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Opinion | The real story of Gadsden and Goodyear

The only way to make unions seem like the bad guy in a tale of American industry is to lie about them.

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Yes, let’s tell everyone what the people of Gadsden know. 

House Majority Leader Scott Stadthagen passed around an op-ed recently that claimed to tell the story of how unions caused that city’s major employer, the Goodyear tire plant, to shutter in 2020. 

In Stadthagen’s work of fiction, the union was the culprit. 

Except, anyone who has lived around Gadsden – or anyone with the ability to Google “what caused the Gadsden Goodyear plant to close” – knows that Stadthagen is lying. 

That’s right. He’s not confused. He didn’t mislead. He didn’t get his facts wrong. 

Stadthagen wrote an entire op-ed with the intention of lying about what happened at Goodyear so he could fool Alabama workers into selling themselves out. Again. 

These are Stadthagen’s words: “In Rainbow City and Attalla, they remember what it was like to watch as proud, hardworking men and women were forced onto the unemployment line when the union voted to close down their workplace and then left town and left them behind. Those union leaders drove away and left hundreds of Alabama families in the rear-view mirror of the luxury SUVs they paid for on the backs of the men and women they left in their wake.”

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That anyone would attempt to pass off such utter fiction as truth is deplorable. That it would come from one of the top lawmakers in Alabama is … well, it tells you a lot about why we are where we are. 

Here’s the truth. 

The Gadsden Goodyear plant was supposed to close in 1999. That’s when Goodyear wanted to close it, because it believed it could make its tires cheaper elsewhere. It was the United Steelworkers Union – UAW, which Stadthagen cites throughout his piece, wasn’t involved – and more specifically, the Local 12 union, which saved the plant. A decade later, the plant actually expanded. 

But then, in 2015, a couple of years after the Gadsden plant reached peak production numbers, Goodyear opened a plant in Mexico. Utilizing cheap labor and almost zero regulations, the company began shifting its Gadsden productions to Mexico. That included production of a tire model developed at the Gadsden plant.

(During the midst of this transition, workers at the Goodyear plant in Mexico went on strike to protest unsafe and poor working conditions. Lacking the protections of American laws, the majority of the protesting workers were fired by Goodyear.)

The union saw what was occurring. In fact, Goodyear began shuttering production lines and laying off non-union employees in droves, as it took advantage of that cheap foreign labor, all while putting a thumb in the eyes of the American workers who built and sustained that company for generations. 

And again, it was the union that saved the workers. It forced Goodyear into a multi-year deal in 2017 that kept the plant operational, even if running at reduced employment. And the union got guaranteed dollars, retirement plans and benefits for those employees. 

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That’s why there was even a vote in 2020 to close the plant. It didn’t occur among union brass in some faraway locale, with “luxury SUV” owners taking advantage of hapless Gadsden employees. It was the Local 12 union – the 400-plus remaining employees of the Goodyear plant – who voted to accept the substantial buyouts negotiated by the union and allow the plant to close. 

They weren’t happy about it. They didn’t want to do it. But they saw it as the best of two bad options left for them by the company. 

So, just to make sure nothing is missed here: A major U.S. company shifts production to a foreign country, turning its back on its American employees. The employees’ union negotiates to keep the plant open for years longer and gets substantial buyouts for those employees shafted by the company. And this Alabama politician wants you to believe that it was the union that was the bad guy. 

Oh, and just to make sure you really buy into this fairytale he’s trying to sell you, he points out that UAW leadership is making hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. 

Hundreds of thousands – that’s cute. 

Richard Kramer, the CEO of Goodyear, made $21 million in 2021 – the year after it closed the Gadsden plant. The next four executives at Goodyear made a combined $28 million in 2021. 

The average employee at Goodyear, in 2021, made just $43,476. That’s a difference of 490 to 1. 

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You see, that’s the real story here. 

A whole bunch of executives have moved their car manufacturing plants to Alabama because this state offers them – until now – union-free labor that doesn’t test that 490-1 compensation ratio. And those executives, along with a few politicians, are desperately trying to maintain that status quo. 

That’s the threat of unions. It isn’t to company survival or employee job security. It isn’t to work production or quality output. 

It’s to executive salaries. 

Guys like Kramer want to make a presentation to shareholders touting their reduced production and labor costs and increased bottom line. It doesn’t really matter to them that those numbers come from shifting manufacturing to another country, laying off thousands of workers and crippling an entire American town. The CEO gets a bump in pay – Kramer got a 34-percent boost in 2021 – and shareholders get more value, maybe a dividend increase. 

But the union cares. In fact, pretty much all it cares about is that employee compensation is determined by profits. When the profits go up, the employees overall – not just the executives – make more. 

That’s the fair way. That’s the right way. 

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And the only way to make it seem like the wrong way is to lie about it. 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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