Port drivers’ struggle goes on

February 29, 2012

Darrin Hoop reports on the outcome of a two-week port drivers' strike in Seattle.

A TWO-week strike by 450 Seattle port truck drivers in defiance of anti-union laws that have misclassified drivers as owner-operators for decades ended February 14.

The drivers aren't legally considered workers and have no right to join a union. Despite this, the truckers' strike shut down shippers Seattle Freight Service, Pacer Cartage, Western Ports Transportation, Edgmon Trucking, Elliott Bay Service Transfer and PCC Logistics.

Calvin Borders, a 13-year driver for Seattle Freight and board member of the driver-run Seattle Port Truckers Association (SPTA), talked about how the atmosphere since the strike:

has really changed. The drivers can see the changes when it comes to getting better respect. They are not harassed in the pier or at the rail. The pick operators are actually loading their trucks more safely. While we were in the midst of striking, they got rid of two individuals (at Burlington Northern Santa Fe) because of their discriminatory attitudes towards people of color and their use of the "N" word. They were the main source of creating a lot of chaos for us.

Truck drivers head out from the Port of Seattle
Truck drivers head out from the Port of Seattle

There are currently 1,000 to 2,000 drivers in Seattle. Most are from East Africa, with a smaller number of Sikhs from the Punjab region of India. By the end of the strike, 600 truckers had joined the SPTA.

The outcome of the strike is being closely watched by the rest of the 110,000 nonunion port truckers in the U.S. The long-term goal for many is to become members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. For now, the strike marked an impressive first step towards improving working conditions in what one author described as "sweatshops on wheels"

While the truckers own their cabs, they work for only one company, which sets the terms of pay and working conditions. Drivers pay for fuel, insurance, repairs, registration and all other truck-related expenses. They are paid around $40 a load, but not for any time spent waiting in lines to pick up or drop off loads. They work 59 hours a week on average, with their hourly pay working out to $9.04, barely above the minimum wage.

The drivers are attempting to turn back the devastating results of the deregulation of the trucking industry that started in the late 1970s under the Democratic President Jimmy Carter administration. The Teamsters lost more than 500,000 members during the 1980s alone.

THE SEATTLE strike began on January 30 when 150 drivers headed to the state Capitol in Olympia to support legislation, known as HB 2527, that would force the owners of the chassis or truck beds used by drivers to pay any fines for safety violations. Currently, drivers are required to pay all chassis-related fines, despite the fact that they neither own nor do maintenance on them.

The next day, a driver from Western Port Transportation was fired for attending the hearing. The rest of the drivers at Western Port walked out in solidarity, and the strike then spread to five other companies.

During the strike, the truckers held daily meetings at the Teamsters hall to plan out their strategy and organized multiple public meetings and actions. The high point was a rally the day before the strike ended, where 300 strikers and supporters rallied near Terminal 18 at the Port of Seattle, before marching to the headquarters of Stevedoring Services of America, which is partly owned by banking giant Goldman Sachs.

In the aftermath of the strike, several companies have continued to retaliate against the drivers.

Pacer refused to rehire a number of drivers who honored the strike. Many have found work at other companies, but several drivers are still fighting to get their old jobs back. Seattle Freight, the largest trucking company, refuses to negotiate any improvements for its drivers, and a driver for Western Ports has filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration charging that management retaliated against him for speaking out about dangerous conditions.

Despite this, several trucking firms agreed to boost pay per load to $44 from $40 a trip for drivers stuck in line more than an hour, and to pay for some trips drivers make when they have no load.

Also, in addition to HB 2527, another bill, HB 2395, is under consideration in the legislature that would correctly classify truckers as employees and not owner-operators.

Lastly, a task force has been set up to give representatives from the SPTA a seat at the table to negotiate working conditions with Port of Seattle officials, the State Patrol, representatives from trucking companies, and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad yards.

While it remains to be seen whether any improvements what will come from this task force, it's important to remember that prior to the strike most drivers felt like they were treated as "monkeys" or "slaves." Now, as a result of the strike, there's a de facto recognition of the truckers' unity and power.

Calvin Borders summed up his feelings about the strike and what comes next:

I'm still preaching the gospel, saying it's a start. The job isn't done yet. We are not where we want to be or where we need to get. It won't happen overnight. Until the law [to classify us as workers] is either accepted or rejected, we will be waiting to see what is the next step we must take.

We are still in the recruiting phase. To be more effective, we are working on getting our website set up. Once it gets up, a lot more people will be apt to join us because it will be easier for them to understand what we're all about.

The companies don't realize how bad the drivers are hurting. They say just go to work, and we'll take care of you. They aren't taking care of us. Once you get people ticked off, it's like a burn that won't go away. You put ice on it and put lotion on it, but until you find a cure for that burn to heal, it's not going to go away.

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