THE CONSTRUCTION DRIVERS who do the cleanup on some of San Jose’s major development projects say they aren’t asking for much — they just want safe working conditions and their full wages paid.

Drivers at said their demands are not being met and that contract negotiations have stalled since September. Ramon Castillo, a union leader at the East San Jose construction debris hauling and recycling company, believes it’s because management is more interested in breaking up the union than meeting workers half way. Drivers also voiced concerns over safety and wage theft claims, falsification of union votes, unwarranted surveillance and a general environment of hostility, among other unfair labor practices — and its caught the eye of some city leaders.

“Ever since we unionized last year they have tried everything to make sure this is the only year we have it,” Castillo told San José Spotlight. “And if they are able to get rid of it, we are all fired as soon as possible.”

With a staff of less than 100 people, the family-owned business has subcontracted with local governments and prolific developers to help bring major Bay Area developments to life, from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara to Santana Row and San Jose Mineta International Airport’s Terminal B.

Castillo is one of up to 20 drivers for the company who haul construction materials from major development sites. The drivers voted to join the Teamsters Local 853 last year after allegations of payroll issues and unsafe working conditions were not addressed. In July, the drivers will have to vote again to keep their union.

Union workers meet with San Jose Councilmember Peter Ortiz at the Premier Recycle Company site. Photo courtesy of Ramon Castillo.

Castillo believes management is intentionally stalling negotiations to convince employees the union is ineffective. He said the company has even walked back some existing practices — like grievance policies that resolve safety and workplace concerns — making it impossible for them to reach an agreement. He also alleges the company is hiring independent contractors as full-time employees and potentially hiring new drivers so that there are enough votes to decertify the union.

“We haven’t even started talking about wages or any economic benefits,” Castillo said. “They are stalling, adding surprise proposals during negotiations and even the mediators said some of those proposals sound racist.”

For example, the company proposed adding audio capabilities to driver dashcams to ensure employees don’t engage in criminal activity, the proposal reads. They also proposed adding mandatory fitness tests for the drivers. Failing those tests could result in termination.

“Some of these ridiculous proposals they have taken back because they know it can’t stand,” Castillo said. “But it’s just one of their delay tactics.”

Company muscle

Owners Rocky Hill and his son, Brock, hired Burdzinski & Partners Inc., a federal labor practice firm, to help with negotiations. The firm openly writes on its website that it helps “make non-union companies unattractive to unions by setting up roadblocks and other impediments thereby making unions unnecessary.”

Rocky and Brock Hill did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Executives from Burdzinski & Partners Inc. were not immediately available for comment.

Since drivers unionized, the company has added security cameras to the break room where employees change into their uniforms, placed tow-away signs on spots where drivers would park their trucks and other intimidation tactics.

“They would even write on doughnuts they bring into the office that everyone can have one but the drivers,” Alex Obeso, another union lead, told San José Spotlight. “They even went as far as to have the whole company besides the drivers wear shirts saying you’re selfish for unionizing.”

“During labor negotiations, management always has the upper hand, so I want to do everything I can to make sure management knows that in the city of San Jose, we care how working people are being treated.”

Councilmember Peter Ortiz

The union also hired a lawyer which found the company was deducting 30 minutes of pay when a driver works 10 or more hours a day, even if the driver has not taken a second lunch break — which is known as wage theft.

The negotiations have caught the eye of the San Jose City Council as well.

Councilmember Peter Ortiz hand-delivered a letter, co-signed by Councilmembers Omar Torres and Domingo Candelas, to the owners on March 23. The letter asks them to negotiate in good faith and follow the law.

“For people who live in my district, a union can mean the difference of putting food on the table or being able to pay medical bills or even having your medical coverage for your children,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “During labor negotiations, management always has the upper hand, so I want to do everything I can to make sure management knows that in the city of San Jose, we care how working people are being treated.”

Ortiz also sent another letter on April 27 supporting the drivers if they choose to strike. Castillo said the potential of a strike is certainly on the table.

“They are trying to intimidate us, but it’s been a year and we have stayed strong,” Castillo said. “We will remain united and strong.”

Contact Jana Kadah at jana@sanjosespotlight.com or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.