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Workers at plant skeptical of latest reports about shoddy work

DECATUR, Ill. — Union tiremakers at Bridgestone/Firestone's Decatur, Ill., factory are defending themselves and replacement workers against charges that they made many of the 6.5 million tires being recalled for safety reasons.

Leaders of the United Steelworkers Local 713, which represents the Decatur workers, are demanding proof that a large share of the troubled tires can be traced to the Decatur facility.

On Monday they called on Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. to release all the data and evidence they have gathered to the public.

"I'd like to see more documentation,'' said union vice president Randy Gordon.

Most of the 15-inch Wilderness, ATX and ATX II tires recalled last week were on Ford sport utility vehicles and light trucks. The automaker said most of those tires were made in Decatur from 1994 to 1996, some during a bitter strike when Bridgestone/Firestone hired replacement workers.

Joe Roundtree, a former plant employee who has offered testimony in a lawsuit stemming from a fatal Florida crash, said quality control suffered because the strike cost the plant experienced workers. Many replacement workers stayed while seasoned union members retired or quit, he said.

Roundtree, who worked at the plant for 30 years before retiring in 1996, has testified that he witnessed shoddy work and shortfalls in the inspection process. He stopped putting Firestone tires on his family's cars in 1994 because of that.

"No, I wasn't surprised by the recall,'' said Roundtree, one of several former workers to testify about problems at the Decatur plant in lawsuits. "I had a good feeling it had to happen because you have all these new people in there. They were inexperienced and the work ethic wasn't there.''

Union workers were quick to discount Roundtree's allegations about shoddy work, and they were unwilling to lay blame on the workers who crossed the picket lines during the 10-month strike in 1994.

"I'd just be speculating, and I don't want to do that,'' Gordon said. "We were on the street and they had new people in there.''

Other union workers also declined opportunities to criticize the replacement workers, saying they did not want to make allegations without proof.

Bridgestone/Firestone said Monday there is no evidence the strike affected tire quality. The company and Gordon noted that Ford and other automakers have honored the plant with quality awards in years past.

Larry Werve, an inspector at the plant, said he'll remain skeptical until he sees all information gathered by Ford, Bridgestone/Firestone and the government.

"Let us defend ourselves,'' Werve said. "We're piecing it together from what the media reports. We run a hundred different sizes and types of tires. If we had some problem at this plant, it would have to show up in all the tires and brands.''

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