Running on Fumes: Snippets from the Port of Seattle

First of a running reporters’ notebook of front-line dispatches from the field
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posted by Joy Ride 
Photo © David Bacon

It’s Day 10. There are so many things happening at the Port of Seattle – but business-as-usual work ain’t one of them.

Like always, Puget Sound’s port truck drivers are busting their humps ‘round the clock, but instead of hustling cargo under unjust and unsafe conditions, these normally voiceless workers are holding meetings, taking votes, making signs, taking names, calling legislators, staging actions, granting interviews, sending delegations…in other words, they are organizing themselves.

And it is increasingly evident that port operations are running on fumes as a result.

Containers are normally stacked only two or three high. Now every stack climbs to four or five units tall. The chronically congested, seemingly endless terminal lines are gone, replaced by skimpy truck queues maybe 10 or 11 rigs deep. Ships that look as lonely as they are large can be spotted from Highway 99, idling in Puget Sound. Those are the ocean liners that can’t unload cargo or receive exports because there are too few drivers to move the shipments. Several trucking companies have gates closed or chains around their fences to yards that are normally only locked at night.

“It’s beginning to seem like a ghost town because all last week I didn’t see a single truck come through from the major cargo haulers at the port. Seattle Freight, Pacer, Western Ports, none of them! This does mean less work for some of us, but me and the guys here get it. We all work at the same port, handle the same freight containers, and want the same things for our families. It’s not right that we have dignity while they are treated like dirt,” observed BG Lemmon, a railroad yard contractor and single father of five from Tukwila.

The intermodal machine operator with 26 years at the port paused, before adding: “If I were forced to take safety shortcuts, I’d grab my coworkers and walk off the job too. They’re making a huge sacrifice. Maybe their companies don’t respect them, but all of us here at the railroad sure as hell do.”

See for yourself here. More photos will be added to this Flickr gallery soon, and if you’re local send me yours with captions too.

Wait, are you still getting up to speed? 

Sorry, these drivers are moving sooooo fast, maybe I am too…here’s the blog that broke the story. But in a nutshell: Roughly 120 of Seattle’s port truck drivers self-organized and sacrificed a day’s wages on Monday, January 30 to make a trek to the state capitol. They passionately support a pair of bills that would make owners of faulty equipment responsible for road hazards that cost lives, and wipe out the Wall Street-like self-employment scheme that transportation businesses use to defraud blue-collar workers, cheat on taxes, and skirt safety and environmental regulations.

Waterfront employers reacted harshly. The local NPR station reported

As many as 30 or 40 percent of the short-haul truckers who normally move containers from docks to railcar terminals at the Port of Seattle have stopped working.

The work stoppage comes after one of the drivers was retaliated against for attending a hearing in Olympia last week on a proposal to improve their working conditions.

They’re independent contractors, who are predominantly immigrants, and say the conditions they’re forced to contend with make the job unsafe.

One man’s story ignites a movement of workers uniting for safety and fairness

Family, friends and co-workers affectionately call Demeke Meconnen by his nickname derived from the Bible, “Yared.”

When his boss asked him why he had needed the day off, Yared simply told the truth: To go to Olympia to support a bill he feels passionately about that would improve port truck equipment safety.

And then this naturalized U.S. citizen was singled out and punished for exercising his free speech rights. He was sent to pick up a container that was overweight – precisely the safety violation issue he had just talked to state lawmakers about – and it didn’t belong to the famous bulls-eye branded retail store he runs routes for everyday. Since 2008, Yared has hauled for the Minneapolis-based big box as part of his trucking company’s Target Division.

When he refused to hitch the freight to his tractor because heavier loads require a special chassis or they could tip over on the roadway, his superior gave the 29-year-old who was born in Ethiopia a clear directive: Don’t come back until next week.

It’s important to note here that management at Western Ports Transport calls him “independent” as if they permitted Yared and the rest of their driver workforce to act as their own bosses and contract services to multiple clients like true self-employed individuals can. (They don’t. Disguising employees as contractors to game the system is a look-the-other-way widespread waterfront practice that robs workers of wages and their basic workplace and safety protections.)

