- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

ST. LOUIS Bridgestone/ Firestone Inc. and its workers announced yesterday they had reached a tentative contract agreement, averting a strike, but the troubled tire maker faced more difficulties here and abroad.

"We're going to do everything we can to restore the public's faith in the company," said John Sellers, a lead negotiator for more than 8,000 Bridgestone/Firestone workers represented by the United Steelworkers of America.

The three-year deal governs workers at nine U.S. factories.

While the company managed to avoid a strike, its troubles are far from over:

n The company is in the midst of an effort to replace 6.5 million recalled tires and a federal investigation continues into 88 U.S. traffic deaths reportedly linked to faulty tires.

n Venezuela's consumer-protection agency has recommended that Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone be held criminally responsible for 46 deaths linked to reportedly faulty tires. The agency said 62,000 tires were being recalled.

n Congress begins hearings this week aimed at learning when the company knew about the defects.

n Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a consumer advisory that said an additional 1.4 million tires could be dangerous and should be replaced.

n Over the weekend, a 10-year-old boy died and six others were injured in Texas when the driver of a Ford Explorer equipped with Firestone tires lost control of the vehicle and it tumbled off an interstate. At least one of the tires appeared to have shredded and authorities were investigating to determine if tread separation caused the crash.

Union negotiators announced they had reached a tentative contract agreement with the company just before dawn yesterday. The agreement came after a weekend of around-the-clock negotiating that had continued past the union's initial strike deadline Friday night.

The contract that will go before union members includes yearly wage increases, higher cost-of-living adjustments and increased pension benefits.

Once the agreement is ratified by union members, expected to happen later this week, "then everybody will be focused on the business of making tires," Mr. Sellers said.

The tire recalls loomed in the background as negotiators bargained day and night in a suburban St. Louis hotel.

"The timing could have been better," Bridgestone/Firestone chief negotiator Saul Solomon said of the troubles haunting his company outside the negotiation room. "But I think both parties here wanted to get this done."

Labor Day was a holiday for Bridgestone/Firestone.

"We need the company for jobs," said Bridgestone/Firestone worker Jim Ash, "but they need us for quality products, particularly with the mess they're in now."

The company normally hosts a Labor Day picnic for workers. "I guess they were just a little too busy with other things," said Bridgestone/Firestone employee Frank Tuttle.

The strike would have included workers at nine of the company's 28 U.S. plants: LaVergne and Morrison, Tenn.; Bloomington and Decatur, Ill.; Des Moines, Iowa; Oklahoma City; Akron, Ohio; Noblesville, Ind.; and Russelville, Ark.

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