Jeff Linton was picketing in a bright red Santa Claus suit on Thursday, but his mood wasn't jolly.
Like other striking tire workers, he has received warnings from Goodyear that his medical coverage is about to lapse.
"They're trying to scare us into thinking we have to pay (now)," the Niagara Falls man said, as he waved a sign above his red cap that said "Goodyear Scabs Go Home."
The Steelworkers' strike at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. has reached the 10-week mark, and both the company and the union are ratcheting up the pressure.
Having gone more than two months without a paycheck, strikers face having to come up with hundreds of dollars in monthly premiums or see their medical coverage expire.
Workers' coverage expires Jan. 3 and can be reinstated months later, but the company warns that premiums are due today, Dec. 15, to avoid a lapse.
Meanwhile, the Steelworkers and AFL-CIO plan a "national day of action" campaign on Saturday to batter the company's public image.
Rallies and events are planned in 100 communities nationwide. In Buffalo, leafleting will target the company's retail outlets Saturday, while a benefit for strikers is planned on Sunday at the Matthew Glab Post, American Legion in Lackawanna.
"If we're not out at the stores, most people won't know we're on strike," one picket said.
A dozen strikers were picketing Thursday afternoon in front of the Goodyear-Dunlop plant's main gate on Sheridan Drive in the Town of Tonawanda.
Steelworkers walked out of Goodyear's North American plants on Oct. 5, including about 1,100 production workers at Tonawanda.
The dispute hinges on the company's shutdown of a plant in Tyler, Texas, and the size of a corporate payment toward medical benefits for retirees.
The company proposes to pay in $660 million to pay future benefits, while the union seeks about double that to fully fund expected future costs.
As for plant closings, the Steelworkers say they are drawing a line against the offshoring of work, while Goodyear says the Tyler plant is far from profitable.
"We're just trying to save American jobs," Linton said. "Goodyear says they're a big American company, but they ship jobs overseas."
As the strike grinds on with no talks scheduled, not all of his co-workers feel the same way.
Vincent Romano, a 30-year Dunlop employee in Lancaster, said he doesn't think the union can win the Tyler fight. "They seem to be fighting for issues that have already been declared dead," he said in a telephone interview.
Romano, 50, and his family are burning through their savings at a rate of $2,500 a month to keep up house and car payments and other living expenses, he said. Adding family coverage for continued health benefits would cost another $1,023 a month -- something Romano says he'll have to do without.
"I'd only be able to afford it for a short time -- how long can anyone afford those premiums," he said.
Striking workers can put off signing up for continued benefits until March 4, and have an additional 45 days after that to pay retroactive premiums before losing their right to continued coverage. That delays the financial crunch until spring for strikers willing to let their coverage lapse temporarily.
The heightened pressure of the strike is also telling at the picket line, where police have been called after run-ins between pickets and drivers entering and leaving the plant. Non-union temporary replacements are working alongside supervisory employees to continue production at Goodyear-Dunlop.
Town of Tonawanda police arrested picket Joseph Heselberger on Dec. 7th and charged him with filing a false report after he claimed to have been struck by a truck leaving the plant, assistant chief Anthony J. Palumbo said.
The charge came after police watched a videotape of the incident, he said. Heselberger was released on $500 bail. Earlier, on Nov. 16, Heselberger was charged with criminal mischief after a driver complained that his windshield wiper was torn off. That charge is also pending, Palumbo said.
Those incidents, and an earlier charge of verbal harassment brought by a replacement worker against a different picket, have brought the total police incidents at the plant to three, Palumbo said.
"I think tensions are getting tighter down there," he said, "now (Goodyear) is bringing in temporary workers."