As evening fell on November 5, Gilberto Soto received a call on his cell phone, at his mother's home in a working-class neighborhood of Usulutan, El Salvador. Unable to understand the caller, Soto stepped out of the door of her house to get better reception.
In the street outside, three men lay in wait. According to witnesses, they ran up to Soto, shot him in the back, and then fled in a car and bicycle as he lay bleeding on the pavement. Soto was taken to a local clinic, where he died shortly afterward.
A dead body in a the street is not unusual in El Salvador, where violent death has been a plague through a bloody civil war and even into a new era of supposed peace. But Soto's death was no ordinary assassination. Although he'd left his homeland in 1975, and had become a supporter in exile of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, this was probably not the reason he was killed.
It is much more likely that his murder was connected to a new campaign to organize trucking workers across much of the Americas, from the docks of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Soto had been working, to those of Central America, where he met his end.
Soto had returned to his native country just days before. His visit to his family was a brief prelude to a series of meetings he'd set up before leaving the United States. In calls to El
Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras, Soto had sought to contact harbor drivers, who ferry huge shipping containers to and from the ships in port.
This was an extension of his work in the United States for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. For the last four years, Soto and other Teamster organizers have sought to build ties between American drivers and their counterparts in Central America, who often work for the very same shipping companies.
Chuck Mack, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7 in northern California and director of the union's port division, notes that there was nothing in Soto's history that provides a motive for his murder. "The fact that he was not robbed, the fact that he was talking to workers in the area about their conditions of employment, the fact that he was a Teamster organizer talking to workers in that country, seems to be the motive," he charges. "There's no proof or evidence that the companies are behind the assassination -- yet. But
we will be sending a delegation of our own to El Salvador, to develop our own facts and assessment." The Teamsters met with the Salvadoran ambassador to the United States, and then offered a $75,000 reward together with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the International Longshoremen's Association.
Salvadoran port truckers have a long history of fighting the Maersk Corporation, a Danish company that has resisted the organizing efforts of truckers around the world. Three years ago, 100 Salvadoran drivers for Bridge Terminal Transport (BTT) were fired when they tried to win a union contract. BTT, which is owned by Maersk, hires the drivers who deliver the containers to the company's ships.
The terminations made big political waves. The fired unionists approached the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), an umbrella group for transport unions around the world. The ITF brought some of the Salvadorans to Denmark to put their case before the Danish transport and general workers union. Corporate representatives from Maersk's world headquarters in Copenhagen called the drivers thugs and terrorists. Maersk did admit that the Salvadoran BTT manager, who oversaw the fired unionists, was no longer employed there.
When Soto began making calls to El Salvador three years later, searching for the fired drivers, and other calls looking for current Maersk drivers in Honduras and Nicaragua, he was unearthing that history. A.P. Moller, Maersk's parent company, offered to investigate Soto's murder. "This murder investigation is best left to the Salvadoran authorities," the Teamsters' Mack said in a press release. The Teamsters then sent a 10-person delegation, including U.S. Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA), to El Salvador to meet with government officials. Seventy-two members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, asking him to make U.S. resources available to the Salvadoran government's investigation.
On December 3, however, Salvadoran police suddenly announced the arrest of Soto's mother-in-law, accused her of hiring the three assassins, and attributed the murder to a family quarrel. When she was paraded before a press conference, Rosa Elba Ortiz
claimed in tears that she is innocent. "I don't know those men," she said.
Her arrest was denounced by El Salvador's human rights ombudswoman, Beatrice de Carrillo, who said two supposed witnesses had "been handcuffed, hooded, taken to solitary places," and "threatened with violations of various kinds." Elba Ortiz was also "strongly coerced and interrogated."
De Carrillo declared that "no person in his sane judgment can believe this version." Authorities said Elba Ortiz wanted to collect on a life insurance policy supposedly benefiting her daughter, Soto's wife. According to John Slatery, director of the Teamsters benefits department, Soto's beneficiaries are his son and two daughters. The accusations against Elba Ortiz are not likely to still the calls for an independent investigation into any connection between Soto's death and his organizing work.
In American ports, 55,000 drivers do the same work as did the fired Salvadorans in Central America: ferrying huge shipping containers to and from Maersk vessels. These workers, however, aren't employed directly by Maersk or its subsidiaries. Instead, drivers own their own trucks, at least in theory. In reality, they're heavily indebted to banks and finance companies, which loan them money to purchase their rigs. Drivers pay all the costs (e.g., diesel fuel, insurance, parking charges) -- everything. By the time bills are paid, the average take-home earnings are between $8 and $9 per hour, making them the
lowest-paid big-rig drivers in the United States.
Every morning, harbor truckers bid to pick up containers from Maersk subsidiaries like Pacific Rim Transport, Inc. (PRTI), Hudd, or BTT. If they get a load, they wait for hours in front of a terminal to pick it up or drop it off. Huge lines of trucks, motors idling, stretch from the docks for miles every morning; by day's end, drivers have put in as many as 16 to 18 hours.
