1/2/08

Ex-Steelworker official seeks retraining

Jim Wansley ran for president of United Steelworkers Local 746L in 2000 because he did not want to see Goodyear abandon its Kelly-Springfield plant in Tyler.

Now, with the shutdown of Goodyear's tire manufacturing in Tyler and a layoff of about 550 employees, Wansley still says the union - and the employees - did not fail in their efforts to convince a stubborn corporate culture to see the real value in the Tyler facility.

The 39-year employee who was laid off effective Tuesday will relinquish his union presidency to Vice President Harold Sweat on Tuesday. Wansley, 58, said he plans to return to college to complete a master's degree and perhaps teach some technical courses.

At 19, Wansley became a Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. employee in Tyler. He was able to earn a bachelor's degree in history in the early 1980s, and benefited from an apprenticeship program through the company.

By the time he was running for union president, first unsuccessfully in 1998 and then successfully in 2000, "it was becoming apparent - and Goodyear was being open about it - that they considered Tyler a 'meltdown plant,' and they didn't intend to put any investment in Tyler," Wansley said.

Shortly after he entered office, he and others began to inquire about what they could do to secure the plant's future.

"The key was to get investment for the plant," Wansley said. "The large amount of money that was spent here in the mid-'80s and early '80s was to build the small tires."

Information supplied by the union and Goodyear at the time said tires such as the ones produced at the Tyler plant would be the first impacted by foreign imports.

"Our equipment - at that time nobody even thought we could convert it to build what we call high value-added tires," Wansley said. "So we began a campaign with Goodyear to secure investment for the plant and we began doing some pretty innovative things, building on the employee involvement environment that was here in this plant and the culture that it had started, which is basically the best work force in Goodyear, and the most innovative and the one that could embrace change probably better than any other."

Goodyear had some good management at the plant, which was a blessing, Wansley said.

The problem was that Goodyear corporate was having its own problems at the time the union was trying to secure the investment, with the company's stock declining to about $3 per share.

"Tyler was like the best-kept secret in Goodyear; it was part of the Kelly-Springfield organization," Wansley said. "So many plant managers and people who came through here later retired here. It was a great community and also a great plant, and also one of the most modern technological plants.

"But Goodyear had mentally just written Tyler off," Wansley said.

Every time the local union and management would get a group of corporate leaders to recognize the promise of the Tyler plant, the group would be eliminated or they would just leave, he said.

Wansley said that was frustrating, but workers at the plant were showing that the older machines could be modified to produce the higher value-added tires.

"We had to play like we were ordering replacement parts" to get the machines converted, he said. Engineers at the corporate level said it could not be done, but the crew at the Tyler plant did convert some of the old machines to produce the larger tires.

"Everything we did here was almost without any investment from (corporate) and almost without any buy-in," he said. "It was done pretty much locally, so they never understood it. We couldn't get the investment, so we did it anyway, and they never understood it. At the time we came back from strike (in late 2006), we were building 40 percent high value-added tires, and they would tell you that we could only build 15 percent."

But the thing that killed the Tyler plant's chances of getting a shot at staying open was the state of Texas, Wansley said.

During contract negotiations in 2006, states and local communities submitted incentive packages to keep Goodyear plants open in Tyler, Fayetteville, N.C., and Gadsden, Ala.

Local and state incentive monies aimed at keeping the Tyler plant open totaled about $12 million, but incentives from Gadsden and Fayetteville were greater.

Goodyear was granted an incentive package worth up to $40 million for its Fayetteville operations, and it received state monies of $20 million for expansion and $10 million for training in its Gadsden plant, according to reports in the Akron Beacon Journal and The Gadsden Times.

State incentives are nothing new, Wansley said, adding the state of Texas invested in job retention when the Kelly-Springfield plant, which at the time did not make radial tires, was threatened with closure in the early 1980s. Instead, the plant stayed open and Goodyear converted it to a radial tire plant.

"This plant would have been dead in the '80s if the (current state) policies were in place," he said.

Wansley said the state tried for, and won, the Toyota plant in San Antonio. But it should put the same effort in job retention.

"Some people look at (incentives) as milking the system or milking the state, or 'it's just not fair,' or 'it's just not right,'" he said. "That's what you pay taxes for. Sometimes some of that money has to come back as seed money."

And the local community will pay economically more dearly than it would have paid in a successful state retention campaign.

(tylerpaper.com)

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