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New Promise for Port Drivers

Historic Union Victory in Los Angeles

by BRIAN TIERNEY

In an era of defeat and decline for the labor movement, path breaking organizing victories are rare. Union activity in these times is more likely to revolve around defensive battles than conquering new territory or reclaiming ground that was lost decades ago.

Earlier this month, a rare election victory by port truck drivers at the Port of Los Angeles signaled a big step forward in the fight to organize a deregulated industry that is rife with worker abuse.

The 46-to-15 vote by Toll Group drivers in favor of joining the Teamsters was the first of its kind in nearly 30 years. And Toll, an $8.8 billion Australia-based logistics company, fought the workers every step of the way.

But the workers’ historic victory has given new hope to other drivers throughout the industry.

“If we can win, I know other port truck drivers across the U.S. can unite just like we did,” Orlando Ayala, a 10-year driver, said after the victory was announced. “A voice on the job means management can no longer humiliate us or force us to suffer in poverty while they profit.”

As the workers prepare for contract negotiations, the Teamsters are holding up the election win as what will hopefully be the first of many more victories to come.

“These first-rate truck drivers decided to form their union after being treated like second-class citizens under third-world working conditions for too long,” said Fred Potter, Teamster Vice President and director of the union’s Port Division. “Now these courageous employees have inspired other port drivers to fight for good, middle-class jobs at America’s ports nationwide.”

For years, the Teamsters union has sought to organize port truck drivers who toil in an industry where many work up to 14 hours a day for third-world wages. These conditions are a result of deregulation that allows employers to classify workers as “independent contractors” and “owner operators.”

Misclassification prevents most of the country’s 110,000 port truck drivers from unionizing and fighting for better wages and higher standards on the job.

Toll workers are among the few who are classified as employees, which allowed them to petition the National Labor Relations Board for representation. But while the Department of Labor is stepping up its efforts to combat misclassification in a number of industries, the issue remains a key obstacle to unionizing port trucking, which has been called the “poster child” for this practice.

Loosened regulations began in the late 1970s and were followed by the Motor Carrier Act, signed by President Carter in 1980.

Trucking deregulation worked to favor small businesses and “owner operators” over the larger companies. Over the next 30 years, unionization in the “for-hire sector” of the industry dropped from 60 percent to 20 percent. At the same time that the Teamsters lost up to 500,000 members as a result of deregulation, wages fell by 30 percent in the 15 years after the Motor Carrier Act took effect.

The “owner operator” classification is a scheme allowing companies to mistreat and exploit the mostly-immigrant drivers and avoid taxes.

In reality, the drivers have little control over their work and are owner operators in name only. It’s a title that brings few benefits and many additional burdens for drivers, who are usually responsible for buying or leasing their own truck. Drivers can only work for one company and they have to pay for maintenance, fines, gas, and insurance in order to haul cargo for the companies. These expenses come either directly out of the pockets of workers or are deducted from their paychecks.

Meanwhile, the drivers are subject to inspections, drug tests, and review of safety records. Companies set the terms of pay and work conditions and pay by load, not hours, which means drivers can spend several unpaid hours everyday sitting in long lines at the ports. Shipping companies often overload containers to move more cargo cheaply. But even though the containers are owned by the companies, it’s the drivers who are slapped with fines for overweight loads.

These conditions add up to what has come to be called “sweatshops on wheels.” Working an average of 59 hours a week, drivers make an hourly wage of only $9.04. After expenses, many drivers take home as little as $20,000 a year in net income.

“When we sit in those long lines at the terminals, or if we are stuck in traffic, we become volunteers who basically donate our time to the trucking and shipping companies,” a group of drivers wrote in an open letter last year to the Occupy movement. “We have all heard the words ‘modern-day slaves’ at the lunch stops. There are no restrooms for drivers. We keep empty bottles in our cabs. Plastic bags too. We feel like dogs.”

Xiomara Perez, one of the workers who wrote the letter, is a driver at Toll who joined with her coworkers in January to file for an election.

She was fired two months later. The reason? She stopped at a McDonald’s to use the restroom while she was out making a delivery. That was the official reason provided by Toll, but few doubt that she was in fact being punished for her union activity.

Before the election triumph, Toll waged a ruthless anti-union campaign that included mandatory anti-union meetings and other forms of intimidation against workers. Last October the company fired 26 drivers who went to work wearing Teamster t-shirts while a delegation of drivers delivered a petition with 1,000 signatures in support of the organizing drive.

The NLRB issued a complaint against Toll for unfair labor practices in January, charging the company with engaging in illegal anti-union activity including interrogation, harassment, retaliation and discrimination against the workers.

In the meantime, international labor solidarity played a significant role in the workers’ success at Toll. Perhaps a testament to the state of organized labor in the U.S. as compared to other industrialized countries, Toll’s behavior at the Port of Los Angeles differs from the way it handles its workforce in Australia.

The Australian Transport Workers Union (TWU) represents 12,000 Toll workers who strongly supported their U.S. counterparts throughout the campaign. Several delegations of TWU members visited with Toll workers in Los Angeles over the last few months and TWU led outreach efforts in Australia, making the company’s anti-union behavior in the U.S. a national story down under.

As one visiting TWU official told a group of Toll drivers in March, “If they want to treat you with this sort of disrespect, then there will be consequences for them.”

“When we saw the truck drive out with the flat tire, that would never happen [at Toll] in Australia” observed another TWU member as he spoke with workers in the yard. “That truck would not move. It wouldn’t leave the yard. But we understand that you’ve got no choice.”

The Toll drivers’ victory comes on the heels of another important development in the union struggle at the ports. In February, more than 400 nonunion drivers at the Port of Seattle went on strike for two weeks, demanding respect on the job and an end to misclassification. The drivers ended the strike as several trucking companies agreed to pay more per load and a taskforce was set up to strengthen driver representation in negotiations with port officials and companies.

Because deregulation has also meant low or nonexistent safety and environmental standards, the long fight to organize drivers has brought together a coalition of labor, environmental and community groups. The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports has been at the forefront of the struggle, uniting many labor groups with organizations like Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club. Misclassification has been directly linked to the widespread use of unsafe, diesel trucks at the ports, resulting in emissions that are up to 80 percent higher than emissions produced by well-maintained, clean trucks.

The Toll drivers’ victory is a boost for both labor and public safety. And in an industry where most drivers are Latino and North African, it’s also a win for immigrant workers who have borne the brunt of deregulation and sweatshop conditions.

Solidarity was instrumental in winning the battle at Toll. Support from the community, union allies abroad, and drivers at other companies bolstered the confidence of Toll drivers and made their groundbreaking victory possible.

As the organizing struggle throughout the industry pushes forward, broad solidarity will remain central to winning justice and power for workers.

Brian Tierney is an independent labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches, where this article first appeared.