Dateline: Los Angeles/Long Beach
September 10, 2011
The ugly laws that relegated black Americans to second-class citizens for nearly a century in the post-slavery South were struck down over 45 years ago. Appallingly, that hasn’t stopped the Australian-based corporation that currently handles cargo for popular apparel and athletic brands Guess? from conducting business practices in Southern California that smack of Jim Crow.
Just as African-Americans were forced to use separate, inferior public restrooms and drinking fountains, Toll Group, a global transportation and logistics powerhouse, explicitly bars its truck drivers from using the clean and stocked indoor facilities; these roughly 75 men and women who haul imports for the fashion and footwear retail customers must share a trio of foul-smelling, unsanitary port-a-potties that lack running water outside in the company yard. Every Toll Group employee and manager is also free to use the break room during rest and meal periods, except the mostly Latino-American workers whose job it is to haul giant containers from port terminals to local warehouses.
Perhaps this multinational corporation is turning up the exploitation because many workers are too afraid to speak out when unemployment is so high. But these brave truck drivers began organizing themselves to put a stop to Toll’s inhumane treatment and now they need our help.
When the Los Angeles heat rises, or when the outhouses simply haven’t been cleaned after several shifts, drivers say they are so disgusted by the flies, the stench, and unsanitary conditions that they are better off relieving themselves outside. Female drivers don’t even have that option — they must put themselves at risk for infection by holding it until they can find a nearby fast-food chain or gas station. Workers on the night shift, like Jimmy Martinez, say it gets so dark, there’s not a chance he would enter.
On Wednesday, he and two other co-workers, Orlando Ayala and Luis Alay, attempted to speak to Toll’s top brass on behalf of 59 employees who work long hours to make their company profitable (Just last week it posted a rising net profit of $281 million). Their goal was to present a petition signed by the overwhelming majority of port drivers simply asking for equal access to clean and safe indoor restrooms and the break room; and the freedom to form a union without employer harassment and intimidation so they have the strength to end the humiliating environment and win improvements on the job.
The workers were accompanied by two advocates, Father William Connor, Priest Emeritus of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Long Beach, and the elected leader of the local union of transportation workers, Eric Tate of Teamsters Local 848. Outside, their co-workers, children and spouses hoisted signs in support of their efforts along with several dozen local residents and members of the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports, an alliance of environmental, public health, faith, labor, and community groups. Port drivers from other companies nearby honked their horns in solidarity.
Inside, one of Toll’s senior executives, Vice President Rich Nazzaro, grew more defiant in the face of the workers’ calm show of unity. He flip-flopped on his previously stated open door policy by refusing to discuss remedying the injustices before refusing to accept the petition the drivers brought to him. The head of West Coast Operations even dismissed the pleas of the priest, saying that the moral and religious values of human dignity and respect may apply in church, but not in the workplace!
The situation in Los Angeles is a drastic contrast to how Toll Group treats its truck drivers in Australia. They aren’t discriminated against, nor is their profession devalued. Aussie drivers earn a fair wage for a hard day’s work, health care, and paid time off to spend with their families. That’s all their American counterparts want, but the ask is too much for a company with revenue that recently climbed 18 percent to a whopping $8.6 billion.
So what’s it going to take to get Guess?’s carrier to treat its workers with dignity and respect? Like the four students who first sat down in non-violent protest to order coffee at a “white only” lunch counter one February 1960 afternoon in Greensboro, N.C. ignited a series of growing sit-in actions that led to Woolworth’s reversing its policy of racial exclusion, Jimmy, Orlando, and Luis know that speaking truth to power is not enough. They are sparking a real movement with their co-workers, other drivers, and the community to end the pervasive injustice at their company and across the entire port trucking industry.
Already, Toll’s Australian employees and the union that represents them are publicly to speaking out against the segregation exhibited by their joint employer. Now in the U.S. the workers are asking supporters and consumers like you to sign onto the solidarity petitionto management that local residents are now circulating. On this Labor Day, please add your name and spend another minute to forward it to as many friends as possible.
Thank you for your support.