Tim Newman, Campaigns Assistant, International Labor Rights Forum
If anyone had any doubt that the world's largest tire company, Bridgestone/Firestone, was competing in the worldwide Race to the Bottom, news from the company in the last few days have settled that confusion. Bridgestone Americas Holding, Inc. announced last Friday that its subsidiary, Firestone Industrial Products, is planning to close down a production plant in Noblesville, Indiana. The president of Firestone Industrial Products was explicitly clear that the decision to close the plant is do to the fact that the workers are unionized. In a press statement, he said, "We have a difficult challenge in Noblesville... Our main competitors are manufacturing in low-cost producing countries, making it very difficult for FSIP to continue to operate this facility, one which is hampered by aging equipment, the world’s highest wage and benefit structure and a mature domestic market."
While Firestone began the search for the most desperate and unprotected workers in the world, Firestone workers in DC last week promoted a radically different vision. Keep reading to find out more.
An article about the potential plant closure in the Indianapolis Star noted that the 72-year old Noblesville plant is the only one of Firestone Industrial Products' three North American plants that is unionized -- represented by the United Steelworkers. Firestone also has air spring plants in Brazil and Poland. It's remarkable how clear Firestone is that they are closing up shop in the U.S. specifically because workers are paid better here and they want to find somewhere where they don't have to treat workers as well so that they can pay less in wages and benefits and presumably, make more money for executives.
Meanwhile, Bridgestone/Firestone is the largest tire company in the world and reported an income this quarter (FY2008, January-March) of 22.9 billion Yen (over $27 million). So what else have they been spending their money on? Well, first there are all the big sports endorsements (like the NHL/NHL Players Association/Hockey Hall of Fame, the GOLF Channel, the NFL SuperBowl, the Chicago Auto Show, the PGA tour and that's just the beginning!). Then of course, there are those illegal payments they made to foreign governments in order to get contracts for their marine hose division. They also have a Political Action Committee which has about $165,000 for the 2008 election cycle so far and have spent about $300,000 for lobbying. Looks like a matter of misplaced priorities to me!
Meanwhile, last week, leaders of the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union (FAWUL) which represents workers at the bottom of Firestone's supply chain -- their rubber plantation in Liberia -- were in DC to receive an award from the AFL-CIO. The Firestone workers in Liberia have faced incredible odds to get recognition for their union which is desperately needed given the intense levels of exploitation on the plantation. The current conditions the Liberian workers face are definitely at the bottom, but by organizing and raising their living and working conditions, these workers are helping to raise the bar for workers around the world. The FAWUL leaders in DC, which included President Austin Natee and Secretary-General Edwin Cisco, talked passionately about how support from workers here (through USW and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center) and allied organizations helped them in their struggle and also how they are committed to supporting union workers here when they face trouble with Firestone.
As Austin said, "If we join hands, once we are together, we can move mountains. United we stand, divided we fall."