Article on a wildcat strike at a Firestone tire plant in Des Moines and the union's efforts to get the workers back to work. Appeared in Free Flowing (April 1974)
The suspension of eleven workers for "disciplinary reasons" led to a ten-day wildcat strike by 2400 workers at the Des Moines Firestone Works recently. And although the walkout ended March 18, there is still considerable dissatisfaction at the plant, according to United Rubber Workers Local 310 President Larry Russell.
During February a number of grievances about piece-work rates and job assignments in the heavy-duty curing department led to talks between URW and Firestone. Commitments were made to settle the issues, said Russell, but Firestone failed to keep lower management informed and the agreements were not carried out.
On March 8, eleven workers in the department walked out. They were given an ultimatum by Firestone; go back to work or face suspension. Despite this and pleas from unions leaders to go back, they refused and were given two week suspensions by the company. As the second shift came on at 3 PM, news of the suspensions spread and other departments walked out in solidarity with the suspended men, shutting down the entire plant.
The strike situation was complicated by a no-strike provision in the URW-Firestone contract which also requires the union to do all it can to end "unauthorized" strikes. This led to a three-way conflict between the workers and Firestone, with the union leaders in the middle, representing the workers but being unable to lead their struggle.
Local President Russell called a mass-meeting on the strike's fifth day, March 13, to explain the situation and to urge workers to return since under the contract no talks about the grievances could be held during an illegal strike. There was much disagreement however, and few workers were ready to return: Firestone stayed shut. It was not until after a five day phone campaign by URW officials and stewards that work resumed March 18.
Two weeks later many grievances had been resolved, but a more basic cause for militant action - inflation – remained. Under government guidelines Firestone workers received a 5.5% wage increase in 1973, while consumer prices rose 8.6%. This year the contract calls for a 4.2% increase at a time when inflation is rising at a 12% rate.
This situation is not limited to Firestone workers: in 1965 the average workers take-home pay was $91.32 per week, according to the Labor Department, After inflation is accounted for, take-home pay was only $94.07, a gain of less than $3 in 8 years.
One way to fight inflation being discussed in the labor movement is a one-day general protest strike to demand that old contracts be re-negotiated to include higher wage increases. This will be proposed at national meeting of URW leaders this week. Whatever their decision, the prospect seems to be, at Firestone and in other industries, increasing worker militancy as unemployment rises and real wages continue to fall. Until inflation ends or wages catch up with it, workers cannot afford to do otherwise.
Written by Steve Hiatt