Officials at a Laurel company with a contract to haul trash for Montgomery County used intimidation and coercion to try and prevent workers from forming a union before approximately 70 workers were fired last week, according to a former worker and a complaint filed with a federal labor organization Oct. 17.
Management at Unity Disposal and Recycling in Laurel tried to discourage workers from bringing in a union at the company, then told them they would be fired if they went on strike, according to a complaint filed by representatives for the workers with the National Labor Relations Board.
The executive from Unity who a receptionist said is handling questions about the issue was not available Tuesday afternoon, and a phone message said his voicemail was full.
In an Oct. 12 meeting, a Unity executive told workers that a union wouldn’t be good for the company or the workers, took grievances from workers to try and persuade them not to form a union, and encouraged them to deal directly with the company instead of through a union, according to the complaint.
The company official also allegedly warned that workers who went on strike risked being replaced.
Later that day, a Unity supervisor “conducted surveillance” of employees at a filling station where union representatives spoke with employees while they waited to refuel their trucks, the complaint said.
On Oct. 15, Vladimir Padillas, a worker who had criticized efforts to discourage a union at the Oct. 12 meeting, was fired in what employees and union officials claim was retribution for his comments.
On Oct. 16, workers went on strike to protest Padillas’s firing, at which point the complaint alleges Unity management made several efforts to change their minds, including offering workers on strike a raise if they negotiated without the union; implying the union would check workers’ immigration documentation if they unionized; threatening to replace them and identifying specific workers from a list and listing reasons why they could be fired, including missing Department of Transportation cards and a lack of immigration papers.
On Oct. 16, Unity sent the approximately 70 striking workers a letter saying they were being insubordinate by refusing to work and were being terminated immediately.
Gilber Umana, a truck driver for Unity who said he’d worked at the company for about four years before being fired last week, said workers had been trying to unionize for about a month and management was clearly unhappy about it.
He estimated Friday that about 80 percent of the workers wanted to unionize.
Umana said management had tried to talk the workers out of organizing by telling them that the union might send their employee information to immigration officials.
He said the company forced the helpers, who load the trash into the garbage trucks, to work overtime without pay or a lunch break.
Management didn’t usually push the drivers as hard, although they were sometimes forced to load the trash as well as drive a truck, he said.
“We support the helpers, because they feel alone,” Umana said.
The Unity incident comes as workers at Potomac Disposal in Gaithersburg are also out on strike in a separate labor dispute.
Del. Anna Sol Gutierrez (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase called the Unity incident “beyond the pale” and said she was checking with labor officials at the state and federal level to see what could be done about it.
“There has to be some repercussion to the company for doing that,” she said.