Graniterock exec Jack Leemaster (in truck) and striking worker Frank Gonzales at the Aromas plant Aug. 19. (Dan Pulcrano photo)
Aug. 19 was a cloudless, sunny California Sunday in the hills nine miles east of Watsonville 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 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 and cement and asphalt plants in San Jose, at its sand and gravel facility in Hollister and at Graniterock operations in Redwood City and South San Francisco.
It was still pitch dark when a small pickup truck pulled in across the street from the San Jose cement and asphalt plant at 4:58am on Monday morning.
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 “BUCKLE UP” and “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 the gates, and passing trucks honked support.
“Graniterock did not get advanced notice of the picketing activity,” company spokesman Keith Severson said.
A Defining Moment
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 east of Watsonville. Now this.