The owner of a Modesto-based ice cream company accused of firing its drivers just as they were about to vote on union representation said Monday the change had been planned for months.
Ignacio Gutierrez, president of Paleteria La Michoacana ice cream, announced his company's change to independent distributors in a news release issued Monday.
"This has been in the works since late 2010, when we decided to bring in new capital to finance our growth and get more efficient in our plant and distribution," Gutierrez said. "The costs of a (direct store delivery) fleet just did not make sense since our sales are so seasonal and the efficiencies that the major retail and 'big box' chains demand just made it untenable financially and operationally."
Affected employees include five drivers and two office workers at the company's Modesto headquarters on Lapham Drive, as well as 21 drivers and five workers in other California cities.
Representatives of the Teamsters have filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that the company violated federal law by laying off 33 drivers in May, a week before a union vote was planned.
Rick Middleton, western regional vice president for the Teamsters, said he wasn't surprised by Gutierrez's statement.
"We expect a response like that," he said. "They have to come up with all this deception to cover up what they had done."
Middleton said the campaign to unionize the drivers started in February. "At no time during this process did this company ever raise the fact that they intended to contract out or subcontract out," he said.
West Pico Foods will handle distribution for Paleteria La Michoacana in Southern California, with Wonder Ice Cream taking over delivery in the Bay Area and Central Valley. The release issued Monday quotes representatives of both companies saying they have been working with Paleteria La Michoacana for some time.
"We are thrilled to develop an even closer working relationship with PLM," Don Lubitz of West Pico Foods said. "
We have been working closely and increasingly since 2009, and it was the natural next step."
Gutierrez, a native of Mexico, started with a snow cone cart in Turlock in 1988. He founded Paleteria La Michoacana, which makes Mexican-style ice cream, there in 1991, moving it to Modesto in 2002. The company has been growing steadily since, despite the recession.
The Teamsters are planning a rally at the ice cream company's Modesto headquarters this afternoon, with a barbecue and speakers that include labor organizer Dolores Huerta and congressional candidate José Hernandez.
In the meantime, they're awaiting the findings from the National Labor Relations Board.
"I'm not a betting man but I'd give you 100 to 1 odds that I'll win," Middleton said. "They just blatantly are violating these people's rights."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2343.