As the big American rubber companies were sweating out contract talks with the union, officials of the French company Michelin down in Greenville, S.C., could be excused for indulging in just a little Gallic smugness.
Michelin, the world's third largest tire manufacturer, with 110,000 employes in 50 facilities, isn't a union company. It doesn't face a strike threat and the settlement agreed to by its American rivals won't directly affect it.
Since 1973, when Michelin began turning out radial automobile tires in Greenville, the United Rubber Workers Union has been unable to organize employes there.
Michelin now employes about 3,500 workers at two tire plants and a rubber mixing facility in South Carolina and it plans to open a radial truck tire plant employing 1,500 in Dothan, Ala., later in the year.
Michelin already has about five percent of the American tire market through imports and production here. Tire industry souces say that an expensive settlement by the French company's American rivals could help Michelin achieve its goal of 10 percent.
As that suggests, labor-management relations in South Carolina have a significance that extends far beyond the local community.
U.S. economic planners view Michelin's $400 million to $500 million investment in the American South Positively because of its impact on the U.S. balance of payments and trade. Domestic production of Michelin tires is seen likely to curb, if not to eliminate, the recent deluge of radial tire imports. About $1 billion worth of foreign-made tires are sold annually in the United States, making this country the leading importer of tires in the world.
Investment such as those by Michelin also provide jobs in southern communities where unemployment traditionally has been high.
Weighed against those positive contributions is the charge that foreign capital investments exploit cheap labor here and contribute to the loss of blue-collar jobs in the old industrial regions of the North.
"For multinational companies today there is a world market for labor," said a European trade union organizer. "South Carolina and South Korea both offer the same advantage: cheap labor-there's no difference."
At Michelin, the company that engineered and then pioneered the radial tire that is now sweeping the United States, antiunion sentiment starts at the top.
Francois Michelin, boss of the company based in Clermont-Ferrand-a Gallic Akron in central France-admits in interviews to a passionate dislike of unions.
Michelin, which produces two-thirds of France's tires, has allowed unions into its plants in that country, but they have traditionally been docile. High labor productivity, low labor costs and almost nonexistent unions were factors attracting the French firm to South Carolina, according to Greenville city officials.
"Companies that get unionized deserve it," said Yves Trellu, executive vice president of Michelin Tire Corp., in an interview with The New York Times in 1978.
At the 420 manufacturing facilities in Greenville County, only two companies, with a total of fewer than 300 employes, have union representation.
"I can't think of a reason why any employe at Michelin would want to join a union," said the Greenville Chamber of Commerce's Kenneth Luke. The company received a five year exemption from county taxes when it settled there.
Luke said Michelin came to South Carolina because the French firm was "looking for a place where people would give them a day's work for a day's pay."
"The work ethic is in effect here. It's tied to the religious aspects of the people. They believe in family and an honest day's work," he said.
Homever, in a telephone interview the United Rubber Workers' Thomas M. Taylor said that organizing efforts at Greenville have been unsuccessful "because of fear-economic fear."
Employes have yet to petition the National Labor Relations Board for a representation election at any of the South Carolina plants.
Taylor said that organizing has been difficult because employes fear that if they lose their job at Michelin because of union activity, they would not be able to get a job anywhere else in the community.
According to the URW's Taylor, workers at Michelin's automobile tire plant in Greenville average about $1 an hour less than workers at tire plants in Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi represented by the union.
Taylor said his sources report that Michelin increased the pay of the two main pay grades last December to $5.82 an hour and $6.37 an hour, before incentive pay. Tire workers in the North make an average of $8 an hour.
A Michelin spokesman said that pay was considered good by prevailing standards of South Carolina and benefits were considered excellent.
One reason for Michelin's interest in investments in the United States and in considering a similar move into Brazil are the woes of the European tire industry, which has been afflicted by high labor costs and plant closings.In early 1978, a Michelin plant in France experienced a rare event-a strike of several days-when the company ordered a half day of work on Satuday.