MACON, Ga.—COVID-19 allegations are at the center of the latest dispute between labor organizers and company officials at a Kumho Tire USA Inc. plant in Georgia.
The United Steelworkers union, which has been locked in a years-long struggle to unionize the facility, is asking the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority to "intervene in a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the Georgia plant."
USW alleges "at least 12 workers contracted the virus and one died in the latest wave of infections affecting the facility."
But Kumho is pushing back against union allegations regarding the company's actions during the pandemic.
"The union's statement that the company is not implementing the kinds of safety precautions now standard in most U.S. workplaces is without merit," Keith Lolley, human resources director at the plant, said in an email statement.
"Consistent with many areas of the country and the local area, Kumho saw a spike of family members and employee positive test results since the plant's Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks when many people participated in family and large group gatherings. The spike is trending downward as employees have returned to their usual work schedules," Lolley said.
The company, for its part, claims the union is aware of the company's COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
"And, yet, the union refuses to publically (sic) support face mask wearing and other COVID-19 precautions of Kumho and refuses to tell their supporters to follow these precautions in the workplace to slow the spread of the virus in our community," Lolley said.
USW wants the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority to become involved as owner of the property where the plant sits.
"The residents of Macon-Bibb County gave Kumho tens of millions of dollars in incentives to operate this factory," USW District 9 Director Daniel Flippo said in a statement. "Kumho has chosen to repay that generosity by putting the entire community, including children and senior citizens, at risk. We ask the authority to meet with workers as soon as possible to discuss this crisis and decide on a course of action."
"In a letter formally seeking the authority's assistance, USW Staff Representative Alex Perkins said workers repeatedly raised safety concerns as more than 30 colleagues contracted the virus in recent months. But the company still refuses to meet with workers or implement the kinds of safety precautions now standard in most U.S. workplaces," USW alleged.
"Kumho management's indifference is not surprising," Perkins alleged in his letter.
Lolley countered: "Kumho Tire Georgia takes the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and is taking all reasonable precautions following CDC and other authoritative agencies guidelines."
The National Labor Relations Board's acting regional director in Atlanta recently certified a razor-thin USW election victory the plant. Workers approved union representation by a 145-144 vote.
Kumho "is timely filing a request for review by the NLRB of the Acting Regional Director's decision. The company will allow the NLRB process to be completed on behalf of its interests."
Lolley, in his statement, alleged "the union is discouraged and is attempting to leverage a public campaign to force the company to meet with the union."
The union seeks authority input because Kumho's rental agreement requires a safe facility, USW said. "We call on the authority to carefully review that section of the agreement and protect the community from needless danger," Flippo said.