High stakes for port drivers

February 13, 2012

Darrin Hoop looks at the key issues in a strike by nonunion port truck drivers.

MORE THAN 400 port truck drivers in Seattle have been on strike for two weeks in defiance of labor laws that deny them the right to form a union--in a struggle that could have a major impact on port drivers' organizing efforts in other cities.

Because the employers consider drivers to be owner-operators, the drivers have been barred by law from forming a union. This allows companies to push costs onto drivers and to ignore workplace safety.

Nevertheless, a solidarity rally set for February 13 in Seattle will show the widespread support for the strikers among the official labor movement and supporters alike.

The drivers play a crucial role in the ports. Between 1,000 and 2,000 of them transport containers between the Port of Seattle, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail yards, and the warehouses of major corporations like Wal-Mart, Sears and Target throughout the Puget Sound area. Striking drivers are from Seattle Freight Service Inc., Pacer Cartage, Western Ports Transportation Inc., Edgmon Trucking, Elliott Bay Service Transfer and PCC Logistics.

Striking truck drivers picket the Port of Seattle on February 8
Striking truck drivers picket the Port of Seattle on February 8 (David Bacon)

The truckers have organized themselves into the Seattle Port Truckers Association (SPTA). Their board is made up of one or two elected driver representatives from each company. The SPTA has allies in the Teamsters union and community-labor alliances like Puget Sound Sage and the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, which for years has supported the truckers' efforts to obtain better safety standards, overall working conditions, pay and respect on the job.

For many truckers, the long-term goal is to organize a union and be able to join the Teamsters. However, the strike is currently focused on more immediate demands.

The struggle began January 30 when around 150 drivers from a number of companies walked off the job and headed to the state Capitol in Olympia in support of legislation that would force the owners of the drayage (short-distance trucking) companies to be responsible for paying fines from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) for safety issues related to the chassis that the drivers use.

A chassis is the truck bed that attaches to the cab of a truck. The chassis are owned by the trucking companies, the Port of Seattle or Burlington Northern. Currently, drivers have to pay all ticket fines related to violations that stem from chassis--which they neither own nor do maintenance on.

This shift in responsibility was due to a DOT rule change enacted six months ago. Drivers suspect that the new DOT rules and resulting increase in harassment and ticketing of drivers is an attempt to weaken the drivers' organizing efforts.

"These companies don't want us to be organized or associated with any kind of movement, association or union," said Michael Kidane, a Pacer Cartage driver. "In my company, the regional manager told us that if anybody tries to be associated with any organization either non-profit organization or union they would be fired from the job."

The strike spread when one of the drivers for Western Ports Transportation got fired for going to Olympia. This led to all of the Western Ports Transportation drivers taking strike action. Since then, other companies have seen their drivers walk out.

LAST DECEMBER, on the day of the West Coast Port Shutdown, the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports posted "An Open Letter from America's Port Truck Drivers on Occupy the Ports," which summed up the reality of the port trucking industry that led to the current walkout:

Just like Wall Street doesn't have to abide by rules, our industry isn't bound to regulation. So the market is run by con artists. The companies we work for call us independent contractors, as if we were our own bosses, but they boss us around. We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels. We cannot negotiate our rates. (Usually we are not allowed to even see them.) We are paid by the load, not by the hour. So 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.

That's the nice way to put it. We have all heard the words "modern-day slaves" at the lunch stops.

Aynalem Moba, a 14-year driver from Seattle Freight and elected president of the Seattle Port Truckers Association, explained the need for mobilizing:

Our number one demand is safety. We are being pushed around left and right. In the past, we have put up with this because times are tough. There has been a misclassification of us by companies (as owner-operators). But safety issues have pushed us off the edge.

"Some of the stuff we carry contains hazardous materials. Some of it is overweight. We have no control over it, and we are getting ticketed for it left and right. Enough is enough. If you get three or four tickets in about six months to a year, you lose your CDL [commercial drivers license]. We can't afford it. The companies have to pay for our tickets, number one. We had to shut it down today or I could lose my license in about a year and be out of work.

Either official politicians or the trucking companies or the rail companies have to answer for this unfortunate situation. We are the bottom people who have been ignored so far, but we are trying to raise our voice.

The SPTA has issued a "Port Truck Drivers' Declaration of Rights." Some of the demands it makes are:

--The right to refuse container loads that are unsafe, overweight, or violate hours of service.

The right to speak out against unsafe and unjust working conditions that put ourselves, or the public, at risk and free from the threat of retaliation.

To be compensated for all the hours we work whether we are awaiting dispatch, waiting in line at the terminals, picking up chassis, delivering cargo, completing logbooks or sitting in traffic.

A dedicated area at the terminals in which we can rest, get fresh water, eat and use a bathroom.

Immediate basic rights of employment guaranteed to American workers in similar industries and occupations, including the protection of wage-and-hour laws, workers' injury compensation, health and safety standards, and the ability to collectively bargain and join together in a union.

THE DRIVERS' action isn't technically or legally a strike. This is because the truckers, as "owner-operators," are classified as small business owners.