News of Yared’s suspension spread fast. Twenty of his co-workers cancelled their loads in solidarity that very same day. Facing the realization that our protagonists were all united in protest off the job, the company was forced to change its tune and made him a return offer to un-jam the cargo backlog.

But that wasn’t good enough. Yared declined. By morning, 16 more learned of their brother’s mistreatment, and walked… er, drove off the job. Even more soon joined the multi-company worker safety stoppage, meaning this outfit is lucky to have haulers you can count on one hand, and leaving one of Target’s transportation providers with all but completely shut-down operations.

The ironically soft-spoken young leader continues organizing with his co-workers and is now among the over 400 drivers protesting their unsafe and unfair industry, wearing donated Black History month buttons with the image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that simply read “Into the Streets – 2012.”

Watch Yared’s video testimonial here. [Full disclosure: Kent Christopher of Western Ports, also a top representative of the Washington Trucking Association, virulently denies Yared’s suspension account. I’ve personally seen his saved text messages… Let’s just say they make for awfully good evidence Demeke Meconnen is living up to his righteous biblical moniker.]

Question: People, or Profit? (Answer: Profit)

By now you are getting a disturbing picture of how the trucking and shipping industry shortcuts safety and shortchanges its workers all in the name of their bottom line. Their unbridled greed puts the public safety and health, working families, and our communities at risk.

For years the Port of Seattle CEO, Tay Yoshitani, has ignored residents, environmentalists, and drivers’ pleas for help to curry favor with – and cover up for – trucking and shipping industry executives.

From a King 5 TV report on the worker walkout, part of an ongoing investigative series that prompted lawmakers to introduce the port safety bill:

There are many complex issues in play, including drivers who claim they are forced to carry overweight loads. If a shipper can put more cargo in a container and move it for the same price, they make more money. Drivers say it happens all the time.

In front of lawmakers this week, the head of one shipping company said it wasn’t a problem.

But truck inspections conducted the day after that testimony tell a different story. The KING 5 Investigators requested port inspection records from the Washington State Patrol and Seattle Police. They show of 15 trucks inspected that day; four drivers were written tickets and three received warnings for being overweight.

“There’s a lot of overweight loads,” said [Yared] Meconnen. “We don’t even know what we’re taking out of the terminal.”

Bellamy Pailthorp of KPLU pressed the Port of Seattle on the stoppage (three cheers for being a reporter, rather than serving as a stenographer for the Port’s slick PR flacks who first tried to impose a media blackout by insisting all operations were fine:

In response, officials at the Port of Seattle say they’re trying to be supportive of the truckers. But spokesman Peter McGraw says their priority is keeping commerce flowing.

Emphasis mine. And no wonder the clever guerilla activists at the Rainforest Action Network recently illuminated the Space Needle with a batsignal-like projection that taunted “Welcome to the Port of Poverty & Pollution” to disrupt what otherwise would have been a business-as-usual back-slapping, port-shipping bureaucrat and hack schmoozefest in September.

Overheard on Facebook and Twitter:

Dude. These truck drivers don’t want to get killed on the job, and they don’t want to crush you or me to death in a preventable accident. Sounds like they’re not moving a thing until their working conditions are safe and humane. Support their work stoppage – spread the word.

Non-union truckers shut down Port of Seattle, storm capitol building in Olympia, WA to protest working conditions #insideagitators

Meet the Port of Seattle drivers who are staging a huge safety work stoppage right now. And telling their trucking bosses and Wal-Mart alike: your tricks are dirty, they are dangerous, and you damn well better treat America’s workers right.

They need our support! Seattle Times reports “They are not allowed to use restrooms at the port gates, and say they are sometimes called the N-word or animals.” #DriverShutDown


Stay tuned for more at Feel free to repost. And here’s how you can really help these workers in struggle who are standing up for you, me, safety and their families: Donate to the Safe Drivers’ Family Support Fund