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Power at the Ports: Truckers Force Showdowns in Seattle, Los Angeles

A group of port workers in Los Angeles has filed for a rare union election, and another just ended a two-week strike that brought the Port of Seattle to a near standstill.

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Meconnen says that although he hasn’t seen signs of retaliation yet, workers are watching for it, and ready to back up anyone targeted by management for their participation. “We don’t want to do this again,” he says. “But if something is going to happen again like retaliation, we will do it again. We will shut it down.”

LA Workers’ Election Showdown

Port truck drivers are making progress in fighting their misclassification. But as millions of American workers know, being covered by US labor law is no cure-all for exploitation. One of the truckers who signed the December letter, Xiomara Perez, is already legally recognized as an employee. Perez works for Toll, an $8.3 billion Australia-based logistics company that transports cargo for fashion companies like Polo and Ralph Lauren. Toll’s 74 Los Angeles-area drivers are among the minority of port truckers not misclassified as independent contractors. Change to Win’s Michels chalks that up to the high-end fashion industry’s desire for “extreme control” over drivers. Last month, Perez and co-workers announced the filing of a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union election to join the Teamsters.

Toll, which has 12,000 unionized transportation employees in Australia, has been bitterly fighting its American employees’ attempt to win union recognition. As I’ve reported for AlterNet, it’s not unusual for companies that play by more progressive rules in other countries to take full advantage of union-busting opportunities in the United States. The NLRB last month issued a complaint (similar to an indictment) against Toll for anti-union crimes including surveillance, retaliation, harassment, interrogation, and discrimination.

“I personally have been subjected to interrogation and intimidation by Toll managers,” Perez said on a media call last month, “and many of my co-workers have been subjected to the same practice, but we remain strong and united…In the yard we are exposed to the elements with no place to sit down and take our lunch. No running water…and no toilets for women. We are treated like second-class citizens.”

By using the NLRB election process, the Toll workers and the Teamsters are taking a risk. The prevalence of anti-union tactics, and the weakness of the legal remedies available for confronting them, have led some major unions to abandon the NLRB election process. Employers often gerrymander voter lists and use frivolous challenges to delay elections while trying to scare workers out of a forming a union. Even when workers win an election, they often never win a union contract, because employers appeal election results or intentionally deadlock negotiations.  

Since it’s nearly impossible to win a union contract under the NLRB process without tempering a company’s desire to crush the union, increasingly labor is tackling the challenge differently: Using pressure from workers, consumers, media, and politics to break a company’s will to crush the union before going through an election or other form of recognition process. In these campaigns, the real action takes place before the union is recognized, as workers and their allies demand a fair process under which the company gives up some of the union-busting opportunities under the law. (In other cases, unions offer management contract concessions ahead of time, or political assistance, or the chance to keep out a more militant union, in exchange for keeping the anti-union campaign holstered.)

The Toll campaign isn’t taking that approach. Michels says Toll sent a letter to workers last month goading them to file for a union election or drop their campaign. Despite the evidence that Toll saw an NLRB election as an opportunity to kill the union campaign once and for all, workers submitted the petition to the NLRB. “The workers understand the risks,” says Michels.

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