Teamsters Score 3-to-1 Election Victory in Nearly Union-Free Industry
Wednesday night, the National Labor Relations Board announced that truck drivers at the Port of Los Angeles had won a rare union election. The 46-to-15 vote is a major step forward in the Teamsters' campaign to transform the overwhelmingly nonunion port trucking industry—though it’s no guarantee of a union contract with their employer, the $8.8 billion Australian logistics company Toll Group.
"When they tried to push us down, they only managed to make us stronger..." said Toll driver Karael Vallecillo on Thursday. "This is just the beginning of the big war."
Wednesday’s was one of the first union elections held by U.S. port truckers since the deregulation of the industry in the 1980s. For most of the country’s 110,000 port truck drivers, NLRB elections aren’t an option. As David Bacon has reported, port truck drivers are frequently misclassified as “independent contractors” who aren’t employed by the companies they work for and thus aren’t eligible to file for an election. But Toll's LA workers are classified as employees. Writing in the Australian newspaper The Age, reporter Malcom Maiden traced that difference to a Port of LA requirement—since overturned by an appeals court—that companies directly employ drivers.
Reached during a union rally the night before the election, two-year Toll driver Alberto Quinteno said he began organizing with the union after he and some co-workers tried taking concerns to management: “You know, basic human being treatment, like a clean toilet.” When workers asked for daily bathroom cleaning, Quinteno says Toll refused. He says when workers asked for clean drinking water, “They gave us water, but they left it in the sun…it was tasting like plastic…they didn’t even give us cups.”
In December, Toll worker Xiomara Perez joined port truckers from six other ports in a writing a letter to the Occupy movement and the broader public.
“Just like Wall Street doesn’t have to abide by rules, our industry isn’t bound to regulation,” they wrote. “So the market is run by con artists…We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels.” In January, Perez and her Port of LA co-workers filed for an election. In February, hundreds of port truck drivers in Washington State struck for two weeks and massed at the state capitol demanding a crackdown on misclassification. LA workers joined them in wearing wristbands reading “Our fight is your fight.”
In March, Toll fired Perez.
The union charges that Perez’s firing was part of an aggressive—and often illegal—anti-union campaign waged by Toll since last year. In January, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint (the equivalent of an indictment) against Toll for anti-union actions including illegally interrogating, harassing, retaliating, and discriminating against workers. Perez was ostensibly fired for stopping at a McDonald's bathroom on her way to make a delivery (she made the delivery on time anyway). Another prominent worker activist, Steven Chavez, was ostensibly fired for using a company vehicle, during his lunch break, to drive to renew a Department of Transportation certificate (Chavez says he had a supervisor’s permission).
Quinteno said Tuesday that management held mandatory anti-union meetings roughly every other week in months leading up to the election. He said these meetings included a series of anti-union speakers, from a man who said that he and his entire family had been union members, to one of Toll’s top executives.