When the long-awaited Kumho Tire grand opening was held in Macon 17 months ago, it attracted about 300 local, regional and state officials, business people and a number of dignitaries from the company’s home base in South Korea.
The company was lured to build its first U.S. manufacturing plant here with a multimillion dollar incentive package amid promises by Kumho of a huge investment and hundreds of jobs.
The 1 million-square-foot facility is the largest manufacturing plant to open in Macon in 40 years.
Next week, it could become Macon’s newest union plant.
Some Kumho workers approached the United Steelworkers union this summer, saying they had concerns including wages and seniority, and safety and health, said Maria Somma, director of organizing with the steelworkers union in Pittsburgh.
The workers had first tried to resolve their issues with management but felt their concerns weren’t being addressed, she said.
“When left with no other option, they came to the union,” Somma said.
A petition last month to hold a vote gathered overwhelming support. That petition had be signed by at least 30 percent of the workers, and at Kumho the union submitted cards signed by more than 75 percent of the workers, according to a report in the Daily Labor News.
The vote by secret ballot will be held Thursday and Friday, according to the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, which handles and oversees the process. A copy of the sample ballot is at macon.com.
About 300 workers at the the plant are eligible to vote, and for the union to be successful a majority of them must vote in favor of it.
Somma agreed “it’s a good paying job for the workers” at Kumho, and wages per se are not an issue. “The complaints really center around the lack of transparency that’s there.”
Verbal commitments are made to workers, concerning such things as benefits, promotions or job transfers, but those commitments are not fulfilled, she said.
“However, the workers wouldn’t mind that so much if there was transparency during the decision-making process,” she said. “So, that was building up the frustration of workers.”
But the more serious issue for workers is about health and safety.
“Tire making is very hard work,” Somma said. “There are a lot of chemicals around. So the lack of precautions and lack (personal protection equipment) is really a hazard to the workers.”
“We had workers tell us stories about not being about to pick up gloves and having to work without the right equipment, having to be around harsh chemicals with no respirator mask, just a (simple) mask on. … There are a lot of issues around health and safety.”
The United Steelworkers union has represented several tire manufacturers for years, including Cooper, Goodyear, Yokohama, Michelin, Bridgestone and Firestone.
“We are the largest union in the tire industry,” she said. “So we understand more about what the protections should be for workers and make sure it’s a safe environment.”
Not all employees are eligible to take part in the union vote at Kumho. Excluded are temporary employees, office and professional employees, guards and supervisors.
The Kumho facility in the Sofkee Industrial Park was first announced in January 2008, but it was delayed by the global financial crisis. Construction was first pushed back to late 2009 or early 2010, but it was delayed until the first quarter of 2013. Then in July 2014, Kumho announced construction would begin in August with production beginning in 2016.
A state grant helped prepare the site for development, and local property taxes would be phased in over 20 years for an estimated incentive of $17 million, according to previous reports.
Stephen Adams, acting director for the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, said the authority was aware of the pending vote. The authority worked for a long time to get Kumho to put its first U.S. plant in Macon and the midstate workforce was a major reason it came.
“We have worked tirelessly to intertwine them into the fabric of our community, and we will continue to work with them to promote a successful work environment,” Adams said. “But ultimately this is a decision that must be worked out by Kumho Tire.”
He said he didn’t expect the union vote to impact “our ability to recruit new industries or assist existing companies with future expansions.”
Lawyer tries to inform workers of their rights
The day after the union petition was filed, Kumho hired a Macon law firm that specializes in management-only labor and employment law to represent the company.
“We are trying to get employees the truth,” said Mel Haas, partner with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP. He has handled labor issues since the mid-1970s and is a former attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.
“We’ve tried to communicate the facts about collective bargaining, the exclusive representation, and what it means legally to be represented by a union and what their rights are under that situation and what their rights are without a union,” Haas said.
“The most important point is it’s the employees’ decision and the employees are the ones who will vote,” he said.
His firm has tried to educate employees about the facts of unionization and “what the track record is of this union so employees know what organization they would be turning over their right to speak to.”
He said the steelworkers union has lost 184,000 members in this country during the past 10 years.
United Steelworkers’ International President Leo Gerard sent a letter to H.E. Moon Jae-in, the president of the Republic of Korea on Sept. 29, saying that Kumho Tire’s management “has responded to the election petition in a hostile manner by requiring workers to attend captive audience meetings in which managers have attempted to dissuade them from their effort to form a union.”
But Haas said “we simply exercised our free-speech rights under the Labor Relations Act to provide employees with facts in a way that are not a promise of benefit or a threat of reprisal.”
Haas claims the steelworkers union has contacted the union in Korea for help even though that union went on strike to try prevent Kumho from building the plant in Macon.
“So they’ve teamed with a union that wants the jobs to return back to Korea, not stay in Macon,” Haas said. “Obviously, that’s contrary to our desires and we hope it’s contrary to our employees’ desires.”
If the union wins the vote, employees “turn over the right to speak for themselves to the union,” he said.
Haas has handled more than 150 union elections and has won 98 percent of them. About 10 years ago, he was successful at defeating two union attempts at Reynolds American Inc. in Charlotte, North Carolina. This was about four years after Brown & Williamson Tobacco, which had a union, left Macon and merged with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, which then became Reynolds American.
According to the latest union data report posted on the Macon Economic Development Commission’s website, Macon has four manufacturers with union members. As of 2008, they are: Graphic Packaging Corp., 589 members; Armstrong World Industries, 444 members; ConAgra’s flour mill, 14 members and Cherokee Culvert Co., 12 members.
The four companies represent 2.5 percent of the total manufacturing companies in Bibb County, the report said. There have been two work stoppages in Bibb County since 1982 and workers were back to work within a few days.
Labor unions won the majority of elections in 2014-2016 in Georgia, according to a story last year in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. However, a report in Forbes magazine in April this year says employees nationwide are rejecting unions.