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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Labor, More So Than Lincoln, Saved Arkansas Jobs

In the Arkansas Democratic Senate primary, an ad from Sen. Blanche Lincoln claims that "she saved 1,700 Cooper Tire employees from losing their jobs to Chinese imports." But a labor union supporting her more liberal opponent countered with an ad in which a Cooper Tire worker says: "We saved our own jobs and we had to take big pay cuts to do it." We find the labor claim to be true, and Lincoln’s to be a bit of an exaggeration.

The Democratic primary, in which Lincoln faces Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, is May 18.

Let’s start with Lincoln’s claim. Her ad says that "she saved 1,700 Cooper Tire employees from losing their jobs to Chinese imports" and it points to newspaper articles about her role in testifying before the International Trade Commission in 2009 and asking President Obama to back tariffs on imported Chinese tires. A Lincoln press release says she testified at the request of Cooper Tire workers, who supported a steelworkers’ petition for relief from imports from China. The Texarkana Gazette said that Lincoln was "leading the charge for getting the domestic tire industry the relief it seeks." She and 10 other senators asked President Obama to enact the tariffs, and he did.

Certainly this was good news for Cooper Tire and other tire plants across the country. Reuters reported at the time that the United Steelworkers union, which represents tire plant workers, said that 5,000 U.S. jobs had been lost as tire imports from China had tripled over four years. But whether all of Cooper Tire’s 1,700 workers would have lost their jobs, or any of them, can’t be known for sure. So Lincoln goes too far when she says her action "saved" all 1,700 jobs. In her testimony, she made no claim that all 1,700 would be lost without a tariff. Rather, she told the trade commission that the jobs are "especially vulnerable" to Chinese competition. Her campaign, in its supporting material for this ad said she was "protecting" 1,700 jobs. That’s closer to the mark.

"We Saved Our Own Jobs"

The spot by the Service Employees International Union’s Committee on Political Education implies that Lincoln didn’t tell the truth. In the ad, Greg Knowles, a worker at Cooper Tire in Texarkana, says, "Blanche Lincoln has got a lotta nerve saying that she saved our jobs. We saved our own jobs and we had to take big pay cuts to do it." And that’s true.

In 2008, the Cooper Tire Co. said it would close one of four plants across the country. To make sure the Texarkana plant wasn’t shuttered, union workers voted to replace an existing contract with one that would freeze pay for three years and put in place other benefit concessions, according to the Associated Press. The state offered tax incentives to the company. The plant stayed open — a factory in Georgia was closed — and the company hired about 300 new workers in Texarkana, bringing the total workforce to about 1,700, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Both of these incidents helped protect jobs at Cooper Tire. But there was a direct threat of a plant closing in 2008, when the union agreed to make contact concessions, and there wasn’t one in 2009, when Lincoln argued for protection from Chinese competition. So we conclude that the union’s case is the stronger one here. At the same time, SEIU-COPE is wrong in implying that Lincoln isn’t telling the truth: She did indeed act to protect Cooper jobs, even if she can’t claim to have "saved" all 1,700 personally.

We’ll look at claims both SEIU-COPE and Lincoln’s camp have made about the North American Free Trade Agreement in a future post.