In Iowa, It’s Titan Vs. Tire Workers
DES MOINES — As the car turned into the factory parking lot, Dave Hoyme bent over, put his face as close as possible to the driver’s rolled up window and let loose with a gravelly ear-shattering howl that ricocheted up and down the street.
“GET OUT OF THAT CAR AND CRAWL DOWN THE ROAD OUT OF HERE. ROACH, YOU ARE TOO SMALL TO DRIVE!” he bellowed.
The other pickets hooted, hollered and excitedly waved their signs as a broad smile covered Hoyme’s face.
One year after going on strike against Titan Tire Corp. here, there’s little doubt about the bitterness and resolve of the 670 workers, members of the United Steelworkers union.
But the man they are battling is no pushover.
Not Maurice “Morry” Taylor Jr. He’s the flamboyant, straight-talking millionaire businessman and one-time presidential candidate from Quincy, Ill., whose nickname is The Griz. That’s short for Grizzly, a nickname he acquired several years ago after firing his lawyer in the midst of a meeting.
Not Taylor. He once suggested that the National Labor Relations Board administrative judge who ruled against his company in a strike-related matter was smoking dope. He describes the NLRB as a government-ran kangaroo court.
Not, for sure, Taylor. He repeatedly blocked state inspectors seeking to investigate a rash of injuries at his plant in the last year and backed down only when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against him.
During their inspection tour last month of the struck factory, Byron Orton, Iowa’s labor commissioner, said that the 54-year-old executive pulled him aside and told him: “Mr. Orton, we are at war. And when I am at war, I do not lose. When I am at war, just like in Kosovo, innocent victims get killed.”
Just as Taylor furiously denies making that remark and Orton adamantly stands by his recollection, the union and company offer wildly divergent views of what has happened in one of the few major labor disputes taking place in the U,S. today.
The hottest issue for the union is its rejection of Titan’s stiff overtime demands, and the union’s decision to wage war over this reflects a small but growing trend among unions to put the brakes on longer work shifts and longer hours on the job.
Similarly, the all-out campaign waged by the steelworkers is a mark of labor’s somewhat renewed feistiness and conviction that if done well, a strike is not a memento from labor history. So, too, Taylor’s reliance on replacement workers marks the growth of a practice that has steadily gained in recent years.
An NLRB administrative judge has blocked Taylor from permanently hiring the replacement workers, saying the confrontation is an unfair labor dispute. One of the violations cited by the NLRB official was canceling health-care benefits for 24 workers who were on medical leave when the strike began.
Much of the heat stirred by the dispute comes from the clash of Taylor, who has suggested that the strikers go to Cuba where they would be more at home “with the leftist, socialist, communism there,” with the Steelworkers. The union, which merged with the much weaker rubber workers union in 1995, has made a point lately of throwing its muscle into such disputes.
Iowans on the sidelines also have been snared by the dispute.
The showdown at the time-worn, red brick tire plant in a grungy industrial area not far from the Iowa capitol has drawn calls for a resolution from Gov. Tom Vilsack and open support for the workers from U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and a number of local clergy.
Among those caught in the fray are a number of Bosnian refugees, who have been hired as replacement workers. Ironically, they are replacing another group of refugees, from Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, who make up a large number of the striking workers.
Workers’ complaints about working as much as 26 days in a row, sometimes 12 hours a day, have also galvanized support, said Laurie Clements, head of the Labor Center at the University of Iowa at Iowa City.
The tire workers walked out in Des Moines on May 1, 1998. They were followed four months later by 500 workers at a Titan Tire plant in Natchez, Miss. In July last year, the company began hiring replacement workers, and the number now has hit 550 in Des Moines.
In Natchez, where Titan had taken over a bankrupt tire company and formed a new business, it started out by hiring new workers and telling the union members they could compete for their old jobs. That infuriated the union workers and led to the strike.
The strikers now want the 200 workers who have replaced them to be let go before they return to work, a step that Taylor has refused to take.
Determined to take the battle to a higher pitch, the Steelworkers set up organizing drives at three other non-union plants owned by Titan International Inc., the parent firm headed by Taylor. These facilities are located in Quincy, Clinton, Tenn., and Brownsville, Texas.
Cobbled together by Taylor, who has specialized in buying troubled plants and companies, Quincy-based Titan International Inc. builds farm and construction wheels and tires. It has nine plants in the U.S., five in Europe and one in Uruguay.
Taylor is Titan International’s president and chief executive officer.
Amid a union strike at Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp., which was losing money at the plant in Des Moines, Titan bought the Iowa facility in July 1994 and soon after signed a contract with the union.
Given the plant’s losses and Taylor’s tough bargaining style, John Peno, president of Steelworkers Local 164, said that the union had little alternative but to accept a concessionary contract that included two-tier wages and pay cuts.
Taylor disagrees, saying he saved a troubled plant, cut salaried jobs instead of union jobs as the plant’s old managers had urged him to do and has been paying his workers one of the highest wages in the state. The average wage is about $15.26 an hour, according to the union.
By 1998, Peno said the union felt that the company should share some of the profits it earned in the last few yeas. But Taylor said the union wanted increases that would put him at a disadvantage in competing against foreign firms and second-tier tiremakers.
The union’s major contract issues involve a limit on mandatory overtime, an end to the two-tier wages, financial support for retiree medical coverage, job security guarantees and pension benefits changes.
“Morry is slowly learning what collective bargaining is all about. You can’t come in and throw something down on the table and say that is it,” said Peno.
In recent talks with the union, Taylor says he agreed to almost every issue sought by the union and blames it for killing the deal because he would not let the Natchez strikers return to work ahead of the replacement workers.
But the union says it still has problems with Taylor’s offers.
The dispute has lingered, Taylor claimed, because of politicians who chase after union support, union leaders who like to wield power and the locals’ leadership. “There’s no leadership at each local. I feel sorry, I really feel sorry for the workers,” he said.
Taylor, who co-authored a book called “Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix the Government,” doesn’t seem to worry about being controversial. In a recent letter to Sen. Harkin, he said, “Have you ever looked at what is really going on or are you just hooked to the union money machine?”
Indeed, Taylor sees nothing in the dispute that detracts from the view of himself that he pitched to voters in 1996 as the hero of the average working stiff. He spent about $13 million on that brief and furious campaign as a long shot for the Republican nomination.
But Tobias Levkovich, an industry expert for Solomon Smith Barney in New York, said that Taylor is no fool at business. “He plays up his quirkiness and uses it to his advantage, but he is a real businessman,” Levkovich said.
As for the current dispute, Levkovich suggested that Taylor may have been thrown for an unexpected loop by the situation.
Clearly, Titan International has suffered from its labor problems amid a deeply deflated market for its farm goods. Its profits fell from $25.1 million in 1997 to $8.1 million last year. While it is losing about $500,000 a month in Des Moines, it recently began to turn a profit in Natchez, according to Taylor.
Among all of the issues, Taylor said he is baffled by the union’s complaints about overtime because that was a condition in the prior contract. Plus, he said that he has offered to curtail overtime at the plant.
But the union said his offer does not go far enough.
“It doesn’t matter how much you can earn, if you can’t spend time with your family,” said 33-year Hoyme, who quickly figured that he earned up to $40,000-a-year before the strike with all of the extra time.
As he stood on the curb by the factory, a steady flow of cars delivered workers for the afternoon shift.
Some pickets waved the flags of various U.S. military services. Furious over Taylor’s remarks, questioning their loyalties, they wanted to show that they were military veterans.