Aug. 19 was a cloudless, sunny California Sunday in the hills 10 miles southwest of Gilroy, when members of Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 showed up at 4pm to close the cement and asphalt plant at Graniterock’s A.R. Wilson Quarry.
Vice President and Aggregate Division Manager Jack Leemaster looked none too happy with the surprise when he drove up in a white pickup truck 45 minutes later.
“My understanding is they had a pretty good sized order going out tonight,” said one plant worker, resting his placard’s pine stick on his shoulder. “Three hundred tons for night paving.”
Graniterock’s Leemaster didn’t feel like talking to the lone journalist on the scene. “We’ll get to you later,” he snapped.
Twelve hours later, things would get worse for Graniterock. Before Monday crews punched in to start their weeks, picketers descended upon the company’s recycling plant at Monterey Highway and Capitol Expressway, at the sand and gravel facility in Hollister and at Graniterock operations in San Jose’s Berryessa district, Redwood City and South San Francisco.
It was still pitch dark when a small pickup truck pulled in across the street from the Berryessa processing plant at 4:58am on Monday morning. Wedged between the San Jose Flea Market and a steel recycler on Berryessa Road, the plant produces concrete and asphalt for Bay Area roads.
Several big men got out, crossed the street and put on reflective yellow safety vests. They mounted a sign on the barbed wire-topped chain link fence, hoisted placards upright and took their posts in the facility’s still gated driveway. Big red capital letters announced that they were “ON STRIKE.” Some machinery hummed behind a sign that instructed drivers to “HAVE A NICE DAY!”
“Strikes are never a good thing,” Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3’s Ken Edgecombe said. “But we haven’t had a contract in over a year.”
A tanker with a load of fly ash idled outside Berryessa’s gates, and passing trucks honked support.
“Graniterock did not get advanced notice of the picketing activity,” company spokesman Keith Severson said.
As the morning wore on 40 miles to the south, only three of the Aromas facility’s 53 union members had crossed the line. “We crippled them,” a union official said. “Most of the trucks that showed up had to turn around empty.”
The coordinated labor action involving four trades at five facilities around the Bay Area could be a defining moment for the rock processing behemoth. The family-owned, century-old company has cultivated an image as philanthropic corporate citizen, a benevolent employer and an American business success story. In 1992 it won the prestigious Baldrige National Quality Award. Between 1998 and 2006, it made either Fortune magazine’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” or “Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America” each year.
Then the company vanished from the list. A 2004 labor dispute with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters turned ugly ,and Graniterock sued the Teamsters after it directed its local unit to continue a strike. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010.
On June 24, 2012, 61-year-old CEO Bruce Woolpert, the grandson of Graniterock’s founder, died in a Tahoe boating accident. He was replaced as CEO by vice president and general counsel Tom Squeri.
Woolpert’s death appears to have emboldened Graniterock critics and employees. In July, controversy erupted after a geological survey that Squeri initially denied sponsoring turned out to be for Graniterock’s exclusive use. Aromas area residents fear the study is a prelude to large scale oil drilling and fracking in the hills north of Salinas and east of Watsonville. Now this.
Fifty-six union members work at the Aromas quarry, which is so big it’s referred to as the “Bermuda triangle” and sits at the intersection of four counties: Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara. Employees say they’ve been without a contract for two years and that the company has been trying to get the employees to disclaim the union, with little success.
On Friday, the union voted 50-3 to be represented. “I offered to meet with them Monday morning and gave them a 10am Saturday deadline,” said Local 3’s Pete Figueiredo. “They responded that they wouldn’t meet with us on Monday. We made a decision to see if we could motivate them. I hope the company will meet and bargain with us.
“We have eight agreements with Graniterock. Seven of them are currently expired. The company has refused to meet and bargain with us,” Figueiredo added.
Unions participating in the work stoppage include Teamsters, Machinists, Operating Engineers and Laborers. Figueiredo says the strike is sanctioned by the South Bay Labor Council and the Santa Clara/San Benito Counties Building & Construction Trades Council.
Depending on how it goes, the back-to-basics picketing action could influence the fortunes of a local labor council that has been losing ground politically. Trounced at the polls in June for getting on the wrong side of a popular municipal pension reform movement and attempting a payback strategy to punish reform supporters on the San Jose City Council, they may be hoping to have better luck with employee organizing and company takedowns.
With a regional uptick in construction and road repairs, targeting a 700-employee company that’s one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s major suppliers of aggregate materials will ripple through the economy if the strike’s not solved soon. On August 2, Graniterock’s Pavex division won a Valley Transit Authority contract to improve the U.S. 101 interchange at Capitol Expressway and Yerba Buena Road. The work is expected to total $35.9 million.
Graniterock’s Severson says the union action harms union-member employees who need to provide for their families. The company called the work stoppage “counterproductive” and said it is “disappointed that the Union has resorted to picketing rather than constructive negotiation.”
“The company will work to resolve the issues and return people to work,” Severson said.