A Dangerous MixIs a Bitterroot company crushing gravel, or its workers’ rights? 

Is a Bitterroot company crushing gravel, or its workers’ rights?

Sandy Curriero is a proud member of the International Union of Operating Engineers. She’s been a union organizer in Montana for the past two years. But she says she’s never run up against an employer like Charles Donaldson.

Donaldson owns Donaldson Brothers Ready Mix, Inc. of Hamilton, a sand/gravel/concrete company that has been a family business for decades. On April 6, Curriero presented him with union authorization cards signed by 24 of the 26 Donaldson employees eligible to request a vote to unionize. Donaldson has so far refused to acknowledge the unionization.

“He just refused to recognize the union as a representative for his employees,” Curriero says. “In a 10-day period he accumulated more complaints of illegal activities than all the other employers I’ve dealt with combined.”

Men who wear union stickers on their hardhats or union T-shirts have been ordered to remove them. A notice was posted from Donaldson’s attorney, Bruce Bishop of Bend, Ore., stating that if anyone picketed Donaldson’s plant and the men did not report to work, they are “risking their employment and may be terminated.”

The list of complaints against Donaldson includes the interrogation of an employee about the union in a locked room; reductions in hours for pro-union employees while hiring contracted workers; terminations and layoffs because of union activities; posting threatening memos and inserting anti-union letters in paychecks; surveillance of union meetings by management; and more.

The decision to unionize was a long time coming, according to Allen Dukelow, who has worked for Donaldsons for 23 years. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” Dukelow says. “But over the past few years we lost vacation pay, holiday pay, sick leave, and the wages never went up.”

The day after Curriero visited Donaldson, a mechanic was told he was being laid off because there wasn’t enough work to keep him busy. That same day, another man was fired for supposedly reporting late for his 8 a.m. shift. When that man went to the office to call his wife to come get him, he says the office clock read 8:04 a.m.

Both men went to the Hamilton Job Service the following morning to sign up for unemployment and seek new jobs. Both of the positions they held at Donaldson were already posted. After the mechanic was laid off, Donaldson sent work he had been scheduled to do to local shops.

Soon, Curriero and a union mechanic applied for the two open positions. Their applications were accepted but neither was called in for an interview. More jobs opened up, and four other union members went to Donaldsons’ seeking work. But this time, when they asked for applications at the company office, they were told they were trespassing and Donaldson called the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office asking for a deputy to escort them off the property. The applicants were told to apply through Job Service instead. When they tried, Job Service said they had no positions open at Donaldsons’. However, since that time the company has hired five new employees.

All the employees who signed union cards have been criticized, fired or had their work situation change, Curriero says. “They are seeing more intimidation than any group I have ever worked with,” she says.

According to one long-time employee who asked that his name be withheld, Donaldson employees have come to feel that they are subject to strict, and sometimes inexplicable, disciplinary action. When one employee recently was injured on the job, another worker took him to the emergency room. When the second man returned to work, he was sent home for the remainder of the day for not being at work when he was helping his fellow employee. The other man was left to find his own way home from the hospital.

In another incident, an employee got his truck stuck at a worksite and was told by Donaldson to dig it out himself; the employee did, hyper-extending his elbow in the process and later having to file a workers’ compensation claim.

For his part, Dukelow had been a loader operator for five years, working 50 to 60 hours a week, but then was transferred to being a truck driver, working fewer than 40 hours a week. A new employee with no loader experience has been given Dukelow’s job.

“He’s a nice guy, but he’s never loaded this material before,” Dukelow says. “He asked me why I was driving and he was loading. The boss knows the answer to that one.”

All the men have had their work hours cut—some from nearly 60 hours a week to fewer than 12. Independent contractors have been hired to haul loads the employees formerly hauled in company trucks.

The increased cost of hiring contractors to do that work is a major concern for the employees. Five years ago, the second Donaldson brother, Stewart, retired. At that time Charles Donaldson announced that he was forming an Employee Stock Option Plan (ESOP) and that over a seven-year period the employees would gradually acquire 51 percent of the company. The amount each employee was vested in the company would depend on the number of hours worked in the seven-year buyout period.

That announcement was the only ESOP meeting ever held at Donaldsons, until the union authorization cards were presented. At 1:30 p.m. on April 23, Charles Donaldson called an employees’ ESOP meeting for 5:30 p.m. that evening. Some employees were told they could not attend because they had not worked for the company for three years and were not vested in the ESOP.

Those who did attend were threatened, according to Dukelow. “We were told that if we went union, the ESOP was worthless and we would get nothing. We were told he would sell the company before he allowed it to go union,” Dukelow says. “We were not allowed to ask any questions. Everything was verbal.”

Many of the men sent written requests for ESOP materials and stated their questions and concerns. They all received the same letter from Donaldson, which stated that he was not the ESOP administrator. The letter did not answer any of the men’s questions, Dukelow says.

“We weren’t given a choice when the ESOP went in five years ago and we’re not being given any choice or information now,” Dukelow says. “We don’t even know how vested in the company we each are. We have no control at all over what the company does. But we don’t believe he can sell it without a vote of the employees.”

Last week, according to Curriero, Donaldson’s attorney responded to the complaints made by employees to the National Labor Relations Board. The board reportedly has reviewed and rejected his response.

“The official findings have not been reduced to writing yet but the board’s representative notified me that they had found merit in the charges we brought. The case will now move to a federal court,” Curriero says. “We were not able to hold an election because of the hostility the employees and the men faced. That’s what the complaints were all about.”

Many of the men were concerned about speaking out and being quoted about their union activity. Dukelow says he is also concerned but feels he must speak up now.

“I would like to see the union. Either it flies or we’re gone anyway,” Dukelow says. “We’ve been told that anyone who has a union sticker on a hardhat will be gone within 30 days. He [Donaldson] didn’t tiptoe into this. He waded into it with both feet.”

“This says it all,” Dukelow says, pointing to the union sticker on his hard hat. The sticker reads, “My union speaks for me.”

Charles Donaldson did not respond to requests for an interview from the Independent.

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