1995 merger, members of the United Steelworkers union (USWA), have been building tires, hundreds of millions of tires, for generations. In 2002, motorists bought 205 million replacement tires alone, and that doesn’t count tires on new vehicles.

Tires are big business, $70 billion a year, dominated by global giants of Bridgestone/Firestone, Michelin/Uniroyal/Goodrich and Goodyear/Kelly-Springfield/Dunlap (GKD) corporations.

On June 27, Goodyear put its “last offer” on the table in its negotiations with the union. The offer included closing all the plants in the U.S., except a single non-union facility, and moving the work to Southeast Asia. That is just for openers. This cup of hemlock included all the health care and pension cuts right out of the same book read by corporations everywhere.

Rubber workers rejected the offer and left. No negotiations are scheduled. The union is fighting for a moratorium on plant closings and restructuring the company to protect jobs, health and pensions.

Goodyear is the target company for the 2003 contract negotiations – this contract will become the industry standard. On April 23, union contracts at Bridgestone/Firestone and Michelin/Uniroyal expired. On July 5, the Goodyear agreement ran out. Workers are continuing to work under the old contracts, but it is day-to-day.

While rubber is not steel, there is one important similarity: bloated executive pay. Goodyear posted a significant profit for nine straight years, 1992-2001. In 2001, it reported a $203 million loss and slashed 10,000 jobs. That same year, the Akron Beacon Journal reports, Chairman and CEO Sam Gibara took home a $1.25 million bonus on top of his $1.3 million salary. Other top executives got huge bonuses, too.

Meanwhile, the workers’ pension fund was under-funded that year to the tune of $2 billion.

The union has been busy. Over the weekend of July 19, all 14 local unions, representing about 30,000 workers, hosted community picnics, rallies and ice cream socials in their respective towns. The purpose, said USWA Local 878L President Kevin Terrett, reached by phone in Union City, Tenn., was to “bring the union’s message to the community so that they will understand. We are not out to hurt this company, work against this company. It is in the best interests of our members if they make money.” With the exception of top corporate officers, it is in no one’s best interest if the plant closes.

Local 878L has 3,300 members and is the largest local union in the chain. Their jobs are central to Union City, a community of 11,000 in northwest Tennessee. This fight is about saving jobs; it is about saving their community.

Terrett is confident that the union will be successful in winning a contract. “It is not always good business sense to move to cheaper labor,” he said. “If they close and destroy the pensions, who is going to buy tires? Retirees are a tremendous market. But they can’t buy Goodyear tires if they have no money. We will not allow this company to destroy itself and everything.”

Rubber workers are informed, united, and have a plan to get a contract. In April, workers voted by a 97.3 percent margin to strike Goodyear. They initiated “T-shirt” days, Tuesdays and Thursdays, when members wear T-shirts to work with “Family Security” written across the front.

At a March meeting in Cincinnati, U.S. rubber workers met with their brothers and sisters from 27 countries including the UK, Brazil, Germany, Turkey and Belgium, to map out an international strategy.

“Once the company sees we are forceful about our rights,” says Terrett, “and we can make them see that, we are going to win.” Terrett speaks from experience. In 1976, a four-month strike resulted in major gains for rubber workers, as did a three-week strike in 1997.

The author can be reached at dwinebr696@aol.com