Not this town, not this company. When financier Sir James Goldsmith attempted to take over Goodyear, the people of Akron sent him a message
Akron, Ohio — AT the kitchen window of United Rubber Workers Local 2 union hall, Jim Palmer hunches his lean body and argues against the cause he has fought for. ``Mercer won, and the board members won, and we won our pensions, maybe. But what about all those poor folks who're getting laid off? I've got two kids working over there.'' Roger Cerasuolo, his longtime friend, and president of union retirees, straightens his stiff back with pride. ``OK, it's costly, but that son of a gun didn't get Goodyear Tire and Rubber.''
Any citizen in Akron could immediately identify Mercer as Goodyear chairman Robert E. Mercer, and ``that son of a gun'' as British-French financier Sir James Goldsmith, whose attempted takeover of home-grown mulitinational Goodyear this month launched a widespread, grass-roots campaign from the homes to the boardrooms of Akron.
In a show of support for Goodyear, Akron's largest employer, citizens and local businesses bought Goodyear stock, senior citizens protested at a congressional hearing in Washington, and 36,531 people signed a petition to United States Rep. John F. Seiberling (D) of Ohio, whose grandfather helped found Goodyear in 1898.
Jim Palmer, who worked 40 years for Goodyear, bought $1,000 worth of Goodyear stock at $48 a share, close to its top price. ``I knew I was going to lose money,'' he says. ``I was doing it for the cause.''
Citing pressure from an anti-takeover bill hastily introduced in the Ohio legislature, Sir James agreed last week to drop his raid on Goodyear and sell back all of his 12.5 million shares of stock to the company, for a profit of $94 million.
But Goodyear, now heavily in debt from its massive buyback plan, announced Monday some of the very measures that people had feared from Sir James: layoffs of 10 percent of salaried workers and 5 percent of hourly workers, and the sale of subsidiaries, including Aerospace Corporation, which employs 5,000 in Akron.
Among those who poured their energy and commitment into the fight to save Goodyear, elation was mingled with irony and bitterness.
``It's the best of two alternatives, but it was almost a no-win situation as far as our local situation,'' says Liz deBruin, director of planning and economic development of Summit County. ``Once the [takeover] process started, the results were going to be detrimental no matter what.''
Goodyear's 12,500 Akron employees (including those at Aerospace) pay 15 percent of the city's income taxes and generate thousands of spinoff jobs. Cutbacks signal a bleak winter.
Employment has fallen steadily here since World War II. Once the rubber capital of the world, Akron has seen its tire factories close one by one, until now only the corporate headquarters of Goodyear and other rubber companies remain. In the last five years alone, 26,000 of the city's 235,000 people have lost their jobs.
Goodyear, a major multinational corporation that's known here as a generous corporate citizen, represented success and stability. The takeover attempt by a wealthy foreign raider provoked outrage. ``Funny how a town deteriorates and it's not exactly anyone's fault,'' muses Beatrice Wheeler, longtime Akron resident. ``Once this was a boom town - but now it's half closed, a lot shut down. Goodyear would have been the last straw.''
Those who felt confused, somehow cheated, and powerless in the face of grinding economic realities banded together with city and county officials, workers, and businesses in what many considered a largely symbolic fight to save Goodyear.
``We knew it wouldn't make a difference, we just wanted to show support,'' says Ina Zastudil of Akron Auto Dealers, which bought $90,000 worth of Goodyear stock during the takeover battle.
In a hall lined with green lockers outside the Cuyahoga Falls High School cafeteria, a darts game targeting a cartoon of Sir James inside a Goodyear tire raised $200 in two days ($100 from one large donation) to buy Goodyear stock. It was the project of a group called Students March Against Raider Takeovers. SMART, with more than 100 members, set up message jars for congressmen and collected signatures on a petition.
``Goodyear is a publicly oriented company with a history of good community relations,'' says 17-year-old Dave Turner, public relations director of SMART, noting that Goodyear chairman Mercer is the head of Akron United Way. ``Goldsmith expressed no concern for this community. He knows nothing about it.''
Like many in Akron, SMART's high school leaders speak fluently of mergers, hostile takeovers, restructuring plans, and corporate finance. Like many, they question the impact of free enterprise on research-oriented companies and their communities. ``Legislation has to be passed soon to prevent this from happening to any other company,'' Mr. Turner says.
Union and management set aside old disagreements to fight Sir James. ``I think Goodyear has done a good job of long-term planning and has a firm commitment to the community,'' says Bill Breslin, president of Local 2, which called on workers to buy stock during the takeover fight. ``In this particular situation, I think we have an obligation to be loyal.''
``I told them [Goodyear]: `Like brothers and sisters, I'll fight you, but I'll fight for you, too,''' says Roger Cerasuolo, whose union spent $2,000 to hire buses for 96 retirees, wearing Goodyear caps, to attend the congressional hearing on corporate takeovers.
Retirees also picketed local Merrill Lynch offices to protest that New York broker's assistance to Goldsmith. ``The other day was the first time I ever carried a picket sign in my life,'' recalls Goldie Duffy.
Personal feeling against Sir James ran high. ``Sir James in Trunk,'' announced a sign in one car's rear window, and bumper stickers and T-shirts all over town proclaimed ``Save Goodyear,'' ``Minutemen! The British Are Coming,'' and ``Pray for Goodyear.''
There was resentment in Akron over the attempted hostile takeover of a major US corporation by a foreign financier. ``We must continue our work to convince the federal government that this type of takeover is not in the national interest,'' says Don Stephens, president of the Akron Regional Development Board, which helped organize a Save Goodyear dance and rally.
Akron's opposition helped drive through the legislature the anti-takeover bill that helped convince Sir James to drop his takeover bid. His profits from Goodyear's buy-back - $94 million for two months' of work - were certainly another significant factor in moving the bill forward. The Akron Beacon Journal calculated that those profits came to $1,044 a minute - more than 1,500 Aerospace workers would earn in four years.
``It's still being run by Akron, but Goldsmith got all that money,'' says SMART member Heather Kennemuth.
Saddled with heavy debt and still vulnerable to takeover by another raider, Goodyear expects to be a smaller, weaker company for years to come. Although many people in Akron are resigned to the grim cutback measures the company has announced, with that resignation an all-too-familar sense of powerlessness seeps like a winter chill into some streets and homes.
For many there is an emotional sense of loss, particularly of Goodyear Aerospace and its gargantuan air dock, where blimps were made, and where last September Goodyear staged an enormous public opening of the annual United Way campaign.
John Hollendonner, a Goodyear worker for more than 24 years, smiled a little and expressed a thought that many others echoed. ``I can't figure out how one man can make so much mess for people.''