On Thursday, November 13, port truckers struck at the nation’s largest ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach, demanding an end to misclassification and wage theft. It was the fourth strike in a campaign initiated by the Teamsters and Change to Win seven years ago. It’s been a long campaign and the cost has been enormous.
The trucking companies categorize the truckers as independent contractors, a ploy that relieves the companies of the responsibility of employers. They don’t have to pay payroll taxes, don’t have to contribute to unemployment or workers’ compensation funds, don’t have to respect labor and employment laws: no right to unionize, no health and safety protections, no freedom from discrimination. After several strategies stalled, the Teamsters and Change to Win embarked on a campaign to prove that the drivers were employees, not contractors, and therefore fell under the jurisdiction of the Wagner Act. (The first step was convincing the drivers themselves that they were misclassified.) Having spent seven years researching the port trucking industry, I wanted to find out if the unions’ organizing campaign had finally broken through, so I flew out to Long Beach last weekend. This is what I saw.
Friday, November 14, 2014
Things are breaking on the port truckers’ strike. Nick Weiner, Change to Win’s lead organizer on the campaign, met with two trucking company heads and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti about respecting the workers’ right to unionize. Court rulings and NLRB actions are taking a toll on the companies. At the end of two days of picketing, the parties issued a joint statement that, amazingly, recognized the independent contractors’ right to join a union if they so chose—a major breakthrough. The union agreed to suspend the picket lines on Saturday, with the understanding that if the companies did not sign agreement next week, the strikes would resume. Two other trucking companies are reported to be close to a card check agreement.
In the afternoon, members of Teamsters Local 848 and International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) staff joined drivers from two struck companies on the picket lines. Truck after truck was turned away at terminals by terminal operators who did not want to bring down the wrath of the IBT. At the Pac9 picket line, striking drivers actively blocked traffic while discussing strategy in loud Spanish. I met with one driver, Alex Paz, who was discharged by another trucking company, TTSI, for filing charges in court complaining of wage theft and misclassification. Alex was one of thirty-five drivers illegally discharged for speaking up. The unfair labor practice complaint against the company is before NLRB. While awaiting restitution, Alex is working as an employee of Toll, a member of the Teamsters, where—for a change—he enjoys overtime pay and health care coverage.
Saturday, November 15
Morning. With the picketing suspended on Saturday, the IBT sent striking drivers, Local 848 members, and staff out to the port terminals to invite other truck drivers to attend a union meeting that night. I joined a group of Pac9 strikers at the Evergreen Terminal in Long Beach. This group was targeting drivers from three companies due to be struck on Monday. As drivers passed by, many waved in greeting. Some blasted their horns in salute. Some stopped their trucks, rolled down their windows, and took leaflets from the strikers, who climbed up on the truck cabs and passed the leaflets through the open windows.
One leafletter was Teamster volunteer Jose, who injured his shoulder two years ago unloading a container from his chassis. He has not worked since, and despite qualifying for workers’ compensation, he has not received any payments for the past year. He is suing Pac9. Meanwhile, he volunteers with the Teamsters, helping to organize the company he used to drive for. At Evergreen Terminal, he was welcomed by old friends and newer drivers alike, distributing a healthy number of union cards and leaflets for the evening’s meeting.
Evening. Next comes the meeting at Teamster Local 848 hall, where the walls are decorated with portraits of labor heroes ranging from John L. Lewis to Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King, Jr. By 5:30, the room was full of drivers, their wives and children, union organizers, and IBT staff flown in from across the country, as well as from nearby Orange County and San Bernardino.
To my surprise, the evening’s Master of Ceremonies was not a Teamster staffer. Instead, Alex Paz, the driver who’d been fired for protesting misclassification at TTSI, stood up before the mic and projection screen. Alex’s primary role was to introduce the rank-and-file organizers from nine trucking firms. Alex and almost all of the drivers he introduced spoke in Spanish, while a Teamster staffer translated.
