One of the latest TV ads vs. incumbent U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln is this one by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) disputing Lincoln’s claims (in her own TV ad) that she saved 1,700 jobs at the Texarkana Cooper Tire plant, which was under threat of closing in 2008.
The view expressed in the SEIU ad is that Lincoln did nothing to save those jobs, that it was the workers themselves who did so, making big concessions to Cooper.
The union has been saying this for a while now. You can see a precursor to the SEIU ad right here on YouTube. It’s been there since March.
So who’s right? Did the workers themselves keep the plant open? Or did Lincoln save the day, as she claims in her ad?
As with most political ads, there’s varying shades of truth in both spots. It appears the workers represented in the SEIU ad did do the heavy lifting and probably did the most to save their own jobs.
Lincoln, meanwhile, had varying roles in the future of the Cooper plant, one of which she won’t talk much about. In the end, she might be fairly criticized of overstating the results of her efforts.
And of course, it didn’t have to be this convoluted.
Here, an assessment of both ads’ claims and who saved the Cooper jobs.
Cooper Tire Texarkana, Under the Gun
In the face of sluggish demand and rising costs, Ohio-based tire-maker Cooper Tire announced in October 2008 that it would conduct a 90-day review of four plants — Texarkana, Ark.; Tupelo, Miss.; Albany, Ga.; and Findley, Ohio — and choose one to close. That sent economic development officials in each state scrambling for incentives to keep Cooper from leaving. Workers at each of the plants looked for ways to save money.
In the end, workers at the Texarkana plant — members of the local United Steelworkers union — agreed to a new contract that cut pay. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in December 2008, Cooper Tire wanted to cut $36 million out of the Texarkana plant and "the union was able to get close to that figure." (In September 2009, The Associated Press reported union concessions were worth about $30 million over three years.)
In addition, Gov. Mike Beebe dipped into his quick-action closing fund to give $2 million in incentives to Cooper. Leaders in Bowie County, Texas, and Miller County, Arkansas, also contributed to the package.
The efforts paid off. In December 2008, Cooper announced it would close its Albany plant, sparing the plants in Texarkana and the other sites.
So where was Lincoln in all this?
A search of her U.S. Senate Web site shows only one statement dealing with situation: a Dec. 17, 2008 statement reacting to the news of Cooper’s decision to keep the Texarkana plant open:
"I am proud that Cooper Tire has made this commitment to its hardworking Texarkana area workers. The Cooper Tire plant is crucial to the Texarkana community, and I am thrilled that new jobs will be added to the facility. I commend the entire Texarkana community for their heroic fight on behalf of their community. Their coordinated effort was an excellent example of organization and teamwork across local, state, and federal levels to benefit families in the Southwest Arkansas area. I was happy to promote our Texarkana plant to Cooper Tire’s leadership. Today is a day of great relief to our Cooper Tire families in Arkansas."
The statement alludes to Lincoln’s promoting the plant to Cooper. It’s unclear what "promote" means. And Lincoln’s campaign won’t elaborate.
"We’re not talking about Sen. Lincoln’s role in that decision (although her office did work with local and state folks and she promoted the plant directly to Cooper Tire’s leadership)," campaign communications director Katie Laning Niebaum told me in an e-mail.
Of course, in the context of Lincoln’s claims about Cooper jobs in her own TV spot, none of that really matters. Here’s why.
The SEIU ad features a plant worker who says:
"Blanche Lincoln has got a lot of nerve saying she saved our jobs at Cooper Tire. We saved our own jobs and we had to take big pay cuts to do it."
Here, the worker is talking about the union concessions he and his fellow employees had to make to cut enough costs at the Texarkana plant to make Cooper happy.
But while Lincoln’s own TV ad seems to allude to Cooper’s 2008 plant review, it’s instead referring to Lincoln’s efforts in the summer of 2009 pushing — on behalf of Cooper’s Texarkana plant steelworkers — for relief from imports of consumer tires from China.
