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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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Photo Credit: David Bacon via Port Watch

 
 
 
 

On December 12, as Occupy activists were preparing to shut down ports across the West Coast, five port truck drivers wrote them a letter. The drivers, elected by committees of their co-workers at seven ports, declined to take a stance on that week’s controversy: whether dock workers and their unions should join the attempted shutdowns. But they praised the Occupy movement's vision and leadership, and asked for its help in publicizing their own terrible working conditions. And the port truckers made a promise; that they and their co-workers would “organize ourselves and do what is needed to win dignity, respect, and justice.”  

Two months later, one group of port workers has filed for a rare union election, backed by international solidarity. Another just ended a two-week strike that brought the Port of Seattle to a near standstill.

Both efforts are backed by the Teamsters, the Change to Win labor federation and the labor-environmentalist coalition Clean and Safe Ports. “We decided enough is enough,” says Port of Seattle driver Demeke Meconnen. “It’s about time. That’s it. We’re tired.”

Outrageous Loopholes and the Employers Who Love Them

Many Americans picture trucking as a draining but sustaining middle-class job – a decent day’s pay for a full day’s work. In their December letter, the five drivers paint a very different picture.

“There are no restrooms for drivers,” they write. “We keep empty bottles in our cabs. Plastic bags too. We feel like dogs.” Despite working 60 or more hours a week, “we feel humiliated when we receive paychecks that suggest we work part-time at a fast-food counter.” These drivers, mostly immigrants, haul cargo for major companies like Starbucks and Walmart. The various “logistics” companies they work for provide them no healthcare or retirement benefits.

The drivers warn that their work conditions hurt not just them and their families, but everyone living around the ports where they work: New York, New Jersey, Seattle, Tacoma, Oakland, Long Beach, and Los Angeles. Because old trucks poison the air, “our economic conditions are what led to the environmental crisis.” Management insistence on cutting corners “makes our roads less safe. When we try to blow the whistle about skipped inspections, faulty equipment, or falsified logs, then we are ‘starved out’” by being fired or simply not asked back to work.

An investigation by Seattle’s King 5 News revealed that the majority (58 percent) of those container haulers pulled over by officials for Level 1 inspections were pulled out-of-service for having one or more safety violations.

These conditions are entrenched, as Tara Lohan reported for AlterNet in December, by misclassification. Because of trucking deregulation in 1980, 100,000 truckers are considered “independent contractors,” not employees. As in other sectors of the economy, that title brings workers few benefits, many burdens, and restricted options. Increasingly, management doesn’t provides drivers their trucks – workers buy them, or pay to lease them from the company. Management doesn’t keep up the trucks, the workers do, and they pay the fines when they get pulled over, fail inspection, and get ticketed. Management often doesn’t even pay an hourly wage – workers get paid by the delivery, and sit for hours in toll lines or traffic jams knowing their waiting is earning them nothing.

“Our rights have been taken,” says Meconnen, who has been a port truck driver for four years. Despite his legal status, “I’m not a subcontractor, because they tell me, go from Point A to Point B, and I don’t even know how much they’ll pay me until the check comes.” Along with paying all the costs of maintaining a truck, he’s required to buy accident insurance directly from the company he works for. As for his own health, “Since I started working for this company, I never go to the doctor, because I never have insurance.” After work-related expenses, he estimates, “you probably take home $20,000 a year.”

 
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