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Thursday, July 25, 1996

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

In July of 1994 more than 4,000 United Rubber Workers unionists went on strike against Bridgestone/Firestone's U.S. plants. Bridgestone, in the spirit of current corporate largesse, had tried to lower wages and health care benefits, skirt worker safety protections, and eliminate paid national holidays such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

The company discharged and permanently replaced 2,300 strikers in January 1995, the largest such replacement in U.S. history. Six months later the union offered unconditionally to return to the job, and has worked to date without a contract, although more than 500 of its members remain out of work while scabs fill those positions. BS/FS management has resisted attempts by Labor Secretary Robert Reich to settle the dispute with the Rubber Workers -- now merged with the United Steelworkers of America -- and the NLRB has accused the company of multiple violations of U.S. labor law and is seeking tens of millions of dollars in back pay on behalf of the workers (surely prima facie evidence to Washington's alert solons of the sinister fifth-column agenda of NLRB chief William Gould).


This BS/FS-Steelworkers' matchup has the earmarks of a combined Don King / Bill Gates production, with labor vying as a quintessential-1990s contender rather than a chronically slaphappy street-picket pug. That became apparent on July 12 and 13, when the two-year anniversary of the strike was commemorated with an "International Day of Action and Outrage" led by the 20-million-member International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' unions (ICEM), of which the USWA is an affiliate. A pioneer of international electronic networking between unions, the ICEM has initiated a "cyberdemo technique" against the long global reach of Tokyo-based Bridgestone, utilizing the unique strength of the World Wide Web to set up "hot links" between web sites.

Where multinational employers in recent years have been able to transmit marching orders to their global subsidiaries in nanoseconds, shifting production to low-wage countries, reneging on contracts and permanently replacing workers, labor has taken a thrashing. Transborder worker strategy and organizing suffered previously because it was attempted on location -- real sites, that is to say, as opposed to virtual ones -- and was met with stringent national ordinances and the invariable goon squads. While USWA continues to implement the traditional tactics of marches, demonstrations, leafletting and TV spots against Bridgestone, ICEM's innovative Cyber-Campaign could well become a worldwide counterforce model for workers and unions.

The ICEM effort points a way toward ending all the past whining about how capital is mobile and labor is not. I don't mean to be dismissive of that truism: Capital all along has had "information," and labor but one mainstay -- bodies. But if the techniques actuated by ICEM this month become standard operating procedure for labor, as they should, we will have witnessed a sea change in equivalency in the confrontation with corporate roguery. Virtual warfare on the cyber picket lines, if you will, though the consequences for working people exist in real time and are crucial.


ICEM's web site (http://www.icem.org/) features "company network" pages about Bridgestone and provides readers direct links to the e-mail addresses of top Bridgestone executives. The addresses of Bridgestone's international subsidiaries are included, and readers in the U.S. can avail themselves of three toll-free phone numbers for registering complaints.

Organizing the consumer boycott of the company's products at retail outlets continues, and is now augmented by ICEM's new link to Bridgestone's own web site listing of its stocklists, which are broken down into individual countries and the specific manufactures produced in each of them. This target-specific information is invaluable for consumers as Bridgestone workers engage in other lingering disputes with the company in South Africa, Canada and Brazil. A significant recent victory in the boycott campaign benefited purchasers of GM's Saturn cars. The GM management, which makes joint decisions with the USWA-affiiliated United Auto Workers on "sourcing" and purchasing, is offering Saturn buyers free replacement of Bridgestone/Firestone tires with other brands.

The symbol of the boycott is a black flag, an idea taken from auto racing, where a black flag means immediate disqualification for serious rules violations. ICEM's web pages include a scanned black flag logo that can be electronically clipped and sent to Bridgestone and its business partners. The union's pages also lists Bridgestone shareholders by name, notably banks and others that have major holdings in the company, and the site provides links to these investors' own global networks on the Web.

An edifying example of the combination of field organizing and cyber picketing is the USWA's physical presence at selected races on the Indy Car circuit (where BS/FS hopes to build a base of American customers), complemented by ICEM's electronic targeting of racing car enthusiasts. ICEM's web pages furnish links to pages dealing with the Indy Car circuit, among them Firestone Racing, Firestone companies that advertise their involvement in Firestone's racing program, and even the home pages of drivers.


Let's duly note, shall we, that Bridgestone's consolidated net earnings after taxes for 1995 were up almost 70 percent over the previous year, and earnings for 1996 are estimated by the company to rise another 28.7 percent. Its workforce, Bridgestone admits, is the most productive in the industry.

ICEM's Jim Catterson informs me that the union's Bridgestone pages have averaged 1,000 hits per week since June. Here's to the placard and the bullhorn, and their new cousins the computer and the modem, hot-linked where the rubber meets the road.

Copyright John Hutchison 1996
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