Because they're owner-operators, these workers have no rights under most U.S. labor law -- including the right to overtime pay -- since they are ostensibly self-employed. Most can't afford workers' compensation insurance.
Most important, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board says they're not workers at all and, therefore, aren't covered by the laws that protect the right to form unions. In fact, the U.S. government says that if drivers even try to agree with each other on a price to charge the shipping companies for carrying a container, they're in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which was passed to restrain monopoly corporations. Penalties include ruinous fines and jail time.
"This is what deregulation did," explains Mack. "Their conditions are at the bottom: an immigrant workforce that doesn't have much in the way of voice."
When Soto arrived in the United States in 1975, he got work as a garbage collector, a waiter, a cook, and a factory worker -- nothing like his career as a bank teller in El Salvador. Finally he landed a job in a factory in which the Teamsters had a contract. He became a shop steward and then president of Local 11; he was the first Latino to head a Teamster local in New Jersey. He put himself through community college, earned a bachelor's degree, and finally became a Teamsters organizer.
Soto worked with port drivers around the country as they began to organize a national network, despite enormous legal obstacles. For the last decade, without the right to form unions or bargain, drivers have nevertheless organized associations and tried to get the shipping companies to deal with them. These efforts have escalated as oil companies began raising the price of diesel fuel to unprecedented levels, cutting deeply into drivers' income.
Maersk soon became notorious for punishing workers who helped organize protests, as documented in a recent report by Cornell University professor Lance Compa. In 2000, in Oakland, California, Naim Sharifi, an Afghan university graduate, began petitioning for price adjustments to compensate for fuel costs. Eventually the drivers organized a brief work stoppage. Afterward, Sharifi told Compa, "I knew I was in trouble. Management had a different attitude toward me."
In September 2000, the Teamsters organized a rally in the port to protest poor work conditions, and Sharifi spoke for the drivers. PRTI officials looked on, an act that would constitute illegal surveillance if the workers had rights under the National Labor Relations Act. "The next day they called me into the office and cancelled my contract," Sharifi said. "They said, 'We don't have to give you a reason. We don't need a reason.'"
The following year, a Maersk attorney told ITF General Secretary David
Cockroft that Sharifi was being investigated by the FBI as a possible terrorist. In the wake of the September 11 attacks that year, Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants were targets of FBI sweeps in general. Nevertheless, some wonder how Sharifi, who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, made it onto the federal list of subversives.
Sharifi wasn't unique. Frank Misterka was denied work by BTT in Baltimore for participating in protests the same year. Gene Suggs in Nashville was blacklisted by bit for a work stoppage in 2000 over high fuel costs and low pay. In Hampton Roads, Virginia, BTT terminated the contract for Robert King, and Hudd, another Maersk subsidiary, canceled that of Paul Barnum, for the same crime: organizing.
In 2004, drivers stopped work in Miami, Oakland, Charleston, and other ports. In Oakland, the port got an injunction that forced the drivers back to work after eight days; the port filed a lawsuit against the personal assets of three individual truckers, which was later withdrawn.
In Miami, Maersk and the Port of Miami also filed a lawsuit against the truckers because they "held meetings and communicated with each other" and "passed out flyers." They demanded immediate action from the courts because the truckers were "small and
independent businesses without substantial financial resources to pay damages ... even if their tractors and other assets were seized." The suit is still pending.
Not all Maersk workers labor under the same anti-labor policies. About 150 West Coast drivers work under a Teamster contract inherited from SeaLand, an international container shipping business acquired by Maersk in 1999. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union negotiates with Maersk as part of multi-employer group, the Pacific Maritime Association. And in Denmark, the company enjoys a benevolent reputation. But according to one union observer, "It may have good relations with organized workers, but it wants to keep its non-union workers non-union."
Helping the port drivers organize marks a change in the approach towards organizing in the Teamsters. Over the last few years, the union concentrated on trying to prevent the entrance of Mexican truckers into the United States, fearing that employers would pit them against more highly paid American drivers. In Mexico, this was often viewed
as a campaign against the truckers themselves. By contrast, Soto's efforts in El Salvador were intended to help a similar group to organize in cooperation with American workers in the same industry, even working for the same employer.
"We've recognized with these multinational corporations that we cannot deal with them effectively even nationally," Mack explains. "We have to develop a program that is international. We're not on the verge of organizing drivers in Central America, but we're
attempting to share information, provide help, and get their ideas and perspectives."
Soto's job was helping these workers with no rights, against a company with a long track record of opposing their efforts to organize. Someone was threatened enough to murder him.
David Bacon, associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a San
Francisco-based writer and photographer. His book on the ten-year impact
of free trade on the U.S.-Mexico border, The Children of NAFTA, was
published by University of California Press this spring.