Cooper employees tout need for state help

cooper-tire-logoBy Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Legislators, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, heard firsthand from employees Wednesday the importance of the state providing help with a proposed modernization of the Cooper Tire manufacturing plant in Tupelo.

Cooper Tupelo Plant Manager Robert Haggerty and 10 longtime employees told legislators that for the plant to remain competitive it must be modernized.

Jeremy Foster, a 16-veteran of the plant, said, “We’re trying to get better machines in the plant … and maybe get jobs back from China.”

The Findlay, Ohio-based company has stated its intentions to spend $140 million to make upgrades at one or more of its plants. The belief is if the state will make a financial commitment, Cooper will expend the funds in Tupelo and ensure that the plant remains open, and possibly expand, in the foreseeable future.

Reeves, who participated in a meeting Sens. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, and Hob Bryan, D-Amory, had with the employees, called the meeting “productive” and said the comments of the workers provided new insight into Cooper’s situation. Cooper executives, including Chief Executive Officer Roy Armes, met with Reeves, Gov. Phil Bryant, Gunn and other legislative leaders in late February.

Reeves, who is considered key to the passage of a bond proposal for Cooper, said in the coming weeks legislators must sort out legislative priorities. But he said “jobs creation is always a priority of this administration.”

The complexity of the Cooper situation is that the company, which now employs 1,600 in Tupelo, is not promising new jobs but to retain at least 1,300 jobs over the next decade with no layoffs. In the past, however, the company has expanded after renovations.

Reeves and legislators heard how the current equipment, much of it decades old, is not as safe, is more physically demanding and less efficient than the new equipment that is being considered for the Tupelo plant.

Both Vernice Rogers of Shannon and Peggy Stocks of New Albany, who have worked for Cooper 29 and 26 years respectively, said that a few of the new VMI Max machines are in the Tupelo plant and they get to work on them. They said the VMI Max is much more productive than the old equipment.

“Tupelo needs this,” Stocks said.

Webster Griffin of Tupelo, a 29-year worker at Cooper, said the VMI Max can produce a tire in 39 seconds compared to more than three minutes with the older equipment,

“We need to upgrade to stay competitive,” he said.

Jason Roberts of Tupelo, who has been with the plant for 14 years, agreed. “We need this to move into the 21st century,” he said.

Under consideration is a $20 million investment from the state, plus $18 million from Tupelo and Lee County in tax breaks, to secure Cooper’s investment in those renovations at the Tupelo plant.

David Rumbarger, chief executive officer of the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation, said he had never brought employees to meet with legislators.

“It was Cooper’s idea,” he said. “They were able to humanize the story.

“The lieutenant governor made the point these are the people who gave Mississippi its strong pro-work reputation,” Rumbarger said.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com