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

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.”

And, like an increasing number of American workers, these “independent contractors” aren’t considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act. That means that while workers can organize and act as a union, the law doesn’t require their bosses to recognize or collectively bargain with them.

“The more underwater we are,” the drivers wrote, “the more our restlessness grows.”

Seattle Workers’ Strike Forces Port Slowdown

That restlessness has been on full display this month, as hundreds of port truck drivers struck for two weeks, leaving the Port of Seattle in disarray. Instead of hauling cargo, drivers showed up at Washington’s state capitol, where legislators were debating two pro-labor bills: one to crack down on truckers’ classification as independent contractors, and another to shift the costs of trucking safety violations back to the companies that hire them. They stayed out for over two weeks. Many resumed trucking on Wednesday; others are still not returning to work.

A January 30 confrontation between Meconnen and management helped instigate the strike. He and a group of co-workers called out of work that Monday to attend a hearing on the misclassification bill. His boss turned out to be at the state capital as well, testifying against the reforms and citing wage statistics Meconnen says were nothing like his actual pay. When he returned to work on Tuesday, Meconnen says management asked him why he hadn’t worked the previous day, and then, when he answered honestly, retaliated against him by giving him a different work assignment.

“They knew I did not have the right equipment” to do that assignment safely, says Meconnen, and “they said, ‘Go do this.’” When he refused, citing safety concerns, he was told not to work for the rest of the week. Meconnen is filing complaints against his employer, Western Ports, for violating state and federal whistleblower protections. (Management denies this account.)

“Within 30 minutes,” says Meconnen, “at least 20 of my fellow drivers…all decided that they would all come out.” Over a few days, their numbers grew from dozens to hundreds. The Seattle Times reported that “Last week, they were largely successful in shutting down the movement of freight.”

Since driving off the job, workers have been a daily presence at the state capital. Last week the Washington State House passed the misclassification bill, which now heads to the Senate. Change to Win’s TJ Michels credits that victory to the drivers’ action. While “misclassification clearly has fueled unrest at the ports for decades now,” she says, it was due to the strike that “lawmakers in Olympia got a first-hand look.”

Last week, a rally outside a small business founded by country-western singer Bob Edgmon won unpaid back wages from Edgmon Trucking for 24 drivers. Workers gathered at a Teamsters union hall Saturday to discuss truckers’ working conditions with Seattle’s Port Commissioner and a city council member. Hundreds of workers and supporters rallied on Monday. This week they recorded a video message to US Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, asking her to visit Seattle and see the abuses imposed by bosses on so-called “independent contractors.”

Wednesday, drivers announced that most workers were returning to work. Meconnen says that decision was made for two reasons: The difficulty of continuing to go without pay, and the achievement of significant concessions from many of the companies drivers work for. Among those victories: pay will increase; management will cover more of the costs of insuring trucks; drivers will be paid for time they spend waiting, in excess of one hour, in line to go through tolls.

Workers who engage in collective action against their boss are always taking a risk, despite the legal protections for such actions on paper. But their status as “independent contractors” makes these drivers’ action that much more risky. What they had to protect them was not the law, but each other; the hope that involving enough people, and drawing enough attention and sympathy, would make it practically or politically unwieldy for management to sack them.

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.

“They wanted a fair process and that’s what they were fighting for, but as the shenanigans were becoming more frequent…they assessed their support, they understood that they had a strong majority and…they decided, ‘You know what, we’re ready for this…it's going to be like going through a meat grinder, but we’re going to be strong.’” Michels says labor will push back against the anti-union campaign through solidarity among co-workers, support and pressure from Toll’s unionized Australian employees, and a team of community monitors that will monitor and publicize Toll’s conduct.

These community monitors have no legal authority, and there’s no agreement with the company recognizing their authority. But they’re part of labor’s effort to discourage or expose Toll’s anti-union tactics in the campaign. A clergy delegation attempted to present its own proposed election principles to management at a Toll facility; Toll refused to let the pastors into the building. In a video posted by Clean and Safe Ports on February 6, student Amanda Mendoza says drivers report repeated mandatory anti-union meetings.

After urging a vote, Michels says Toll is now using legal stalling tactics to delay the setting of an election date. Toll workers in Los Angeles and Australia have been communicating regularly over the Internet, and a delegation of Australian workers will be visiting Los Angeles for several days in support of their US co-workers’ election campaign. In Los Angeles, in Seattle and in Australia, workers are wearing wristbands with one message in multiple languages: “Our fight is your fight.”

“It’s a big job,” Perez says. “We are exposed to everything…We are united and strong, and we will take the fight to the end.”

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