Firestone workers say fundraiser was quelled
Date of publication: February 24, 2006
Source: The Tennessean
By Bush Bernard
Tiremaker says effort is OK if permission sought first
Nashville tiremaker Bridgestone/ Firestone has come under fire from employees in La Vergne who claim the company thwarted their efforts to raise money for farmers at its rubber plantation in Liberia.
About 6,000 workers at the Liberian plantation staged a two-week strike earlier this month in a dispute over wages and working conditions in the war-torn African nation.
Lewis Beck, president of United Steelworkers Local 1055L in La Vergne, said he thinks the company shut down the fundraising because of worker unrest in Liberia.
Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman Dan MacDonald denied that claim.
The company was merely enforcing a longstanding policy that employees must have permission before soliciting donations on company property, MacDonald said.
"There is a clear policy and very clear guidelines about how you go about doing that," he said. "In this case, although everyone knows the ground rules, they chose to ignore them and they went and solicited.
"If they ask, and explain what they're doing, they can solicit and do a gate collection for this cause," MacDonald said.
Bridgestone/Firestone allowed a similar collection in Iowa recently when workers at its Des Moines plant asked for permission, MacDonald said.
Three workers stood at the La Vergne plant's primary exits at shift change Tuesday, collecting money, Beck said. They were told to get off company property, he said.
Beck said that was the first time the company had shut down an employee collection drive at the La Vergne plant since 1995. That time, union members were in the parking lot collecting holiday gift hams to distribute to striking union members at other Bridgestone/Firestone plants, he said.
"We've done many collections since then, and I don't recall having any issues," Beck said.
The union has filed a formal charge against Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire with the National Labor Relations Board office in Nashville, claiming the company made a unilateral change in working conditions, which would violate the plant's collective bargaining agreement.
The NLRB will look into the charge and, if warranted, open a formal investigation, said Joe Artiles, officer in charge of the NLRB Nashville office.
It could take two months to go through the process, he said.
The Liberian plantation has been a sore spot for Bridgestone/Firestone lately.
It was the source of a class-action lawsuit filed in November over living conditions and the use of child labor on the plantation, which is a source of raw rubber for the company's operations.
This month's strike heightened publicity about the turmoil Liberia is experiencing at the end of a 14-year civil war.
MacDonald said the company is spending millions to upgrade and repair the plantation, including the reconstruction of homes, several schools and a hospital that serves the area around the plantation. All were affected by the war, which wrecked the country's infrastructure.
Last fall, a companywide drive generated 30 truckload containers of desks, furniture, school supplies and other goods to help the people at the plantation.
Although the plantation employs about 6,000 people, more than 40,000 refugees are staying on the property as the nation tries to recover from the ravages of civil war, MacDonald said.