By LOU WILIN

By LOU WILIN

STAFF WRITER

Unionized Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. workers in Findlay will vote Sunday on a new labor pact, but it could be an academic exercise.

Worker approval alone will not ratify the deal.

In addition, the terms depend on whether Apollo Tyres buys Cooper for $2.5 billion, or Apollo walks away from its takeover bid.

The planned takeover has fallen into disarray since last June, when the two companies announced Apollo would buy Cooper for $2.5 billion. The lack of a labor agreement between Apollo and the union has been one problem. The other is financial reporting and production sabotage at a Cooper plant in China, where Cooper's Chinese partner opposes the sale to Apollo.

The labor proposal, negotiated between Cooper and the United Steelworkers, includes pay raises, minimum production guarantees in Findlay, and benefits, Local 207L President Rod Nelson said. Unionized Cooper workers in Texarkana, Ark., approved a similar agreement on Wednesday.

But Apollo has not agreed to the labor proposal and would not be bound to it, even if the Delaware Supreme Court would order Apollo to buy Cooper Tire for $2.5 billion. Cooper negotiated the labor plan on the eve of its failed try weeks ago in Delaware Chancery Court to force Apollo to complete the $2.5 billion deal.

Apollo fought Cooper then and is fighting it now before the Delaware Supreme Court. Furthermore, Apollo is trying to persuade Cooper Tire leaders to accept a lower sale price. If Apollo succeeds, that would nullify the proposed contract that unionized workers will consider on Sunday. The union and Apollo would have to go to the negotiating table, Nelson said.

But the vote on Sunday still might settle things in a couple of potential scenarios.

If Apollo bought Cooper at the original $2.5 billion price and accepted the labor proposal, unionized workers in Findlay would receive minimum production guarantees and a contract extension through February 2020, and a 401(k) match, among other things. The existing contract extends through February 2017.

Unionized workers sought the minimum production levels, which are "a little bit less" than Cooper's current production levels, Nelson said. They are not a guarantee of employment levels, however, he said.

The other scenario in which the labor agreement would apply is if Apollo does not buy Cooper Tire. In that case, the contract would be extended through February 2020 but the minimum production guarantees would run only through February 2017, Nelson said.

In both scenarios, workers would receive either lump sum payments or increased wage rates.

"What they are trying to do is freeze our wages at the top (of the pay scale) and basically bring the people (who are) down below up (to higher wage rates)," Nelson said.

The production guarantees are a key part of the proposed contract for Findlay workers.

Competitors will be building four new tire plants in southern states in the next several years, and another plant will be expanded, Nelson said. Four factories also will be built in Indonesia and Thailand in the next several years, Nelson said. All of them will be more efficient than the 1914 Findlay plant, the nation's oldest tire plant.

"We want to be sure that our plant remains in a competitive playing field," Nelson said. "We want investment in our plant to help us keep our costs down ... I believe we are behind the eight ball."

The proposed labor agreement offers help toward that end, whether Apollo buys Cooper or not. In both scenarios, a joint company-union committee would be formed to "help us make the tough decisions" to ensure the Findlay plant's future, he said.

"We need to make sure that we are doing the right things to keep this plant here in Findlay," Nelson said. "We are the oldest plant in the United States. We know we have got our challenges and we know we have to be responsible, and we're going to be ready to meet those challenges."

Among the challenges are cheap tire imports from China, which have deflated Cooper's profits in the United States in recent quarters.

One analyst called Cooper's outlook in the United States "a melting ice cube."

Findlay factory workers will vote on the labor plan from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at a trailer behind the union hall on Summit Street. An informational meeting will be held at 8 a.m. Sunday at Findlay High School.

The proposal differs from the Texarkana plan in two ways.

Texarkana's production guarantees would last until 2020 even if Apollo does not buy Cooper. In addition, the Texarkana plan lacks the company-union committee.

Eighty-four percent of Texarkana's 1,400 rank and file favored it. Nelson is uncertain whether Findlay's 900 union workers will approve their proposal so resoundingly.

"My guys are tougher. They have more of a sense of home-office-in-our-backyard mentality ... and they're not happy with what's going on there with corporate nowadays," he said. "(But) they can't vote on emotion. They have got to vote on what's in front of them ... This is a positive for us."

Wilin: 419-427-8413 Send an e-mail to Lou Wilin

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