The drivers’ fight in Oakland

November 7, 2013

François Hughes reports on the struggle of truck drivers at the Port of Oakland as their battle against the shipping bosses approaches a new confrontation.

A WORK stoppage by non-union truck drivers at the Port of Oakland on October 21 closed down the SSA terminal, the largest at the port, for the morning shift, and closed or slowed other terminals. Many drivers didn't show up to pick up or drop off loads at the fourth-largest port in the nation, with 150 truckers and activist supporters spread out over several terminals to walk pickets lines.

There are roughly 6,000 truckers who regularly work out of the Port of Oakland. Hundreds of those drivers are organized into the Port of Oakland Truckers Association, which enjoys the support of many more truckers who are not members.

The association called the picket in part to demand special grant money in order to upgrade their trucks to comply with new emissions standards, or to get an extension on compliance. Association leader Frank Adams explained that port drivers own or lease their trucks, and many won't be able to afford the required upgrades. "We need 
money, or a year for upgrading," Adams said. "Some 500 to 600 Oakland families could be out of a job in one day on January 1."

Port of Oakland truck drivers rally with supporters on the picket line
Port of Oakland truck drivers rally with supporters on the picket line (

Truck owners also want compensation for time lost queuing up for loading and unloading. This is about compensation for the truckers' labor. In the 1980s, port trucking was deregulated with President Jimmy Carter signing the Motor Carrier Act. Subsequent legislation and policies defined most port truckers as
 "independent contractors," who are paid a flat rate per container delivered.

This means that a five-hour wait at newly consolidated terminals such as SSA can turn a $20 an hour wage into $8 an hour. The payment truckers receive per load ($100 to $400, depending on the distance and time of the trip), might seem large, but the cost of leasing, insuring, fueling, maintaining and paying the fees for a truck eats into earnings--and can lead to sub-minimum wage rates when calculated hourly.

 compensation has barely changed in 10 years while diesel fuel costs have risen sharply. The truck drivers have publicized their full list of demands and the reasons for the work stoppage on October 21 and the ongoing struggle.

Congestion at the port also hurts air quality in predominantly African American West Oakland neighborhoods. "These are big lines, three to five hours long," said Adams. "The congestion at 
the ports from trucks idling for hours and hours causes pollution."

Drivers have other basic demands about working conditions, such as access to bathrooms. There are a few Porta-Potties alongside the road at the port, but truckers report that these are always overflowing. And the drivers are even fined if they are caught 
getting out of 
their trucks to go to the bathroom.

One driver, who didn't want his name used in this article, said his experiences are far from the image of the well-paid, independent small businessmen. He has been driving since the early 1980s, when the Teamsters were still a strong presence in the industry. By the time he quit 20 years later to drive for a company that paid him an hourly wage, the Teamsters had very few 

During his time as an independent contractor, he and his wife split up because of the impoverished conditions they suffered. After family expenses, rent and truck leasing, they didn't have enough money to eat out together more than a single night each month.

Among the drivers, there is wide variety of truck ownership 
structures. Some truckers work for a wage, others lease, others lease collectively as a group and others own their trucks outright. This creates difficulty in organizing as a united group.

Also, since the drivers come from a wide variety of ethnic and national backgrounds, language barriers are a real issue--leaflets for the next drivers' action are going out in at least four different languages. The fact that drivers work for different companies also makes it difficult to communicate in order to organize. And since many truckers are recent immigrants, police harassment or deportation is a significant fear.

Management played on all these divisions and fears in seeking an incredibly broad injunction against drivers blocking roadways in and around the port during their demonstrations. The injunction named two leaders of the Port of Oakland Truckers Association--and 2,000 other John Does.

ON OCTOBER 21, after drivers and their supporters picketed the SSA terminal for several hours, police cleared 40 people off the line in the crosswalk in front of the terminal entrance, forcing them onto the sidewalk. "Police punched and hit a picketer who they claimed was too close to the curb," said Adams. Perhaps as a result of this intimidation, fewer truckers joined the picket lines--but many simply remained in their trucks and refused to enter the port to pick up loads.

During the morning picket, rank-and-file members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 arriving for work pulled over on the side of the road after seeing the pickets. Some approached the drivers and then exchanged heated words with the cops.

During the confusion of the morning, however, some ILWU members initially drove through the picket lines, even clipping picketers as they passed. This was only a minority of members, however. The ILWU has a strong tradition of not crossing picket lines, whether they are organized by the community or by other unions. Most rank-and-filers didn't cross, even after police cleared the picket line.

When reports of the police violence reached ILWU Local 34, which represents port clerks, the union immediately pulled all clerks out of the terminals. "It's about taking care of your family," said ILWU Local 10 rank and filer Sheila Rischer, summing up the sentiment for solidarity between different groups of workers. "Every nationality and culture wants to make a decent living for their family. There are all kinds of people who are truckers, speaking all different languages, but we don't know how much power we have unless we put our differences aside and unite."

The afternoon was different, however. Police cleared pickets away from the gates and ILWU members reported to work. These actions were in stark contrast to the tradition of honoring picket lines of other workers or community members--like when SEIU Local 1021 members who work at the port struck for one day in November 2012. Faced with a picket line, Local 10 has the precedent to argue to the port arbitrator that this endangers the health and safety of its members, so they can refuse to cross.

No doubt an important discussion is brewing within the ILWU about what has taken place with the truck drivers' struggle. Local 10 President Mike Villeggiante told the Contra Costa Times that the truckers were "trying to use the port as an economic tool. I understand that, but the problem is they hurt the area. People looking on the outside will think it's not a reliable port."

If this statement was accurately reported, then it comes dangerously close to accepting management's typical complaint that actions by workers are disruptive and hurt business. How could such a claim make the ILWU stronger in any way?

HONORING A picket line can be a big risk. The risk of losing your job is nothing to take lightly.

But Local 10 rank-and-filer Joel Schor gave his pitch for not crossing: "The way the truckers are being organized is similar to the way the waterfront was originally organized--the language groups, fighting the laws, and the itinerant nature of it. ILWU members should support whatever organization of truckers they know about, come to any rallies, and participate in them. And they shouldn't cross their picket lines if at all possible."

Explaining the strategic position of the truck drivers and their importance to the ILWU's own cause, Schor said, "Seamen, truckers, longshoremen are all critical parts of the distribution chain. With truckers, there are more of them. At any given time, there are probably more of them than any other group of workers in the port. They do have the power to shut down the port. They have the power to break us if the ILWU were to go on strike."

In the aftermath of the October 21 shutdown, there was some movement by terminal management. For instance, terminal owners installed new Porta-Potties, and the Truckers Association leaders got a call from Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who asked them to stop striking for 10 days so she could set up a meeting with management. But Quan's neutrality was called into question by the fact that the city of Oakland, acting through the Port Commission, filed for an injunction against the truckers before the strike, to bar them from forming picket lines.

Even after Quan promised to set up negotiations, two truckers were hit with $25,000 in fines for allegedly violating the injunction. If Quan's offer is serious, why are the city and the port charging truck drivers in the courts for exercising their constitutional rights?

The struggle for a living wage for port truck drivers isn't only being waged in Oakland. In Seattle and Los Angeles, different groups of drivers,
 each with different strategies, have been organizing.

Since none of their main demands have been met, the Port of Oakland Truckers Association is planning its next move carefully--drivers are definitely not ruling out striking again. But as powerful as the withdrawal of their labor is, these low-wage workers need the support of the union movement and the 99 Percent in the Bay Area.

Further Reading

From the archives