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Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. v. Doherty

May 27, 1999


Appeal from Circuit Court of Macon County No. 97MR49 Honorable John K. Greanias, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McCULLOUGH


Defendants, the Illinois Department of Employment Security (Department) and its Director, Lynn Quigley Doherty, appeal from the order of the circuit court of Macon County reversing on administrative review an award of unemployment benefits to 460 unemployment benefit claimants (claimants) who had participated in a strike against plaintiff Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. (Bridgestone). The 460 claimants who are defendants in this case join in the Department's argument on appeal. The issues are whether (1) the finding that claimants were entitled to benefits after January 14, 1995, on the basis that the Bridgestone plant in Decatur, Illinois, had resumed substantially normal operations was against the manifest weight of the evidence and (2) the statutory labor dispute disqualification was lifted when the struck employer hired permanent replacement workers during the strike. We reverse the circuit court and reinstate the Director's decision.

On July 12, 1994, the membership of the United Rubber Workers Union Local 713 (the union) went on strike against Bridgestone's Decatur plant as part of a strike against several Bridgestone plants. The strike ended on May 8, 1995. Claimants were part of the approximately 1,200 striking production employees and applied to the Department for benefits. On September 6, 1994, the Department issued a labor dispute determination concluding that the striking workers were ineligible to receive unemployment benefits pursuant to section 604 of the Illinois Unemployment Insurance Act (Act) because that provision disqualifies an individual from receiving unemployment benefits "for any week *** his total or partial unemployment is due to a stoppage of work which exists because of a labor dispute at the factory, establishment, or other premises at which he is or was last employed." 820 ILCS 405/604 (West 1994).

Subsequent to the September 6, 1994, determination, the Department received information that a large number of striking workers were advised by Bridgestone that they had been permanently replaced. On February 1, 1995, a representative of the Department requested information from Bridgestone as to the current workforce, i.e., of the 1,256 bargaining unit employees, how many had returned to work, how many had been replaced, had any positions been eliminated and, if so, how many. The letter also requested the current work schedule and the extent of the stoppage of work. The purpose of the request was to help the Department make a timely determination as to the eligibility of the claimants to receive benefits.

In response to the February 1, 1995, request, Bridgestone, on February 15, 1995, sent a terse response to the Department stating in part:

"Until the production level has reached the rate of an appropriate pre-strike period, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to consider whether the Company has returned to 'substantially normal' operations. Thus, the issues of how many strikers have been permanently replaced, the number of production employees in the plant and the current work schedule at the plant--which may be relevant to the issue of a return to 'substantially normal' operations--are not relevant to the issue whether there continues to be a 'stoppage of work' within the meaning of Section 604."

On that same day, the Department's administrative manager, Victor Napolitano, in a return letter to the response stated that the Department's present information indicated Bridgestone had a full complement of production workers, that it was operating on a full schedule, and that the striking workers had been permanently replaced. The letter stated that these Conclusions were made in part because of Bridgestone's failure to respond and requested an immediate reply before issuing a determination on eligibility of the workers for unemployment benefits. The record does not show a response from Bridgestone.

On February 23, 1995, the Department issued a supplemental labor dispute determination (supplemental determination) concluding the work stoppage caused by the labor dispute at the plant ceased during the week ending January 14, 1995, so that the claimants were "not ineligible" for unemployment benefits after January 14, 1995. According to the union, between July 1994 and January 1995, approximately 350 striking workers crossed picket lines to work at the plant. From January 4 through January 17, 1995, Bridgestone sent letters to approximately 943 striking employees informing them they had been permanently replaced. Several newspaper articles from mid-January 1995 reported Bridgestone officials indicated it was using replacement workers and resuming full production at the plant.

Bridgestone appealed the supplemental determination and on October 11, 1995, a hearing was conducted before the Depart-ment's Director's representative. Various newspaper clippings from mid-January 1995 referred to in the supplemental determination were admitted into evidence, as well as newspaper clippings offered by Bridgestone (quoting a Bridgestone spokesperson that replacement workers had been hired, but that it would take some time before prestrike production levels would be reached). The February correspondence was also admitted.

Robert Freeman, manager of industrial engineering and production planning for Bridgestone, testified to the plant's operations both before and during the strike. In late June 1994, the plant employed 1,209 "active clock card employees" (union members). From the time the strike began until January 1995, Bridgestone's production force consisted of salaried employees, temporary employees, permanent additional workers, and union workers who crossed picket lines, all doing production work normally done by the striking employees.

On January 4, 1995, Bridgestone offered its permanent additional employees and temporary employees the opportunity to become permanent replacements for the striking workers. The plant began a continuous production schedule (24 hours a day 7 days per week) on January 15, 1995. Before the strike Bridgestone operated five days per week, with three eight-hour shifts per day. By January 15, the production workforce (comprised of union members who had crossed picket lines, salaried employees, a few temporary employees, and the permanent replacements) was inexperienced, according to Freeman. Some machinery sat idle and Bridgestone had to put off preventive maintenance programs it wanted to implement and could not perform some of the maintenance it performed prior to the strike. Waste percentages also were higher than in 1994. As of January 17, 1995, Bridgestone had hired approximately 725 permanent replacements, and 225 striking employees had returned to work, for a total of 950 employees as opposed to 1,209 before the strike. Bridgestone notified striking employees and the union by letter if they had been permanently replaced.

Freeman also prepared a document comparing the plant's production for each month between January and June of 1995 with the same months in 1994. Freeman measured the plant's production by the aggregate weight of all tires produced and warehoused in a month, and plant productivity reflecting plant efficiency by pounds of tires produced per clock man-hour worked. The total weight of tires warehoused in January 1995 was 44.92% of the amount for January 1994; February 1995 was 50.6% of February 1994; March 1995 was 64.14% of March 1994; April 1995 was 77.44% of April 1994; May 1995 was 82.02% of May 1994; and June 1995 was 78.41% of June 1994.

Plant productivity measured in terms of pounds of tires produced for every man hour worked in January 1995 was 53.86% for January 1994; February 1995 was 45.98% of February 1994; March 1995 was 57.09% of March 1994; April 1995 was 63% of April 1994; May 1995 was 67.22% of May 1994; and June 1995 was 64.95% of June 1994. Freeman explained that lower productivity levels in ...

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