The United Steelworkers union finds itself in unfamiliar territory: Being on the verge of organizing a tire factory in the U.S. The USW heralded a victory at the Kumho Tire U.S.A.'s factory in Macon, Ga., in a vote earlier in September, but the four-vote margin must withstand the disposition of 13 challenged ballots that leaves the victory in jeopardy.
There hasn't been a tire factory vote for union representation in roughly a quarter of a century. And that was when the Akron-based United Rubber Workers still bargained for hourly tire workers.
The facility was Bridgestone Americas' Warren County, Tenn., truck and bus tire plant and there actually was no election. It was not long after Japan's Bridgestone had purchased Firestone, and the management and URW hierarchy came to an agreement where when employment at the new facility reached a certain level, the tire maker would recognize the URW as the bargaining unit if it got a majority of the workers to sign union cards.
At the time, Bridgestone and the URW were held up as what could happen in the best of labor-management relations. Unfortunately the good times didn't last long, as Bridgestone and the union only a couple years later locked horns in the "War of '94" strike that led the URW to merge in 1995 with the larger Steelworkers.
In the years since, this is the closest the USW has come to winning an organizational campaign at a U.S. tire factory. It has been a difficult task that hasn't been made easier by the fact that all the new tire facilities built in the U.S. in recent years have been in southern states boasting right to work laws.
It appears the old ways of trying to discourage workers from unionizing haven't changed over the years. Workers actually voted against the USW in 2017, but the union disputed the results. According to the ruling of the administrative law judge who ordered this new election, a number of workers testified that Kumho executives threatened their jobs if the USW won. The USW also claimed the firm fired a lead organizer and provided bogus mailing addresses and phone numbers.
Should the USW prevail in the final tally, it is a victory years in the making.