Recycling trucks parked in a yard
Drivers at Premier Recycle Company said their demands are not being met and contract negotiations with management are stalled. The National Labor Relations Board is taking up the case. File photo.

For nearly two years, drivers working cleanup on the Bay Area’s biggest development projects have gone without a new contract while fighting their employer, Premier Recycle, for the right to hold union activities. The local branch of the National Labor Relations Board is now taking up their case.

A May 21 complaint from the federal agency’s Region 32 office in Oakland said East San Jose-based Premier Recycle interfered with drivers’ efforts to organize for better pay and working conditions by letting go of seven employees key to union activities, as well as discouraging union membership. An administrative law judge will hear the case on Dec. 3, in response to four unfair labor practice charges filed by Teamsters Local 853. The union representing the drivers previously voiced concerns to San José Spotlight about safety and wage theft, falsification of union votes, unwarranted surveillance and a general environment of hostility under the company.

“By issuing a complaint here, Region 32 is saying it believes Premier Recycle broke the law,” Ramon Castillo, a union leader who was laid off with the six other drivers at the company, told San José Spotlight.

Company owners Rocky and Brock Hill did not respond to requests for comment.

The National Labor Relations Board runs regional offices across the U.S. to locally monitor and investigate unfair labor practice charges, which typically involves interviews and evidence gathering.

“If a regional office makes a complaint, it has come to the judgment that the charges are valid and the accused party did engage in the conduct alleged and wants to prosecute that case,” Abel Rodriguez, a Sacramento-based union lawyer, told San José Spotlight.

The drivers voted to join the Teamsters Local 853 in 2022 after they said allegations of payroll issues and unsafe working conditions went unaddressed. Last year, they went public with their grievances as contract negotiations stalled. They accused the company of hiring independent contractors as full-timers to undermine union membership, proposing surveillance policies and fitness tests, installing a break room security camera and placing tow-away signs where drivers would park.

The company hired federal labor practice firm Burdzinski & Partners Inc. 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.”

The layoffs happened shortly after the drivers went public.

“It left us with a lot of questions,” Castillo said. “Premier presented their methodology for how they ranked drivers’ performance. Of course, the result of their methodology for ranking drivers ended up being that the worst performing drivers were the ones who were the most pro-union. We don’t think that’s a coincidence and apparently neither does NLRB Region 32.”

The drivers’ efforts had caught the attention of San Jose Councilmembers Peter Ortiz, Omar Torres and Domingo Candelas, who signed a letter to Premier Recycle on March 23, 2023 asking the company to negotiate in good faith and follow the law.

In response, company owner Rocky Hill accused the councilmembers of using city letterhead to coerce them into accepting a union contract.

“We are a strong family business in San Jose that has been providing jobs for generations. Whether a union is in our shop is of no importance to us as long as the process is fair, all our employees are treated with respect and the highest ethical standards for our elected officials are enforced,” Rocky Hill wrote in the letter.

Ortiz said he welcomes the local labor relations branch’s complaint.

“As the situation with Premier Recycle continues to develop, the attention of the regional branch of the NLRB demonstrates a clear understanding that unfair labor practices and bad faith efforts to negotiate were done against the workers,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “I’m looking forward to a positive conclusion to this case that centers the needs of our city’s working families.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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