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Group seeks unionization at Giti Tire's South Carolina plant

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Scott Robinson
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A coalition including state representatives, pastors and union leaders is asking a tire manufacturer to improve conditions at its South Carolina production facilities, including allowing workers to unionize.

Tuesday, a group describing itself as "concerned community members, human rights advocates, clergy, elected officials, political activists, labor union leaders, and educators who are committed to raising standards" planned to deliver a letter to Phang Wai Yeen, CEO of Giti Tire Manufacturing Ltd., according to a copy of the document provided in advance to The Associated Press.

"Workers have reported mandatory overtime, unpredictable schedules, low wages and the inability to have time off to spend with their family without retaliation," according to the letter.

In 2014, Giti officials announced to much fanfare that they would build the Singapore-based company's first U.S. plant in Richburg, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Columbia, starting production three years later, expecting to make several million tires a year when fully operational. The announcement was the culmination of an effort to make South Carolina the nation's chief tire manufacturer, with other tire makers in the state including Michelin, Bridgestone, Continental and Trelleborg.

The company was central to a 2019 lawsuit by Democratic state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who said he wanted to force state Commerce Department officials to reveal details of taxpayer-funded incentives intended to lure businesses, including Giti, to the state. Last year, a judge ruled the Commerce Department had violated the state open-records law by keeping from the public details about millions of dollars in state grants and corporate tax incentives.

The Commerce Department has appealed that order, but Harpootlian told the AP earlier this year that he hopes both sides can work out the situation.

Tuesday's letter includes signatures from several labor unions. Those include the United Steelworkers, which already represents some South Carolina workers at Liberty Steel in Georgetown but does not have a contingent at Giti, though members have demonstrated outside the facility before.

Earlier this year, the union criticized the tire maker for "misspending millions in COVID-19 stimulus funds." That critique followed a report accusing Giti of taking nearly $10 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program funds — including around $8 million at its South Carolina facility — yet not calling 100 employees back to work following a shuttering of several weeks early in the pandemic.

At the time, Giti officials said the company had appropriately qualified for the assistance, and furloughed workers had been offered jobs by August 2020, although some declined.

In an op-ed this summer, Phang wrote that, like others, Giti was "blindsided" by the pandemic but "has no questions about its decision to start its operations in Chester County," where the company's commitment "is stronger than ever."

On Tuesday, a Giti representative said the company welcomed "sincere and legitimate input" but added that, during the pandemic, Giti employees had shifted "to a more predictable work schedule," and that they "can, and should, be able to communicate directly with us without the need of a third party such as a union."

"You can have problems with union representation that can hurt job security and long-term success," David Shelton, Giti's industry relations director, told the AP. "These are facts people need to know if deciding whether a union is best for them and their families."

Asking that Giti affirm "the rights of workers to organize for their own safety and for job security without the fear of harassment, discrimination or job loss," signatories to the letter — who include several members of the state Legislature who represent the area — requested a meeting with company officials.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.