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Union demonstrators target Giti Tire

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By Travis Jenkins

It should come as no surprise that Giti Tire and the spokesperson for a labor union that has been staging demonstrations outside the Richburg Tire plant have some differences of opinion.

Representatives from the United Steelworkers Union (USW) have been on the ground in Chester County for months and have been staging protests at the entrance to Giti Tire, on S.C. Highway 9, near shift changes for many weeks. The demonstrators generally hold up signs bearing messages like “Unions don’t close plants, companies do,” “They can’t fire you for talking to me” and “The boss’s promises are temporary, a union contract is in writing.” Kim Smith, the District 9 director for the USW, said the signs are used to answer common arguments employers often give employees to dissuade them from unionizing. Smith’s district (which includes South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and the Virgin Islands) is generally not considered union-friendly, since the entire area (save the Virgin Islands) is right to work territory.

Smith said her union does not randomly descend on locations or automatically target new industries when they open.

“Normally when a plant opens, people start calling us and reaching out to us and of course we have to respond to that. We start building a base and start educating. We start doing activities to see if we have support,” Smith said.

That process includes making calls to employees at home and “shift gate meetings” which entails gathering at the entrance to an industry for limited face-to-face contact and handing out of pamphlets. She said companies often try to scare employees by telling them unionization would result in loss of jobs or outright closures.

“Of course, they’re scared. We’re trying to get them to understand it will be their union and their voice. We’re just here to help and represent them,” Smith said.

Smith and one other person on the ground locally work for the USW itself, with the rest being tank-and-file union workers from other states. While Giti is not a steel plant, tire manufacturers do fall under the umbrella of industries the USW represents.

Since the USW organizers visited the Giti Tire location, The N&R sent a series of questions to Hank Eisenga, Giti Tire’s vice president of manufacturing at the Richburg site.

Eisenga said Giti Tire team members have told them, “People from outside of the Chester area and outside of South Carolina have been trying to contact them for a while…but this activity is not a surprise. The Steelworkers have been losing members and have seen the number of unionized tire operations decline for years. Financially, the Steelworkers are desperate to find new dues payers. What the team members are building at Giti Richburg is an attractive target for the Steelworkers.”      

Eisenga said a number of out-of-state protestors showed up to protest at the Giti Tire front entrance at the end of May. He said the protestors were making it difficult for the team members to enter and exit the facility.

“We had people complain about being able to safely enter and exit the property. We also had a number of people in the community concerned about what was happening on Highway 9.” The USW representatives have typically parked on the sides of roads that branch just off S.C. Highway 9 near Giti.

“After the protest on Highway 9, there was a meeting that included local businesses who were concerned about what was happening on Highway 9 and wanted a better understanding of what this was all about. Giti participated in this meeting to let people know what was happening,” Eisenga said.

Eisenga said that Giti Tire does not have any policies or practices to allow union organizers on the property, but the policy is not aimed at unions in particular. He said no third parties, regardless of who they are and who they may be connected with are allowed access to company property without authorization or allowed to engage in any solicitation on company property.

He added, “This is a very common practice for all companies. Giti does this to protect the safety of team members and prevent business disruptions.”

Eisenga said there are no plans to allow union representatives onto the Giti Property and gave several reasons for this decision.

“First, almost all the feedback we’ve had from our team members has involved complaints about being bothered or upset by the union activity. Second, the team members in Richburg understand how important it is for us to work together and focus on our operations in order to have a successful startup.  We really don’t have the time to waste on distractions by third parties.”

“Finally, the federal labor laws give unions the ability to communicate with targeted employees through home visits, phone calls and other methods that aren’t available to employers. If the union can’t effectively use these communication advantages to get its message out, that’s not Giti’s responsibility to address,” Eisenga said.

Since the Richburg facility is the only U.S. manufacturing facility, the advent of labor union activity is not something Giti Tire has had to deal with before, Eisenga pointed out.

“Unfortunately, (union activity) is something that we are having to deal with here in Richburg while we would rather be focusing all of our time and attention to working with our team members to get through our startup,” explained Eisenga.

Eisenga said no one could predict how having a union would impact their facility or operations, but he has had experience in the tire manufacturing industry previously and in tire operations unionized by the Steelworker’s Union.

“Based on my personal experiences, I believe the team members in Richburg will have the best chance to have the workplace they deserve and long-term job security without a third party like the Steelworkers.

“With a union, you can have problems such as strikes, inflexible work rules and an environment of confrontation that makes it much more difficult for employees and their company to work together.  I’m not saying this would definitely happen in Richburg.  I’m just saying that this is what I’ve seen in other tire operations that had the Steelworkers,” explained Eisenga. 

He went on to say, “From what I understand, the Steelworker organizers who are targeting our facility have never gone through a startup. They’ve never worked as a team to go from a green field to a fully operational tire manufacturing facility. This is a great challenge that we are working together to handle in Richburg. If we can avoid conflicts and disruptions, I know that we will have the plant and operations that the Richburg team members and the Chester community deserve. That’s why all of us at Giti hope we can get this union issue behind us.” 

Eisenga added that his company is taking the union activity seriously as is anything that can distract from the company completing its start up.

“The last thing we need now is to have anything or any group trying to divide the Richburg team,” he said.   

Asked what support and resources Chester County has made available in light of the union activity, Eisenga answered,“From the start, Chester County has been a great partner to Giti and supported the company by opening its arms and making the company feel welcome. The people of Chester County and surrounding communities are the only resources we’ve ever needed and that’s exactly what Chester County has provided,” he said.

 He went on to add, “Chester County is not making any specific support or resources available to Giti Tire because of the Steelworker activity. I think the county is trying to make sure it has the facts on what this union activity means and what type of impact it can have on the citizens in the county.”

“There have been a number of communities all around our country who have suffered through plant closings and layoffs where there were Steelworker disputes with employers. I’m not predicting any of this at Richburg. However, it would make sense for Chester County to understand the situation,” he said.  

There are competing versions of how the USW’s presence has been received by Giti employees.

“Almost all the feedback we’ve had from our team members has involved complaints about being bothered or upset by the union activity,” Eisenga said.

Smith said most employees she had spoken with were receptive to the message the USW is working to convey. The News & Reporter did observe one of the shift gate meetings. The majority of employees entering and exiting the facility on that day in late May did not seem to stop or acknowledge the demonstrators. Some did stop and roll down their car windows to speak with them briefly and take information from them and some actually appeared to heckle the demonstrators. Some passersby who did not appear to work for Giti did blow their horns and give a thumbs-up signal. What happens next will be largely dependent on how receptive Giti employees are to the USW’s presence and message.

 

Reporter Brian Garner contributed to this story.