LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Union members at the Cooper Tire and Rubber Co. factory in Texarkana have voted overwhelmingly to approve a three-year contract laden with concessions as part of an effort to keep the plant operating.
Saturday's vote was 84 percent in favor and 16 percent opposed. Members of the United Steelworkers Local 752L agreed during a two-hour meeting on Friday to put the proposal to a vote.
The 1,400 workers agreed to no wage increases for the three years, changes in the health plan that will save the company money and, in some cases, cost workers more. The present contract was to expire in 2010 but the one approved Saturday will take its place, effective Jan. 20, if Cooper Tire keeps the plant open.
Findlay, Ohio-based Cooper Tire is evaluating its four U.S. plants and says it intends to close one of them because of high costs and lower demand. Plants at Findlay; Albany, Ga.; and Tupelo, Miss. are competing to stay open. Union workers at Findlay have agreed to a pay cut to help bring costs down. The company is to announce its decision Jan. 19.
The Albany plant has 1,300 workers, Findlay has 1,100 and Tupelo has 1,200.
The Texarkana contract protects all jobs, though some distribution center workers and janitors would take a slight pay cut. The pact would give the company a one-year break from paying into the pension fund, but workers would still get credit for that year to apply toward retirement.
Union election official Jay Wilson issued a statement Saturday saying the workers "would like the community to know that it has done its part in keeping this plant open. It is now up to Cooper to make the right decision."
Area officials say the plant has a $100 million direct annual economic impact on Texarkana, which is actually two cities that straddle the Arkansas-Texas border. The plant is on the Arkansas side, but most of the region's retail activity is on the Texas side. Thus, officials from both states have been involved in discussions to save the plant.
In 2005, workers at the plant went on strike for a month, narrowly voting to return to work and accept a contract that had them pay health insurance premiums for the first time. About a year later, Cooper Tire converted the factory to a "flex" plant, which trimmed the worker count from 1,900 and made the plant more adaptable to increases and decreases in production.
Steelworkers Local 752L President David Boone told workers Friday that Cooper Tire could restore the plant to continuous production status if the factory is kept open. Boone, backed by a unanimous executive committee, recommended passage of the new contract. However Boone and other union officials expressed their distaste for concessionary bargaining.
Boone told workers that they could make new gains once the economy begins to improve. But some workers acknowledged there is also the possibility that management would ask for new concessions if the economy continues its downward slide.
Cooper Tire officials did not immediately return calls from the AP for comment.