Graniterock Jury Delivers Teamsters Crushing Breach Of Contract Verdict

After a seven-day trial and testimony from more than 30 witnesses, a federal jury last month found that Teamsters Local 287 in San Jose, Calif., violated

CP Staff

After a seven-day trial and testimony from more than 30 witnesses, a federal jury last month found that Teamsters Local 287 in San Jose, Calif., violated terms of a July 2004 labor contract with Watsonville, Calif., producer and contractor Graniterock. The breach of contract sustained and expanded a strike that lasted until the following September.

Proceeding in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California at San Jose, the trial stemmed from a Graniterock lawsuit seeking an injunction requiring that the strike end and employees return to work, plus breach of contract damages. The jury held that Teamsters 287-represented mixer drivers at Graniterock’s San Jose concrete plant ratified acceptance of a contract proposal on July 2, 2004, but rejected union officials’ claim that the ratification was only a straw poll regarding one proposal item. Union officials then told employees that they were still on strike until August 22, 2004, when a second vote was taken. That prompted work stoppages among Operating Engineers, Laborers and Machinists-represented employees throughout Graniterock’s concrete, aggregate and road building sites in northern California.

The jury saw through the union’s claim that the vote was advisory, said Graniterock counsel Alan Levins, of Littler Mendelson in San Francisco. The union tried to have it both ways, committing Graniterock to its last, best and final offer, while attempting to use the employees’ strike to get Graniterock to give the union a Îfree passÌ on past wrongful conduct.

The jury finding concurs with a May 2006 National Labor Relations Board decision that the Teamsters Union committed an unfair labor practice by insisting on a waiver of past wrongdoing when all terms and conditions of a new contract had been reached. NLRB officials found unanimously that the effective date of the contract had to be applied retroactively to the date on which the new-contract agreement was reached. The Union has appealed the Board decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, while the NLRB has filed papers to uphold the decision.

In July 2004 newspaper reports, the Teamsters maintained that no agreement had been reached and in fact that there had never been a vote of its members. Evidence was presented at trial that supported Graniterock’s contentions that the union had changed its focus from getting members back to work during the negotiations to using its members in an extended strike to try to force the company to drop previously filed monetary claims against Local 287. Both the NLRB and federal court decisions have concluded that the terms of the contract were enforceable between Graniterock and the Teamsters as of July 2, 2004. The new contract terms included a promise not to strike. Local 287’s work stoppage did not end at that time and eventually forced more than 400 Graniterock employees to strike and lose wages.

In upcoming legal action, the plaintiff is seeking payment of damages by the union for harm inflicted on its own members, who are Graniterock employees, and the company. In addition to all the traditional damages sought against a union for an illegal strike, the company has also claimed that this should cover back pay for employees who could not work because of the strike.

The unlawful actions of Teamsters Local 287 are contributing to a growing view that the union movement must change. Undemocratic behavior and a style of self-serving justice are a form of arrogance that has no place in today’s globally competitive world. The federal jury and NLRB decisions are clear evidence that the union did not act in accordance with its members’ wishes or best interests, contends Graniterock President and CEO Bruce Woolpert. Unions are increasingly being sued by employers today. Members are left covering the damage and legal costs of decisions by union officials who seem to escape close scrutiny of their actions.

We learned in discovery that in recent years, Teamsters locals in Santa Clara and Monterey Counties resolved lawsuits by borrowing money from the International, and using member dues to pay principal and interest.

Unfortunately, the pattern seems to be that union officials are not required to pay for their own mistakes, but instead bill their members, adds Garry Mathiason of Littler Mendelson, another attorney representing Graniterock.

Responding to the jury’s verdict, Graniterock employee Tom Treanor noted, Justice was served. In 2004, I was unable to [fulfill] my normal maintenance management responsibilities since it was necessary to run quarry equipment to support customer needs and continue business operations. I know many people at our Wilson Quarry were deeply hurt by this strike. The jury decision helps to put the matter behind us.