Firestone Pulls Out of Decatur

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Forty miles to the west-southwest of Champaign-Urbana, a sinkhole is growing, slowly but surely. Its name is Decatur. This city’s economy, always reliant on the manual labor of its residents, has been slowly fading as industry emigrates. One of the biggest jolts to its psyche came on June 27, when Bridgestone/Firestone announced that it was closing its tire manufacturing plant after 38 years in the community. A total of two thousand jobs has been lost, with a layoff of 500 in October 2000, and the remaining 1,500 being thrown out of work over the past four months. For the past six months the community has been scrambling, first attempting to keep the plant open in impassioned discussions with the multinational corporation, then trying to figure out how to adjust to a smaller economic pie. The final blow came on December 14, when the last two tires rolled off the production line.
“This decision was made in response to market conditions,” says John McQuade, Vice President for Manufacturing of Bridgestone/Firestone North America. “Recently released industry information indicates total tire sales will be off by something like twenty million units this coming year.” McQuade indicates that the company’s decision to close the plant had nothing to do with the workers, but was driven by the larger issue of a downturn in the economy. Of course, Firestone has been particularly vulnerable in the face of this recession due to the Ford Explorer controversy in 2000, when the models of Firestone tires marketed as standard equipment on the SUV failed repeatedly, causing hundreds of deaths and casualties in automobile accidents. The expenses of settling product liability lawsuits, a recall of 6.5 million ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires begun in August of 2000, and another still-ongoing voluntary replacement program for some Wilderness AT tires have left Firestone in an extremely precarious financial position.
Mike Griffin is a fiery advocate for the union movement in Decatur. A millwright by trade, he created the WarZone Foundation, a support structure for local unions and a corporate watchdog organization, in 1993. He believes through his conversations with workers on the shop floor that Firestone management had direct knowledge of defects in the tires produced in the Decatur plant and chose to send them out the door anyway. “There’s no doubt in my mind that some of those tires were made by scabs. There was tires that went out the door that management knew were not good tires, and as early as late 1996, 1997, Firestone knew they had a problem with those tires. They knew they were killing people, and yet they chose to pay off the lawsuits rather than recall the tires.” Whether intentional or not, it’s clear that many of Firestone’s current problems are of its own making.
The closure of the Firestone plant is only the latest in a series of events impacting Decatur’s blue-collar workers. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune (28 June 2001, “Decision Breaks Up a 40 Year Marriage”), over 10,000 jobs in industry have exited Decatur since 1980. Where have these jobs gone? For Bridgestone/Firestone, at least, many of the former jobs in the industrial Midwest and Northeast have been exported to other countries. Firestone’s web site details the locations of its tire-producing facilities in the Western Hemisphere. Eight of Firestone’s sixteen remaining industrial plants are located outside the United States: one in Quebec, two in Mexico, and the rest spread throughout Latin America. Of those plants remaining in the US, only three are still to be found in the industrial Midwest, the plants in Bloomington-Normal, Des Moines, and Akron. The others are located in the South.
Tony Warden and Carl Hughes are in the thick of the struggle for laborers trying to move on with their lives. They are former tire-builders at Firestone who are currently working as peer counselors at the IETC, a euphemistic acronym for the unemployment office. They’re acting as guides through the bureaucratic processes of filing for unemployment insurance and helping point the way to job opportunities for their fellow workers.
How is the job market looking for the workers coming out of the plant? According to Tony, “At the present time, it looks pretty bleak. Generally, their requirement is about half of what they made at Firestone, but even that is on the high end of the scale. When we say half, we’re saying $10 to $12 an hour, but when we try to find jobs to match up, we’re talking $6.75 to $8. It’s pretty discouraging, and they’re not quite ready to drop that low.”
The severance packages from Firestone are not providing much of a cushion for the workers, either. Tony continues, “After taxes and everything, ol’ Uncle Sam took a pretty good bite of the money, and a lot of them were using it to pay off some outstanding debt, to prepare themselves for six months down the road [when unemployment benefits end], so that money is short-lived. For some of these people, it’s going to be the last hurrah for Christmas time. It’s going to be tough, it really is.”
When we speak of those good-paying union jobs, the kind of work that was being done and the environment in which the workers labored is not commonly understood by those who have not been there. Mike Griffin says of it, “I’ve been in Firestone and worked in there a number of times. It’s a hellhole. It’s so hot you can’t hardly stand it, it’s so dirty you can’t ever get clean, and those people who worked in there for years, I don’t know how they could do it. They earned every nickel they ever made, I guarantee you.” Carl Hughes describes it this way: “We worked 12-hour shifts out there, and we worked two days on, two days off, three days on, two days off, and your days off altered every week. The three-day weekends that you had to work, they was pretty tough, `cause by the end of the third day you were just done, so the next day off you’d just try to relax and recuperate, get your body to feel halfway decent. As far as now, being off, our bodies are starting to rest and heal up. It’s a different world for us.”
Still, much of the physical strain now being lifted from the workers’ shoulders is being replaced by mental anguish. Carl explains. “Some of the guys’ wives are gonna be on them about getting out real hard looking for a job, and in some of them there’s going to be divorces, people split up, and it’s going to be hard on families, it’s going to be hard on the kids. I think there’s some people who are not going to be able to recover.”
One can see some fraying around the edges of life in Decatur. The city’s schools are nearing a breaking point. The “new” Stephen Decatur High School, built at the far northern edge of town in 1975, in many ways represented the hope of the city in its future. The building replaced a venerable edifice downtown where the Civic Center now stands, and it incorporated many of the newest features in educational philosophies of the time. It opened with 1,600 students as a “high school of the future”. In June 2000 it closed with 400 students, less than a third of its optimal capacity, reopening as a middle school to replace Roosevelt Middle School, a building dating back to before World War II. The district is playing a desperate shell game, closing schools, redrawing boundaries, and cutting curriculum and payroll to try and accommodate an ever-shrinking tax base. The loss of 1,500 union-scale jobs can only accelerate the economic decay impacting the city.
So how can we fix Decatur’s economy? A deceptively short answer is that the woes of Decatur are inextricably intertwined with the greater fundamental instability and injustice of the world economy. The export of industrial production jobs to poorer countries enables the large multinational corporations to reap enormous profits. But it leaves workers in both the wealthy countries, who are earning significantly less money than before, and those in the “developing” nations, who without unions to fight for their interests work unconscionably long hours for starvation wages, without the wherewithal to purchase the very goods they produce. It is apparent that nothing short of a fundamental reorganization of economic structures can allow the people in any Firestone community – be it Decatur, Oklahoma City, Cuernavara, Mexico, or San Jose, Costa Rica – to labor and live with dignity and self-respect.
How do we get there? Supporting alternative economic structures and union shops with your business is a good step. Dollars are votes in this society, like it or not, and by using your resources to support democratic, co-operative, worker-owned organizations, you help create and maintain a more just world. Mike Griffin’s take on it? “We were the strongest when we had a strong union movement in this town. We had the best jobs. We had a higher population back then, too. I think the decline in Decatur has a lot to do with the decline in the union movement. There’s no militancy in the union movement. Don’t make any waves. Don’t piss anybody off. A partnership with corporate America, your natural enemies? They call it ‘partnership’, I call it ‘betrayal’. That’s where mending this union movement has to begin, with the rank and file saying, ‘Okay, we’ve had enough!’”

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