The renaissance of tire manufacturing in the U.S. during the past dozen years has for the most part taken place in the South. Of the nine domestic tire factories that have opened in that period, four have been in South Carolina, two each in Georgia and Mississippi, and another in Tennessee.
A number of other future tire plant projects in various stages in the pipeline are being built in the region as well. The tire companies always give logical reasons for the site selection, ranging from financial incentives offered by local and state government, to infrastructure and availability of a talented work force.
But below the surface, it's also clear that these right-to-work states offer one other intangible that goes unspoken: the unlikelihood of having to deal with a union. One labor attorney who represents management told Rubber & Plastics News for a report last year that no manufacturer would put up a factory in a unionized state if it can avoid it. With right to work rules, he said it would be the "equivalence of malpractice" to put a plant up in a union state.
Companies and unions work together where they already co-exist, as the United Steelworkers still represents roughly 18,000 workers at 19 tire plants in the U.S. The USW hasn't organized a tire facility in the U.S. since 1991, but has remained active in trying to organize these new tire facilities, especially those put up by transplant manufacturers.
Earlier in October, the union got its first crack at an organizing election, as a wide majority of workers signed cards seeking representation at the Kumho Tire Co. Inc. factory in Macon, Ga.
But leading up to the Oct. 12-13 election, Kumho reportedly engaged in many of the traditional tactics companies have employed when trying to defeat a union organizing campaign.
According to the USW's organizing director, Kumho intimidated workers with threats of job loss and plant closures. It also hired Labor Relations Institute Inc., a consulting firm that the USW said held private meetings with small groups of workers every shift, along with holding one-on-one meetings with employees urging them to vote down the union.
Kumho declined comment on the election, but had launched its own union facts website, which included a series of videos encouraging a vote against the union. Shortly after the election, the company apparently shut down the website.
The USW also accused Kumho of engaging in one of the oldest union-busting tactics: firing one of the union's leaders in the Macon plant. In the end, workers rejected the USW in a close 164-136 vote.
The Steelworkers, though, are continuing the fight, filing unfair labor practice charges against Kumho along with objections to the election. If they lose that battle, the union must wait a year to hold another election.
For now it seems, the tire industry, while moving into the future in such areas as technology and business practices, still falls back on the past for some of its practices.