Steelworkers’ strike against Titan marks second anniversary

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 10, 2000

Calvin Holland and Plez West sat across from the Titan Tire plant on Kelly Avenue, manning a picket line as they and other striking Steelworkers have done for nearly two years. They each worked at the plant for more than 30 years before the strike, which will mark its second anniversary Friday. When asked what they do to make ends meet now, Holland said with a grim chuckle, &uot;Drive old cars.&uot;

For strikers, this is where the rubber meets the road — not in a conference room where officials from Titan and the union haggled over issues like job security, seniority, raises and overtime, but in the day-to-day challenges of making ends meet.

&uot;My wife works two jobs. People and their families get whatever jobs they can,&uot; West said. &uot;But one day the court’s going to rule, and we’ll go back to work.&uot;

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The strike, which involved more than 200 workers, began when Titan was given the right to buy the bankrupt plant from Fidelity-Condere. Several negotiations took place between Titan and union officials, with few results, until talks last broke off in June 1999.

Life has been challenging for striking Steelworkers. Many have taken minimum-wage work or odd jobs and get assistance checks from the union based on their income, said Leo &uot;T-Bone&uot; Bradley, president of Local 303L.

&uot;We’re surviving,&uot;&160;he said.

But neither side in the labor dispute — which Titan President and CEO Morry Taylor contends is not a strike — is willing to budge, with both sides standing by the terms they offered in mid-1999.

In late April 1999, a contract was worked out that was satisfactory to both parties — except for a back-to-work agreement. Bradley said that once Local 303L members found out that their seniority would be jeopardized, they did not want to vote on the plan.

&uot;We actually wrote up a total contract and gave it to them, and all they said was ‘We don’t want that, we want our old contract,’&uot;&160;Taylor said. &uot;I can’t negotiate with myself.

&uot;They can come back to work any time they want.&uot;

Bradley, on the other hand, said the union presented its version of a contract to Taylor in June. &uot;He still hasn’t gotten back to us on that,&uot;&160;Bradley said.

Business at the plant is going on as usual despite the strike, Taylor said. Although Titan officials will not release production figures due to competition, 343 people are working at the plant at an average of $14 an hour, about $1 higher than when the strike began, he added.

Recently, the plant even began paying $200 of each of its workers’ paychecks in $2 bills to show the economic impact the factory has on the local economy.

Still, according to figures from the Securities and Exchange Commission, Titan’s sales fell 2 percent for the six months ending June 30 compared with the same period last year, to $309.9 million.

Net income went up to $19.9 million compared with $393,000 for the first six months of 1999, mostly due to the sale the company’s lawn and garden and ATV tire divisions in April to Carlisle Corp.

Meanwhile, Titan’s stock has dropped from more than $12 a share a year ago to $6 a share on Friday.

&uot;If that’s the business (Taylor’s) getting on with, nobody seems to want it,&uot;&160;Bradley said.

Meanwhile, union officials are preparing their arguments for a hearing later this month on union claims in the bankruptcy of Condere Corp., Titan’s predecessor at the Natchez plant.

The union contends that it is still owed millions of dollars in such things as back pay, 401-K payments and child support and credit union withholdings.

The union is also preparing for a December hearing on a complaint the National Labor Relations Board filed Aug. 2 against Titan, charging the company owes back pay and jobs to striking workers.

And this weekend, members of Local 303L are attending a cookout and other activities — not in Natchez, but in Gramercy, La., to celebrate a union local’s return to work at a plant there.

Bradley admitted he did not believe that the Natchez strike would last as long as it has.

&uot;I didn’t think (Taylor) would fight this long,&uot;&160;he said. &uot;After these court proceedings, I believe he will start talking. He will either stop fighting or sell to someone who doesn’t want to fight this long.&uot;