Cooper Tire’s Novel Approach to Subsidy Competition: Pay to Survive
In a grim variation of the subsidy game that may become more common in a tanking economy, Cooper Tire last month successfully squeezed over $66 million in subsidies for plants in three states, pushed down union wages and benefits, and eliminated one plant altogether.
Cooper Tire announced in October that it would close one of its four U.S. plants. It then “invited” employees and state and local governments in the different locations to help it decide by offering worker concessions and public subsidies.
The plants pitted against each other were in Tupelo, Mississippi (1200 workers), Texarkana, Arkansas (1,400 workers), Findlay, Ohio (1,100 workers), and Albany, Georgia (1,400 workers).
Mississippi moved quickly to offer Cooper Tire state and local subsidies worth more than $36 million, mostly in workforce training and infrastructure improvements. Some press reports suggested Mississippi’s speed in offering a subsidy package put pressure on the competing sites, especially the unionized ones.
The Findlay and Texarkana plants stayed open after new agreements with their United Steelworkers bargaining units were reached. The locals made significant concessions on wages and on employee contributions to health care costs, in each case worth $30 million over 3 years. The Tupelo and Albany workforces are not unionized.
In addition to worker concessions, the company received $2 million from the Arkansas Governor’s “quick action” closing fund; a 6.5 percent sales tax credit for capital improvements; a five-year, two percent income tax credit for and a 10-year, five percent rebate on payroll for new employees. Cooper Tire received $28.5 million in tax credits, grants and loans from Ohio state and local governments. Georgia reportedly offered $32 million in incentives in an unsuccessful bid to sustain the Albany facility.
In December, Cooper announced the Albany plant would close, with the three surviving plants adopting a “24/7” production schedule that the company said might lead to further hiring. The comparative weight of subsidies, union concessions, and other factors in Cooper Tire’s decision was not clear, although Cooper Tire’s 2006 conversion of its Arkansas factory into a "flex" plant more adaptable to production increases and decreases may have helped it survive.
Cooper Tire CEO Roy Armes called the Albany plant’s closing a “difficult decision,” but said it would “allow Cooper to optimize our global footprint and capitalize on current and future market opportunities."
Mississippi officials and press treated the survival of the Tupelo plant as a consolation for the indefinite delay of production at Toyota’s nearby Blue Springs plant, for which Mississippi has pledged $323 million. A Jackson Clarion-Ledger editorialist saw the Georgia plant closing as warning states not to forget existing companies while chasing new ones.
But the real lesson is how easily Cooper Tire could compound the pain of a plant shutdown in one state by extracting wealth from workers and taxpayers in three others.