The Fight to Organize Port Drivers -- Modern-Day Indentured Servants


(Photo: AP/Damian Doverganes)

A caravan of trucks from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. drive around the Los Angeles City Hall on Friday, Nov. 13, 2009.

Earlier this month, USA Today released a big investigative story on the plight of port truck drivers—particularly those in the Los Angeles area—who transport cargo from the docks to warehouses in the surrounding area. These workers, many of them immigrants, got into the trucking business to make a living.  

But there’s a steep price to getting into the business. Shipping companies pressure drivers to finance the purchase of new trucks, immediately putting them under a mountain of debt. These companies then force drivers to work hours that go far beyond the legally mandated limit. Despite all the hours logged, drivers often bring home just a tiny portion of their wages, since the companies deduct payments for the truck, insurance, and maintenance. The port truckers are quite literally paying to work.

If drivers complain about their hours or working conditions, they are given fewer and less desirable routes. If they try to quit, the companies will repossess the truck—no matter how much money the driver has put into it. On top of all this, these companies misclassify port drivers as independent contractors instead of employees, thereby flouting minimum-wage and overtime laws and avoiding having to provide benefits.

As USA Today put it, these drivers are modern-day indentured servants.

For years, the Teamsters union has tried to organize these drivers and lift up industry standards through its Justice for Port Drivers campaign.

The American Prospect spoke with Nick Weiner, the campaign director for Justice for Port Drivers, about their organizing work.

Can you talk about how important it is to have such a high-profile article (USA Today’s) illuminate the exploitation of port drivers?  

It’s hard to overstate what an impact that article has had. It’s rare that a news organization has that much time and effort to investigate labor conditions in an industry and expose them in such detail, particularly given the complexity of port trucking. What it describes is indentured servitude to a wide audience, and makes it very accessible.

Do you see this as a potential turning point for the organizing campaign that could spark a real shift in the industry?

In a campaign, you’re always looking for that turning point, and you never know when it’s happening. But it’s certainly great timing that it came out right before port drivers, along with allied warehouse workers, went on strike last week at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach because of the conditions described in the USA Today article. The result was a huge outpouring of interest, of political support across the country. I think the issue has gotten to another level in terms of awareness, and that creates new opportunities for solving these injustices and problems at the ports. We’re looking to capitalize on this new momentum, and it could be a turning point.

Given that the port truck-driving industry is rife with misclassification—where drivers are classified as independent contractors, despite generally working for just one company—I imagine that creates in itself organizing obstacles in terms of outreach to drivers and maintaining contact throughout a campaign. Can you talk about the organizing challenges that are particular to the port driving industry?

In terms of the fragmentation of the industry, it’s true that there are hundreds of shipping companies that operate at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that misclassify thousands and thousands of port drivers as independent contractors when, in reality, they’re employees. So there’s a challenge associated with that. At the same time, the work is all centered around the port—the cargo coming in and out of this massive port complex of L.A. and Long Beach. There are approximately 12,000 truck drivers who haul cargo in and out every day, and there are networks that cross company lines. And it’s really one very large organizing group of workers; they have multiple employers, but it’s really one unit.

There aren’t many places in our economy now where you have such a large group of workers [in one place]. If you think about it that way, it’s like the old auto factories or mines: All these truck drivers get dispersed around the region, but they all go in and out of the port, so you can find them. And you have this diversity of companies, from small mom-and-pop shops to huge goliaths like XPO Logistics, which most people have never heard of but is now one of the top ten global logistics companies, and has a huge port trucking operation around the country.

There’s a history of port drivers taking action and losing. And there are many drivers who have been at the port of L.A. for 25 or 30 years, so many have been through struggles and efforts to change the system and failed.

In recent years, California’s labor commissioner [Jerry Brown-appointee Julie Su] has ruled in workers’ favor in misclassification actions, which has enabled workers to win major back-pay settlements. Has that changed the organizing dynamic?

