MACON, Ga. — The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has certified the United Steelworkers (USW) union to represent workers at Kumho Tire USA Inc.'s tire plant in Macon, amid allegations of violence and race-baiting.
This is the latest in a string of labor developments that have involved the plant since 2017, the year after the facility opened in Macon.
A Jan. 20 ruling by Lisa Y. Henderson, acting director for Region 10 of the National Labor Relations Board in Atlanta, certifies USW "as the representative of the appropriate bargaining unit," according to the USW.
The ruling covers "all full-time and regular part-time production and maintenance employees, production coordinators, inventory control employees, tool and die makers and plant clericals," according to the decision.
In the latest decision, Ms. Henderson resolved the last of seven objections Kumho had filed regarding a union vote held Sept. 5-6, 2019.
A total of 311 workers at the plant were eligible to cast a ballot. The ultimate outcome was 145 to 144 in favor of union representation. The final vote total took months to determine as several ballots were contested and the NLRB had to vote on their legitimacy.
The USW claimed victory last summer when the contested ballots from the 2019 vote were opened. Union backers had a 141-137 lead heading into consideration of 13 contested ballots. The NLRB ultimately ruled 11 of those ballots should be counted, and organizers eked out the 145-144 victory for USW-determined representation.
This newest certification ultimately determined the fate of the seven objections from the company, including one that was ruled untimely and two others "because the offer of proof was insufficient to establish any objectionable conduct."
Two other objections were withdrawn by the company, and the remaining two were overruled by a NLRB hearing officer in November. While Kumho filed exceptions to the hearing officer's recommendations, Ms. Henderson affirmed the decisions, ruling they "are free from prejudicial error."
One of the objections centered around a visit to an employee's home by union agents in July 2019. The agents indicated the meeting "ended positively" and the employee indicated his disinterest in joining the union and told the USW representatives to leave, according to the latest report.
But the employee also spoke about an alleged second meeting at 10:30 p.m. Aug. 13 at his house where he told USW agents to leave his property and a physical altercation ensued. The NLRB's Ms. Henderson ultimately ruled such a second meeting never took place and denied the objection.
The second objection involved company allegations that USW agents and representatives as well as employees supporting the unionization attempt made systematic attempts to "inject racial issues into the campaign and made appeals to racial prejudice among the voters, which improperly affected the election's outcome."
About 80% of the plant's employees are African American.
"This conduct included, but was not limited to, exploiting intolerance and encouraging prejudice against Korean and Chinese workers and management," the objection stated, according to the ruling.
"It also included, but was not limited to, the use of racially charged language by agents of the petitioner, and repeated references to Kumho employees (a majority of whom are Black) as 'slaves' reporting to a master."
This objection centers around Facebook posts made by both a former employee at the tire plant and a USW agent. But none of the former employee's "comments inflamed or tainted the atmosphere such that a fair election was impossible," the NLRB ruled.
The agency also noted that the USW representative did mention race "a few times regarding the employer and organizing campaign.
"None of these constitutes the 'sustained course of conduct, deliberate and calculated in intensity to appeal to racial prejudice' as required by the board to overturn an election," the NLRB ruled. The board characterized the USW agent's comments as "at most … 'isolated, casual prejudicial remarks,' which are not enough to set aside an election."
Kumho Tire opened the $450 million Macon plant — its only North American factory — in 2016, eight years after breaking ground and then suspending work on the facility that same year. The plant is rated at 4 million passenger and light truck tires annually.
"Because of their persistence, these workers will have a voice in the workplace and the strength to fight for better wages and working conditions," USW District 9 Director Daniel Flippo said in a statement.
"It's time for Kumho to sit down and negotiate with its workers on the issues that face them during this most challenging time."
“Kumho Tire has received the NLRB Acting Regional Director’s decision and is deciding whether to ask the NLRB to review the certification decision due to the close one-vote margin,” said Keith Lolley, director of human resources at the plant, in an email.