Pressure increased on Firestone and Ford Motor Co. on Thursday as Congress called for a closer look at the company's recall of an estimated 6.5 million tires and Firestone's hourly workers moved closer to a strike.

A Senate panel will call top officials at Firestone, Ford, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to testify about the tires, a congressional aide said. A U.S. House panel said it will send investigators to Ford's Dearborn, Mich., headquarters on Friday to discuss the recall with executives.

Earlier this month, Firestone recalled 6.5 million 15-inch ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, most of which are standard equipment on Ford's popular Explorer sport utility vehicle, after reports about peeling treads and blown tires. U.S. highway safety officials are investigating the tires and their link to at least 62 deaths.
The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on Sept. 6 to ascertain how NHTSA looks for defects, how the auto industry reports to federal regulators and determine whether more legislation or financial resources are needed, the aide said. The House committee also plans hearings, but no date has been set.

Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, believes NHTSA should detect defects earlier and the industry also should be more vigilant about any problems, the aide said. McCain was particularly concerned the defect in the tires may have existed as early as 1992 as some reports have suggested.

Ford Chief Executive Officer Jac Nasser, Firestone Executive Vice President John Lampe and NHTSA Administrator Sue Bailey have been asked to testify, the aide said.

Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer group Public Citizen and NHTSA's former chief, also has been asked to testify. She has called for an expanded Firestone recall.

Ford's quality chief, Helen Petrauskas, said groups asking for an expanded recall are wrong. "It's wrong because many good tires will be diverted and used to replace good tires - and people who have tires which should be replaced will have to stand in line and wait," she said.

Meanwhile, union officers who represent more than 8,000 hourly workers at nine Firestone U.S. plants have said there will be a strike at 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 2 if no agreement is reached on the four contracts covering the workers. The talks have continued since March, and employees are working under an extension of the previously expired contracts.

The contract talks with the United Steelworkers of America come at a bad time for Firestone as the company doubles its North American tire output to meet increased consumer demand because of the recall. To meet demand it also has begun airlifting from Japan hundreds of tires a day from parent firm Bridgestone Corp.

A strike would not only cost the tire maker in lost sales, but could reduce Firestone's U.S. market share, analysts said. Firestone officials have said they are hopeful agreements can be reached with the union.

Larry Werve, shop steward with USWA Local 713 at Firestone's Decatur plant, told Reuters the company's contract proposal on Aug. 16 was unacceptable. Decatur made most of the recalled tires.

He said Firestone wants to increase the workers' pensions less than the union is asking, force employees to agree to "forced overtime", and alter vacation and holiday time.

Werve said the union will resist efforts to group holidays such as Independence Day and Easter in one larger holiday period and then require workers to work the actual holidays. He also dismissed the idea of longer hours on top of 12-hour work shifts and efforts to cut vacation time to two weeks while paying the difference annually to those who have earned more.

"Twelve-hour days are long enough and our days are pretty precious to us," Werve said.

He said Ford and Firestone have made the Decatur plant a scapegoat in the recall. "Ford gives us a quality award every year. All of a sudden, they pointed the finger at Decatur."

Also on Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported Ford, rushing to meet a production deadline a decade ago, rejected major design changes that would have made the Explorer SUV less prone to rolling over. The automaker instead relied on smaller changes and reduced tire pressures to lower the risk, the paper said, citing internal company documents used in lawsuits.

The paper said the Explorer prototype failed badly on rollover tests, lifting two wheels off the ground in five out of 12 steering manoeuvres.

Harmon said the story was misleading. He added the testing was done a year ahead of production launch, not months, and that the current Explorer is 26 percent less likely to roll over than average.
He said the 1989 document dealt with a pre-production version of the Explorer that was never made. He said prototypes are meant to be tested to catch any problems.

Ford blamed repeated questions about the Explorer's design and the company's recommended tire inflation level on a "whisper campaign, perhaps initiated by those who might have a financial stake in lawsuits based on these allegations."

Also on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times, citing lawsuits, said workers at Cooper Tire and Rubber Co.'s Tupelo, Miss., plant may have used some of the same production practices under scrutiny in the Firestone tire recall.

The paper said Cooper workers used awls to pop air bubbles on tires' inner liners. Cooper said that technique was considered safe if done properly but had been discontinued.