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How Goldman Sachs and Other Companies Exploit Port Truck Drivers

Companies are profiting off the backs of port truck drivers, a class of exploited workers who are a crucial lynchpin in our economy.

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Not only may the trucks not be up to safety regulations, but the chassis, the platforms with wheels that the container goes on, are often in bad shape. At ports like Oakland, drivers have to spend time trying to find a chassis that looks to be the safest, and if they see problems, they have the option of bringing the chassis to the shop area and asking for fixes to be made. But all of that takes time — time that contract drivers are not paid for. Many of the chassis they are forced to pick may have underinflated or flat tires and brake lights that don't work properly. In Seattle the situation is even worse, says Lapin — there drivers are not even given a choice of chassis, and they are also not allowed to get out of the truck to inspect them. "As soon as they pull out of the terminal, there are state troopers randomly pulling them over. They haven't even had a chance to inspect the chassis, and they get ticketed. This can put their commercial drivers license at risk."

An investigation by KING 5 News found numerous safety violations stemming Port of Seattle trucks. Police inspections found that one out of three of the trucks pulled over had problems so serious they had to be taken out of service. One officer and his team "found a container hauler with a flat tire, one with no brake lights, and another with a window and headlight that were held together with household duct tape," the news station reported.

For drivers who own their own trucks, it can be difficult to make enough money under contract conditions to keep up with maintenance (and Oakland drivers have additional clean air regulations that require retrofits or newer trucks).

As the Los Angeles Times reports:

Profit margins for the independent operators who serve the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports are thin — so some, like Miguel, cut corners whenever possible.

For example, because a gauge showed that the weight of his load exceeded regulations — and because he views his truck's brakes as untrustworthy — Miguel used the trailer's brakes to stop the entire rig. The CHP considers that maneuver particularly dangerous — and illegal.

Drivers often visit "llanteros" who use hot knives to carve new treads into bald tires when drivers can't afford new ones — a legal, though dicey practice that can put drivers and the rest of the public at risk.

Whether contract drivers own their own trucks or lease from companies, they still face the same situation because of their misclassification. "They should have to classify us as what we really are, which is employees. We're not independent contractors," says Mejia. "That would make my life — not just my life but every port driver's life — better. If the companies declare us employees, that will be much easier for our life, because we will get paid by the hour, not the move, and we will have the basic rights. I think the most important thing at least for me is the opportunity or the right to form a union. Now, every time when a driver gets injured at work, we have to collect money from the rest of the drivers just to give that money to that driver, and that way he can pay the medical costs. The companies don't give us our rights."

Mejia hopes the Occupy protest will help drive some more attention to the situation he faces. "We've been fighting this for six years," he says.

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