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Did a strike lead to tire problems?

Ford links most complaints to plant in Illinois

SHARE Did a strike lead to tire problems?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Workers at a Firestone plant in Illinois were on strike during the time many of the 6.5 million tires now being recalled were made, according to an analysis by Ford Motor Co.

"When we looked at this data, we said, 'There's something wrong here,' " Jason Vines, Ford's vice president for communications, said during a teleconference Sunday with reporters and tire company officials.

Most of the tires recalled last week — radial ATX, radial ATX II and some Wilderness AT brands — are on Ford sports utility vehicles and light trucks. And most of those tires were built at the Decatur, Ill., plant from 1994 to 1996, Ford said.

At the time, United Rubber Workers union members were on strike, and the plant was operating with replacement workers and managers.

The strike began in July 1994. After 10 months, the union offered to return to work without a contract, but the company continued to use mostly replacement workers until a final agreement was reached in late 1996.

Bridgestone/Firestone said the strike had nothing to do with the problems.

"That's a pretty far reach," spokeswoman Christine Karbowiak said. Still, "anything is possible," she said. Karbowiak said the Decatur plant has received quality certification from external experts as well as from Ford, General Motors and Nissan.

The Washington Post reported that six former Decatur plant workers claim questionable quality control procedures were used at the plant in the mid-1990s.

Ford conducted an analysis of its Firestone tires and the complaints it had received to pin down where the tires were made and what may have caused the treads on some to separate.

The automaker, which used Firestone data, also released documents indicating that complaints about certain Bridgestone/Firestone tires had begun increasing by 1997. Ford said Bridgestone did not pass the information along.

Vines said the number of complaints was 10 times higher for the 15-inch ATX tires made in Decatur than for the Wilderness tires. "The data and the analysis of the data is that there's a problem with Decatur and that other plants are world class," he said.

The No. 2 automaker was expected to release more detailed statistics Monday. Firestone's tires are being investigated by federal officials in connection with more than 300 accidents and the deaths of at least 46 people.

Larry Werve, who has worked at the Decatur plant for 29 years and is publicity chairman for United Steelworkers Local 713, said replacement workers shouldn't be held responsible.

"Even those workers were required to work to standards, and their work was monitored by management," said Werve, whose union merged with the Rubber Workers in 1995.

He said union workers had felt singled out by the recall.

"We never denied we made some of the tires. I just think proportionally, the figures don't support that we made all of them," he said. "As far as workmanship, I don't think that played into it. We made tires to (the company's) specifications.

"I don't know anyone working there who would intentionally put out a bad product," he said.

In full-page ads in major newspapers, Ford spelled out that just 15-inch versions of the ATX, ATX II and some Wilderness tires are affected by the recall.

The Ford analysis of Firestone tires said the number of claims — based on property damage, personal injury and lawsuits — was as low at 31 for some Firestone original equipment tires. But the 15-inch tires had 2,030 claims, including 113 this year.

Of that number, 1,864 involved the ATX tires, Ford said.

Texas had the highest number of complaints, about 370. Arizona reported about 280 claims while about 230 were recorded in California and 170 in Florida.

"We've got such a high volume of tires that looking for the root cause of the problem is like looking for a needle in a haystack," Bridgestone's Karbowiak said.

The tires involved in the recall are P235/75R15 Firestone radial ATX and radial ATX II tires and Wilderness AT tires carrying the code "VD." Most of the tires recalled were on Ford vehicles.

On the Net:

Bridgestone/Firestone: www.bridgestone-firestone.com

Ford Motor Co.: www.ford.com

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: www.nhtsa.gov