We’re helping drivers understand that we have a new plan that’s working; that we’ve helped hundreds of workers file complaints with the California Labor Commission on wage and hour violations and misclassification. And helping drivers file their private lawsuits, depending on their circumstances—there are certain legal strategies for workers who have been laid off or hurt on the job to help them get unemployment or disability benefits. We think that those smaller victories help re-instill hope amongst drivers who had given up hope, who had said, “I tried that and it didn’t work.”

The challenge really is overcoming that obstacle. It’s the brave leadership of a militant minority of drivers who are willing to take that risk. Part of the purpose is to demonstrate to their co-workers that they don’t have to be afraid, that this is a long-term effort because we’re changing an industry that has grown accustomed to skirting the enforcement of government officials and not having to comply with labor laws.

It’s working, it just takes a huge amount of effort and building trust. Our organizers are embedded in the community and really have to build those deep relationships with workers. Several of the organizers were port drivers in the past or have family members who were or are port drivers. It’s really harkens back to the old-style union campaigns that are also community campaigns.

Can you sketch out for me the strategy for building a critical mass of drivers who are willing to unionize so that there are port-wide and industry-wide standards and protections for these workers?

A couple years ago there was a breakthrough that demonstrated that these trucking companies can reclassify their workers, agree to labor peace, and be neutral so that their workers can have a fair pathway to unionization.  There are now a handful of companies in L.A. that have Teamsters contracts; there are about 500 Teamsters members there. But out of 12,000, it’s not big enough to be sustainable, because those companies keep getting undercut by the majority of companies who continue to break the law. The good news is we’ve demonstrated that companies can do it; before that, companies said, “There’s no way we can change our business model; we won’t survive; we can’t do it; drivers don’t want it.” So we proved that’s a false notion.

There’s an appetite for these kinds of jobs among workers. It’s a new mindset, but once they see it’s real and work under a Teamsters contract, they’re like, “This is so much better and less stressful than when I was misclassified.”

This campaign has also shown how every government agency that’s done an investigation has determined that these companies are breaking labor law by misclassifying their workers and violating other aspects. Unfortunately labor law is not swift and it’s not universal. It’s largely case by case. There are now hundreds and hundreds of claims and lawsuits in the pipeline. But that’s not enough.

So workers mobilize and engage in strikes and that changes the dynamics and helps make progress. But that’s also not enough—necessary but not sufficient.

We think that there’s an important role for the landlord of the ports. And in this case, the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach own the ports. The mayors of both cities are the landlords. We think they could play real game-changing role by protecting the public’s interest as a landlord from the negative impacts from these strikes, from the picketing at the ports that create congestion and long lines of trucks, and cost the ports money.

The ports have already demonstrated the importance of protecting the public interest around air pollution. Dirty diesel trucks—L.A. and Long Beach implemented a clean truck plan in 2008 that reduced diesel emissions by 80 percent by turning over the fleet. But because the labor standards provisions in that plan were stripped by the courts, the cost of those clean trucks rolled down onto the backs of drivers and made the situation even worse than it was before. That was the highlight of the USA Today article. The ports should step up again and protect the public interest from all this labor disruption that this egregious system has caused.

That’s what we’re focusing on now. It’s important for government agencies that enforce labor laws to continue to do that work as rigorously as possible, and we’re looking for creative ways for government agencies, the state attorney general, and others to look for market-wide enforcement solutions.

What are the contract goals you’re seeking to advance through unionization and how does that drive the larger campaign?

Port drivers want and need family medical insurance, pensions, paid time off, and decent wages. And some have those things with some of the current Teamster contracts. For some drivers, wages have gone up because of [those contracts]. It’s just not sustainable in the long term, though, because they can’t be this island in a sea of bottom-feeding sharks.

In contracts that have been negotiated, there are drivers who now have the Teamsters pension, who have health insurance, who have paid vacation time and sick leave, which was unheard of in the industry just a couple years ago.

That, again, is part of re-instilling hope among drivers that there is something to fight for that’s achievable.


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