Spirits were running high. Alex started off by summarizing the accomplishments of the strike’s first three days. (Before the strike had even begun, on the very eve of the strike, Green Fleet, which had reneged on its July promise to seek an agreement with its workers, sued for another chance to resolve its conflicts with the union.) Alex worked up the crowd by reminding everyone that the firm’s owner had once loudly vowed to go out of business before he’d ever talk to the union. His brave talk of the summer was now inoperative. Talks, Alex explained, to loud cheers, would begin the following Tuesday. After the strike began, Alex went on, the remaining struck companies, Pac9 and TTSI, found their trucks being turned away by terminal operators who didn’t want to take action that would bring in Teamster pickets. The crowd erupted in jeers, and dozens of fists were raised in triumph. The struck companies quickly sought out Mayor Garcetti’s intervention, Alex continued, and by noon Friday, discussions between the company owners, lawyers, and CEOs, the mayor, IBT leaders, and striker representatives were underway. (More cheers. Note: Teamster Local 848 had endorsed Mayor Garcetti in his hotly contested election.) As the union removed its pickets from the ports, company leaders agreed to a joint statement promising to continue serious discussions, and went so far as to pledge to respect the drivers’ rights as workers to form a union if they wanted to. (More loud cheers, whistles, and the sound of chairs scraping the floor as drivers rise to their feet). Alex even projected the joint statement signed by the company officials on the screen so that everyone could read what the companies had promised.
Following Alex’s upbeat update, he introduced nine drivers, who told of working for low wages, of innumerable deductions taken from their paychecks, of waiting on long lines to pick up containers traveling short distances for low compensation. They talked of wage theft, employer intimidation, discharges for those who spoke up. I was surprised at how often the driver-leaders talked of their problem as being misclassified as independent contractors when they were really employees with all the rights and legal protections pertaining to that status. Years earlier, when I had surveyed the truckers, most had insisted that as owner-operators, they were small businessmen chasing the American dream. Back then, they’d resented being called misclassified, thinking that it negated their status as truck owners working for themselves. Now, misclassification was the word of the hour, since it meant they could get their jobs back, assert their rights, and most importantly, demand respect.
This was largely thanks to the Teamsters. The lawyer that the union referred the drivers to, Julie Gutman Dickinson, had shown them what power they had, proving over and over again in court that they were employees, which meant that they had rights and legal protections under California and federal law. Julie entered the meeting to loud applause.
So did Nick Weiner, who had been named by the Change to Win federation to oversee the organizing campaign. Nick had abandoned his D.C. garb for an orange Teamster work vest, and his voice reflected the same commitment to the campaign’s fighting spirit. When Nick turned to the drivers from the six companies whose representatives had spoken and asked each group whether they wanted to strike on Monday, every group responded with fist pumping, cheers, and chants of “Si se puede.”
Nick was followed at the mic by a representative of SEIU Local 721, who promised that her union, which represents more than 70,000 public sector employees in the Los Angeles metro area, had the drivers’ back. In loud Spanish punctuated by chants, she explained that their fight was her union’s fight, and she pledged that dozens of her local’s members would join the drivers on their picket lines come Monday morning. Fred Potter, Teamster’s International Vice President and director of the union’s Port and Maritime division, wrapped up the meeting with a compliments to the drivers for their enthusiasm and solidarity, and pledged that the union would stand with him in their struggle for recognition.
This show of labor solidarity was the final ingredient that brought the troqueros to their feet. As a result of the progress made by the strikes of Thursday and Friday, the drivers roared out their determination to widen the strike, to shut down the port’s railroad yards as well as its terminals. It was a daring gambit.
On Tuesday, after I left, the strike spread beyond the ports to nearby rail yards, putting pressure on two more transport companies, Pacer Cartage and Harbor Rail Transport (HRT). On Friday, the eight-day strike ended in success: all eight of the companies targeted by the Teamsters have now met or scheduled meetings with the union or with driver-leaders. They’ve all signed statements pledging to respect the workers’ right to join a union if they choose to do so.
While the outcome of this eight-day strike will not be known until union negotiations with nine companies are concluded, the port truckers’ mobilization is significant because it demonstrates that exploited and marginalized workers who have been denied protection of labor laws can build power nevertheless. Furthermore, the Teamsters’ and the drivers’ challenging of misclassification sends a strong signal that labor’s counterattack against corporate fragmentation of the employment relationship is well underway.
David Bensman is Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University. He is a contributing editor of Dissent, and the author of several books, including Rusted Dreams: Hard Times in a Steel Community (with Roberta Lynch), and The Practice of Solidarity: American Hatters in the Nineteenth Century. He began his study of port trucking in 2006 with the support of a research grant from the National Science Foundation.