Here’s what the original Lincoln TV ad says about saving those Cooper Tire jobs:
"She saved 1,700 Cooper Tire employees from losing their jobs to Chinese imports. [Emphasis added.]"
In a subtle way, Lincoln’s ad, while evoking the 2008 Cooper plant review that ultimately saw 1,700 or so jobs spared in Texarkana, is actually talking about an entirely different event, one that took place six months later.
It’s an event in which Lincoln had a starring role and, for Cooper Tire workers in Texarkana, a favorable outcome.
Lincoln, Steelworkers, the ITC and Trade Relief
In June 2009, Lincoln testified before the International Trade Commission seeking trade remedies for Cooper tire steelworkers in Texarkana, who saw imported Chinese tires as a threat to their jobs.
You can see a photo of Lincoln, taken from her Senate Web site, testifying above and read her entire testimony here. But here’s a snippet:
"I believe in the benefits of trade and am a strong supporter of opening up new markets for American businesses and consumers," Lincoln said. "But we must be able to rely on internationally recognized rules, including trade remedies, to counter the harmful effects of unfair trade practices and unforeseen import surges that inflict injury on our domestic industries and its workers. Our domestic businesses and producers should be able to trust the government to level the playing field when our trading partners fail to abide by the rules, and I have long argued that we need to step up enforcement of our trade laws."
Not long after Lincoln’s testimony, the ITC affirmed the steelworkers’ petition for relief, saying that the domestic tire industry had been adversely affected by Chinese imports.
Lincoln, along with 10 other Senators, then sent a letter to President Obama asking that he follow the ITC’s recommendation to provide "strong relief" — essentially, a big tariff on Chinese tires. In the letter, Lincoln and the other Senators said:
"Your decision to adopt the ITC’s recommendation would remedy this disruption, save thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs, and halt the further decline of the U.S. tire industry."
Later that summer, President Obama imposed tougher tariffs on Chinese tire imports, much to the chagrin of the World Trader Organization and, of course, China.
So, Who’s Right Again?
Again, there are elements of truth in both spots.
The SEIU spot is wrong in that it assumes that when Lincoln claims in her ad that she saved 1,700 Cooper Tire jobs she was talking about the 2008 Cooper Tire plant review. She’s not. She’s talking about her ITC testimony for trade relief. You catch a quick glimpse of a newspaper headline that mentions the ITC in the spot. The ad even mentions "Chinese imports."
But I’ll hand it to the SEIU on their claim that workers themselves saved their owns jobs. While many state and local leaders pitched in to provide incentives — including $2 million in taxpayer money in the governor’s quick-action fund — to keep the Cooper Texarkana plant open, it was the workers who paid the biggest price, giving up millions of dollars in concessions and taking salary freezes.
The Lincoln spot that started this whole thing could be construed as disingenuous because it clearly evokes the 2008 Cooper Tire plant review, in which Lincoln’s role — in terms of the public record and what her own campaign will say — is vague at best.
Moreover, it’s impossible to verify that Lincoln’s push for trade relief saved 1,700 jobs there. Rather, it would be fair to say that it created a trade environment that strengthened the future of those jobs, or at least made them more secure.
The Direct Approach?
Of course, the Lincoln campaign might have avoided this particular SEIU ad — which, in its directness and simplicity, makes for a powerful volley against Lincoln’s claims — had it been more honest and measured in its claims.
Not to be all John Brummett, but I wonder why Lincoln, in her original ad, didn’t say something along the lines of, "My hard work pushing for trade relief leveled the playing field for the Cooper Tire plant in Texarkana, ensuring a strong future for its 1,700 workers there."
I know it’s not as sexy as "I saved 1,700 jobs," but it seems more accurate, less confusing and more up front about Lincoln’s very real efforts on behalf of those workers.
Lincoln, on Monday, notes more ITC testimony on trade relief. This time, she goes to bat for "Arkansas’s steel pipe production industry."