FEATURE Titanism Comes to Texas BY KAREN OLSSON There are various rituals associated with “economic development ” and especially with the arrival of a new employer in a job-hungry city. There are private courtships and public betrothals, ribbon-cuttings, press conferences, groundbreakings. Business and political leaders congratulate one another and at the mention of large sums of money, applaud politely. So it went two years ago in Brownsville, when representatives of Illinois-based Titan International joined local public officials to announce that Titan, which manufactures oversize truck tires, would build a new plant just north of the city, bringing 500 to 700 new jobs. “This is one of the biggest days in Brownsville,” Marie McDermott, president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council, proudly told reporters following the October, 1996, announcement. A month later the public was invited out to the site for an afternoon ground-breaking ceremony, where, in gratitude for the $30 million in state and local grants and subsidies pledged to Titan, the company served up free barbecue. Two years later, a ritual of a different kind has been underway at Titan’s plant in Des Moines, Iowa. Since May, when United Steelworkers Local 164 declared an unfair labor practices strike against the company, workers have been picketing around the clock. Their last “on the record” negotiation with the company was in June; they’ve met unofficially three times since then without reaching an agreement. From the time the strike began, Titan C.E.O. Maurice Taylor Jr. had been threatening to move half of the plant’s 670 production jobs to Brownsville, and in June, pieces of machinery from inside the plant were removed and trucked away. Suddenly it appeared that the Texas taxpayers’ $30 million was going to underwrite Taylor’s union-busting efforts and to welcome to town an employer that routinely overworks and underpays its employees. In the three years since Taylor bought the Iowa plant from Pirelli/Armstrong, says John Peno, president of Local 164, “working conditions have been basically unbearable. It’s been twenty-six days in a row, two days off, and some of those days are twelve hour days, for 85 to 90 percent of the plant.” In mid-September, the National Labor Relations Board affirmed the union’s declaration of an unfair labor practice strike, and charged Titan with various violations of federal labor law, which include moving jobs to Brownsville without bargaining with the union, cutting off medical benefits to ill, disabled, and pregnant strikers, and threatening to permanently replace workers. And on September 15, Steelworkers Local 303 declared a strike at Titan’s Natchez, Mississippi, plant, which Taylor acquired in bankruptcy court last year. Taylor has been trying to impose conditions in Natchez arbitrary shift schedules, contracting some of the work to non-union workers, and loss of seniority similar to those in Des Moines. 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER All this has occasioned barely a ripple of concern in Brownsville, where the unemployment rate is always in the double digits and prospective new jobs have a kind of holy grail status. \(“Titan to bring even more jobs to Brownsville,” read the headline in the Brownsville Herald last June, when it reported Taylor’s public denunciation of the union and his promise to transfer equipment as far as the decision to move,” says Rick Luna, spokesperson for the Brownsville Economic Development Council. Besides, officials in Brownsville say, when Titan broke ground in 1996, no one could have foreseen this strike. “I don’t think anyone in Brownsville knew about these [labor] issues,” says Brownsville State Representative Rene Oliveira, who helped secure $2 million in state job-training grants for Titan. “Nobody let any of us know about these issues, nor do we still know about them…. Titan has not demonstrated anything to me, that suggests they’re not going to be good corporate citizens. At this point we welcome them with open arms, and with a red carpet.” /t sounds like an old story: a manufacturer guts its unionized operation up north and moves to non-union, low-wage Texas. The South has for years now been luring industry with promises of sunshine and low wages; if anything, the north-tosouth trend is less stark than it once was, as downsizing, outsourcing, and internationalization create more complex capital-flight patterns. At this point, with the Brownsville plant not yet operational, it remains possible that Titan will keep the jobs in Des Moines or it could move them to Uruguay, where Titan recently bought a plant. Regardless of what ultimately happens in Iowa, however, the labor-management struggle there belies any conventional appeal to the inevitables of production: the inevitable move to the low-wage South, the inevitable decline of unions. In Des Moines, Titan is trying to crush a union at a profitable plant an intentional act of aggression and Texas subsidies are helping the company along. The Des Moines plant, which started making tires in 1936, is located in the city’s isolated old manufacturing sector, cut off from the rest of town by the railroad tracks. Overgrown empty lots, a portable toilet leasing business, and a recycling plant surround the tire factory; there are few if any casual passers-by to observe the OCTOBER 9, 1998
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