Hundreds of workers from the Fayetteville Goodyear plant walked off the job, starting at 1 p.m. The plant is Cumberland County's second-largest employer, employing more than 2,600 people. About 2,000 of those workers are union members.
"The company left us with no option," said Ron Hoover, executive vice president of the United Steelworkers of America, which represents the Goodyear workers. "We cannot allow additional plant closures after the sacrifices we made three years ago to help this company survive."
The old contract expired July 22, and both sides agreed to an indefinite day-to-day extension. The Steelworkers issued a 72-hour notice on Monday and said they would terminate the contract at midday Thursday if an agreement wasn't reached.
The company said it was prepared to keep its plants open and take care of its customers but did not immediately say how it planned to do that.
Goodyear spokesman Ed Markey declined to comment on whether the company's offer involved plant closings.
"Our final offer to the union included a plan to secure retiree medical benefits and provide job security and investment guarantees for USW plants," Markey said. "The union rejected a comprehensive set of proposals that mirror the other industry agreements."
The union said it represents 15,000 employees at 12 Goodyear plants in the U.S. and four plants in Canada. By the company's count, the U.S. plants have about 12,600 employees represented by the Steelworkers.
Goodyear ranks No. 3 in the world in tire sales, based on revenues, behind top-ranked Bridgestone and No. 2 Michelin, according to the trade publication Tire Business.
The company's chief negotiator, Jim Allen, issued a statement that said Goodyear needs a labor contract that doesn't leave the company at a competitive disadvantage.
"We remain willing to bargain with the Steelworkers," Allen said in the statement.
Workers wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Unity, Protection, Security" streamed out of the Fayetteville plant at 1 p.m. and staged an impromptu pep rally along U.S. Highway 401.
"What do we want?" some chanted.
"Contract," others yelled back.
"When do we want it?"
Workers honked horns, cheered and raised their arms in triumph.
Those on the picket line said Goodyear wants to cut their wages and health care and retirement benefits.
"When I came out here, they guaranteed me an amount of money to come out here and work, and that's what I set my standard of living on, and that's what I want to work for," said picketer Dee Rucker-Ash, who feared having her wages cut in half, to $11 an hour.
"(They want) us to pay more for the jobs that we do in there that are more dangerous than a lot of people know," 50-year-old picketer Mark Williamson said.
"We gave a lot in the last contract three years ago, and they're wanting more this year," picketer Mark Sylvis said. "We just can't give up what they're asking us. We just can't do it."
The union also represents Goodyear employees at plants in Akron and Marysville, Ohio; Lincoln, Neb.; Topeka, Kan.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Danville, Va.; and Sun Prairie, Wis.
Goodyear officials said they plan to keep the Fayetteville plant operating during the strike, although they declined to be more specific.
A 1997 strike at the plant, which was then known as Kelly-Springfield, lasted 17 days.