July 31, 2012
Guest blog by David B. Mendoza, Puget Sound Sage
What splashed into view with a flash mob a year ago and ended with 400 port truck drivers walking off the job has written a new chapter in Seattle labor history. Four years of organizing by port drivers and the Seattle Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports (CCSP) came to a head in February 2012 with the biggest port driver walkout in the nation in the past ten years.
In September, when the Port of Seattle hosted the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) conference, the Coalition decided to crash the party with daily protest and education events. The Coalition’s “Week of Action” brought together drivers and clergy leaders from Long Beach to Seattle to deliver a “Port Trucker Bill of Rights” to the opening plenary of the conference, a flash mob in the lobby of the Westin Hotel and a major rally outside the hotel lobby.
That week of action inspired months of organizing. Drivers built a “Seattle Port Trucker Association,” culminating in a meeting in November with over 300 drivers. Drivers were particularly upset by increased safety inspections carried out by the Washington State patrol. The inspections were targeting the large number of overweight and defective trailers owned by port trucking companies, but it was the drivers that were receiving the tickets, some as high as $700, and who have no ability to weigh or inspect the equipment for safety. The repeated safety violations were featured in multiple stories aired by the local NBC affiliate KING-5 TV entitled: Risky Rigs.
The safety violations led to legislation in January to ensure that corporate owners, not drivers, properly maintain the equipment they controlled. The coalition also introduced reform legislation to properly classify the drivers as employees under state law, ending their current fictitious status as“independent contractors”.
In late January, driver Demeke “Yared” Meconnen, spoke at a State legislative hearing asking legislators to help him in his struggle to be properly classified as an employee. He took this stand despite the fact that the owner and CEO of the company he worked for was in the audience. A week later, 100 drivers descended on Olympia for the hearing on the truck safety bill. While in Olympia, the drivers heard Meconnen had been suspended from work, and in an inspiring act of solidarity they decided to stop working the next day to protest his treatment and the unsafe and exploitive conditions they work under.
The next two weeks were a blur of activity. The work stoppage swelled to 400 drivers. Containers stacked up on port docks. One railroad terminal was completely shutdown. And, most conspicuously, a large container ship sat in the Puget Sound for days waiting to be unloaded. Logistic company executives flew in to Seattle to monitor the situation while drivers took to the streets. When several companies illegally held drivers’ paychecks, driver delegations demanded and won release of paychecks while Seattle police stood by. Community and labor support poured in. Unions and community groups held food drives and Puget Sound Sage set up a “Safe Driver Family Support Fund” to help drivers feed their families and pay their bills. County and city elected officials called a town hall to hear driver stories. At the end of the town hall, drivers watched TV monitors as the State House of Representatives passed the misclassification bill, bringing cheers to the room. The walkout culminated in a giant rally and march at the waterfront on February 13. The next day, after the companies offered higher rates, the drivers announced that they would return to work.
What did the drivers and the movement gain? The drivers’ newfound power changes the equation at the waterfront, and offers new opportunities to organize for fairness and respect. Drivers know that their fight is not over and that anything they’ve gained can be taken away until they have the full rights they deserve as employees. Drivers will continue to meet, organize and grow their association. Puget Sound Sage and the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports will be there every step of the way.
David B. Mendoza is a Research and Policy Analyst at Puget Sound Sage. Prior to working at Sage, he worked as an analyst on the Clean and Safe Ports Campaign at LAANE.