Sumitomo Investment Strengthens Key Workforce
If you’ve ever wondered why manufacturing jobs are so important, take a look at what’s going on at Sumitomo Rubber USA’s tire manufacturing plant in the city of Tonawanda.
“Our average employee on the union side, just in salary, is around $65,000, and our benefits package is second to none,” said Thomas O’Shei, president of United Steelworkers Local 135L. . Add the value of those benefits, he said, and the total compensation equates to about $100,000 per job.
It’s a powerful economic punch, especially considering that the plant has about 1,400 employees, including about 1,000 hourly workers, represented by the United Steelworkers union.
It’s also why it’s so important that Sumitomo invest $129 million in the Sheridan Drive complex. These upgrades, which are underway, will help preserve these jobs. The company also creates around fifty jobs.
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This is an important moment for one of the largest manufacturers in the region, which has been manufacturing tires, under different owners, for more than a century.
Sumitomo is making much-needed improvements to the factory’s manufacturing technology, such as installing automated tire-making machines. Rather than replacing workers, the machines will help workers produce more tires in the same amount of time as the old equipment, said Timothy Sprunger, vice president of operations and plant manager.
O’Shei said the Tonawanda plant lacked investment before Sumitomo took over ownership of the facility from Goodyear a few years ago. At the time, there were questions about whether Goodyear would even keep the plant open.
But Sumitomo regained full ownership of the tire factory in 2015 and invested $87 million in operations. Last year, Steelworkers members approved a contract that runs until the end of 2025.
“That’s part of the reason this investment ($129 million) is there,” said O’Shei, who has worked at the plant since 1990.
The Sumitomo plant has been hiring throughout 2021 to fill vacancies and track openings as workers leave through attrition. In February of this year, the factory finally reached the point where it had a waiting list for new employees.
O’Shei said the plant’s workforce has achieved a good balance between veteran workers and younger newcomers.
“I always tell our new hires during orientation, ‘You come to work and you do the work, because we don’t have anyone on this floor who’s lazy,'” O’Shei said. “Otherwise, they no longer work here.
Experienced workers have a role to play in teaching their younger colleagues, he said.
“Sometimes it’s not fun training someone, it’s just easier to do their job,” O’Shei said. “But I remind the guys when we arrived, the older guys coached us. They were proud of that and that’s what we have to do for the younger guys here. We have to pass on our knowledge to them. That’s what we’re supposed to be good union people.”
Ziad Assaad, the plant’s engineering manager, said the plant’s tire makers are artists.
“I really believe it,” he said.
The investment in Sumitomo is similar to projects underway at two other major manufacturers in the region: General Motors’ components plant in Lockport and Moog Inc., the Elma-based motion control equipment maker. GM is investing $154 million in the Lockport site, while Moog is investing $25 million in its local operations. Both projects will create new jobs, while strengthening the existing workforce.
Sumitomo’s Tonawanda plant stands out in several respects. It has been manufacturing tires since 1920. It is Sumitomo’s only American production plant, producing Falken brand tires. And it is the only American factory that manufactures motorcycle tires, producing them under the Dunlop brand.
O’Shei mentioned telling a young worker how happy he was that the factory was once again under Sumitomo ownership.
“He says, ‘So am I. I’m going to retire from here,'” O’Shei said. “Guys wouldn’t have believed something like this six, seven years ago.”
Want to know more? Three stories to catch up with you:
• Sumitomo begins $129 million upgrade of Tonawanda tire plant
• Moog Inc. will add 500 jobs to boost manufacturing operations
• GM gives $154 million vote of confidence to Lockport plant
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