This misclassification is, in the long run, the single-most important issue at stake. An excellent study by the National Employment Law Project, Change to Win and David Bensman of Rutgers University--titled The Big Rig: Poverty, Pollution and the Misclassification of Truck Drivers at America's Ports--makes a strong case for why port truckers should be classified as employees with full rights to organize into a union.

Based on driver interviews and employment documents, the study concluded:

Port drivers are subject to strict behavioral controls. They are subject to truck inspections, drug tests, review of safety records, and monitoring of the speed at which they drive...

Drivers work only for one trucking company at a time, do not offer services to the general public and are entirely dependent on that company for work. While many drive trucks they own or lease--and all must pay their company for business expenses like fuel and insurance rather than receive reimbursements--each of these circumstances passes business risk from the companies to the individual drivers, and so exacerbates their dependence on the trucking companies.

The U.S. Treasury Inspector General estimated that the misclassification of workers led to unpaid Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance taxes totaling $15 billion. Thus, the current employment arrangement in effect results in massive tax breaks for trucking companies.

In response to pressure from the port truckers' strike, the Washington state House of Representatives passed legislation February 11 that would classify owner-operators as employees. This bill now moves to the state Senate, where some think it will face a tougher time.

This strike is the most serious effort to date to win back rights that many truckers had over 30 years ago, before the deregulation of the industry.

Deregulation began in 1977, under the Democratic Carter administration, when the Interstate Commerce Commission began loosening regulations for trucking operations that benefited "owner-operators" and small companies over larger trucking companies. The floodgates were opened when Carter signed the Motor Carrier Act of 1980.

Michael Belzer, author of Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation pioneered research on the devastating effects deregulation had on the union trucking industry. Belzer notes that unionization in the "for-hire sector" plummeted from 60 percent in 1973 to 20 percent by 2002. During the 1980s, the Teamsters lost about 500,000 members. Wages for truckers fell by 30 percent from 1980 to 1995.

Now, in Seattle, the median net income for "owner-operators" is $28,783. At an average workweek of 59 hours, that works out to approximately $9.38 an hour, or barely above the state minimum wage of $9.04. Even that doesn't factor in the fact that drivers pay for fuel, insurance, tickets, repairs, etc. One driver told me his take-home pay last year, after all truck-related expenses, was $16,000.

According to the Port of Seattle, the total value of maritime imports and exports annually exceeds $56 billion. Someone is making money, but it isn't the port truckers.

TO ADD fuel to the fire, since the strike began, the owners of several companies, including Edgmon Trucking, Western Ports Transportation and Pacer Cartage, refused to pay their drivers for work they did prior to the strike. For drivers who live paycheck to paycheck, this can make the difference between putting food on their families' tables or paying crucial bills.

In response to the employers' refusal to pay them, more than 100 drivers and supporters caravanned February 7 to Edgmon Trucking in Kent to demand paychecks due to around 30 drivers from the company. In the parking lot, drivers chanted, "Give us our paychecks" and "No checks, no peace."

Within 15 minutes, a couple of local Kent police officers showed up and went inside to talk to management. After five minutes, the officer returned outside to say, "I'm just doing the whole mediation portion, okay. They have no problems with giving you guys your paychecks. Got to show your ID. You get your paychecks."

Miraculously, management had all the paychecks ready. One by one, the drivers lined up and went in--and were greeted with cheers and chants of "We are one!" as they exited the company's office.

When asked if there was any lesson to take from their protest, driver Benyam Petros replied, "Oh yeah, it's a lesson for him [the owner]. It's a brighter future for us. We are one. We are united. We are not going anywhere. I'll sit in my truck. He needs me more than I need him."

In addition to the economic impact, any gains won by the drivers would likely have a positive effect on the environment. Due to the poverty-level wages, most of the trucks are old and don't meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. According to The Big Rig study:

An estimated 95 percent of the nation's 110,000 port trucks fail to meet current U.S. EPA emission standards, increasing diesel pollution by 1,000 percent. In the immediate port-adjacent [Seattle] neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown, the EPA has found that cancer risk is 27 times higher than the national average. Dioxin from diesel-burning trucks is reported to be one of the principal culprits.

To keep the communication flowing, the drivers hold regular organizing meetings, sometimes with several hundred in attendance. On February 11, more than 300 drivers and community supporters attended a town-hall meeting where many local politicians spoke, but also listened to the concerns of the truckers. The drivers took the opportunity to organize for the February 13 solidarity rally at one of the Port of Seattle terminals.

The significance of this strike is enormous for the trucking industry nationally. The Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, which are 25 miles apart on Puget Sound, together form the third largest container load center in North America, trailing only the Port of New York and New Jersey and Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The level of organization among the drivers is inspiring, especially given the disgusting racism and dehumanization they face on a daily basis. "Ninety-five percent of us are foreigners and Eastern African drivers," said Hagos Berihun, an Edgmon driver. "They treat us like we're dummies. We aren't treated like human beings.

"We are not monkeys. We are not animals. We aren't dirty. Edgmon thinks we are slaves. I don't think so. We are drivers."

The truckers know that U.S. history is littered with unjust laws, like legalized segregation, that needed to be changed for the struggle of progress to move forward. This strike is only the latest such example. Time will tell if this becomes the spark to ignite port truckers' organizing all over the U.S.

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