Rubber Workers in Southern Illinois Still Fighting For a Union

Rank and file activists at the big Continental Tire plant in Mt. Vernon, Illinois haven’t given up their dream of organizing a union. Despite a tough loss in a representation election last November, they have refused to knuckle under -- and keep on doing the necessary agitational work to unionize the place (which has about 1,600 hourly workers). “Each election we’ve had here, we’ve gotten a higher percentage,” says Lynn Howerton, a longtime leader of the local organizing effort. “It’s only a matter of time until we prevail.”

The first organizing drive at the plant took place in 1990. In a July election that year, about 28% of the workers voted in favor of being represented by the United Rubber Workers. Eight years later, after another organizing drive, the percentage of Yes votes came in at slightly over 40%. The choice this time was the United Steelworkers, reflecting the 1995 merger of the Rubber Workers with the USW. And In the third election last fall, the vote for unionization was up to 43%.

The loss last November was a tough pill because many thought the union had a good chance of winning. “We’d gotten well over 50% signing the cards, says Howerton, “and we thought it looked pretty good....but then we found out just like the United Steelworkers had told us, that you can’t depend on how many cards you got signed.” As in the previous elections, the company mounted a vigorous campaign against unionization, with ads in the local newspapers and radio stations, a series of in-plant “captive audience” meetings, and getting allies in the Mt. Vernon Chamber of Commerce to publicly oppose the union.

The Mt. Vernon plant was opened for production by General Tire in 1974. It was a time when the tire industry was beginning to explore “union avoidance.” And southern Illinois looked like a good place to try the strategy out. Although unions had been a powerful force in the region’s coal mines, there was a dwindling number of jobs in the industry. “The company knew what was going on with coal mining,” says Dennis Robinson, another longtime union activist at the plant. “It was to their advantage to move in here, what with the situation with the mines and the fact there were a lot of people down here who weren’t getting paid very well.”

All applicants for hourly jobs at the new plant were screened for any signs of pro-union sentiment. “If you were affiliated or made any suggestions that you were in favor of unions, you weren’t hired,” recalls Howerton. “They made it plain.” An employee handbook given to everyone hired into Mt. Vernon bluntly stated: “We believe that a union would be of no advantage to any of us here.” The 1987 sale of General Tire to the large German tire maker, Continental AG, had no effect on the company policy against unionization at Mt. Vernon. “it was just business as usual,” says Howerton, “even though every other factory Continental had in the U.S. or Europe has a union.”



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Fear was a real problem for the first organizing drive in 1990. “When organizers from the Rubber Workers would come around, people were afraid to talk with them because they might lose their jobs,” recalls Robinson. “So they would have meetings out at the hotels.” A few outspoken rank and filers, known as “radicals,” did surface during the campaign, however, and they continued the conversations about unions after the lost election. When the Steelworkers committed resources for another organizing drive in 1997, the mood at the plant became much more militant than in the 1990 campaign. Activists talked openly about work problems, handed out leaflets in the plant, and even made speeches for the union in the main break room. And management could no longer count on getting a respectful hearing at its “captive audience” meetings. “They would have these mandatory meetings, to tell us how bad the union was, and people would sit with their backs to the speaker,” recalls Robinson. “And then someone would say ‘what time is it.’ and they would all start yelling ‘it’s union time.’”

The plant’s emergent rank and file group did not fade away after losing the January 1998 election. Activists continued to wear their “Union Yes” t-shirts to work every day. Close contacts were maintained with USW locals at the three unionized Continental plants (in Mayfield, KY, Charlotte, NC and Byran, OH). Several Mt. Vernon leaders sat in on the 1998 contract negotiations at the Continental local in Charlotte. And then the Mt. Vernon group raised over $30,000 in strike support funds when Charlotte went out on strike. The following year, the USW recognized Mt. Vernon as Local 1199. “We have a union inside Continental, ” Lynn Howerton told delegates at the national USW convention. “We just don’t have the numbers to get a contract at this time.”

Local leaders admit they were “too confident” going into the election last November. They also credit a new plant manager with doing a good “selling job” in opposing the union. “He went to various departments in their break rooms and would talk about stuff the company had done, like the 401K match.” says Robinson. “His favorite expression was ‘give me a chance, let me work for you.” All of the nice-guy talk from management ended with the election. Early last winter, a video distributed to workers from Continental’s corporate gboffice warned ominously of “cost problems” and “the need to make some hard decisions.” Mt. Vernon’s managers have gone on to eliminate the company match for a 401K retirement plan, raise the employee share of medical insurance, and end a tire rebate program.

As in 1998, rank and file support has held firm since the November defeat. People wearing t-shirts (“Don’t Blame Me, I voted Union”) and buttons (“We are still here. Local 1199, deal with it!”) are seen all over the plant. Newsletters like the Midnight Express blast away at management for its cost-cutting and other “stupidities.” And workers continue to worry about management’s continuous pressure for higher production. Another election at Mt. Vernon seems all but certain. “We’ve got an extremely strong bunch of people here,” says Howerton, “we just haven’t got the majority that will vote yes yet. But that’s coming closer all the time.”

John Magney teaches Labor Relations at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.