The Campaign for Clean Air and Good Jobs at the Ports of New York & New Jersey
Driven by a broken economic system, port truck drivers in New York and New Jersey are robbed of basic protections afforded other types of workers in the United States and paid as little as $10 or $11 an hour. Low-wage port truck drivers are forced to carry the entire cost of owning and maintaining their own trucks and are often only able to afford to oldest and dirtiest trucks available. As a result, communities located near ports or along major truck routes are saturated by toxic, deadly diesel pollution.
The Coalition for Healthy Ports is a bi-state alliance of environmental activists, truck drivers, faith leaders, labor unions and community advocates fighting for environmental and economic justice at the ports of New York and New Jersey. The Coalition for Healthy Ports is the East Coast arm of the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports.
Posts From New York/New Jersey
December 12, 2011
We are the front-line workers who haul container rigs full of imported and exported goods to and from the docks and warehouses every day.
We have been elected by committees of our co-workers at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, New York and New Jersey to tell our collective story. We have accepted the honor to speak up for our brothers and sisters about our working conditions despite the risk of retaliation we face. One of us is a mother, the rest of us fathers. Between the five of us we have 11children and one more baby on the way. We have a combined 46 years of experience driving cargo from our shores for America’s stores.
We are inspired that a non-violent democratic movement that insists on basic economic fairness is capturing the hearts and minds of so many working people. Thank you “99 Percenters” for hearing our call for justice. We are humbled and overwhelmed by recent attention. Normally we are invisible.
Today’s demonstrations will impact us. While we cannot officially speak for every worker who shares our occupation, we can use this opportunity to reveal what it’s like to walk a day in our shoes for the 110,000 of us in America whose job it is to be a port truck driver. It may be tempting for media to ask questions about whether we support a shutdown, but there are no easy answers. Instead, we ask you, are you willing to listen and learn why a one-word response is impossible?
We love being behind the wheel. We are proud of the work we do to keep America’s economy moving. But we feel humiliated when we receive paychecks that suggest we work part time at a fast-food counter. Especially when we work an average of 60 or more hours a week, away from our families.
There is so much at stake in our industry. It is one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. We don’t think truck driving should be a dead-end road in America. It should be a good job with a middle-class paycheck like it used to be decades ago.
We desperately want to drive clean and safe vehicles. Rigs that do not fill our lungs with deadly toxins, or dirty the air in the communities we haul in.
Poverty and pollution are like a plague at the ports. Our economic conditions are what led to the environmental crisis.
You, the public, have paid a severe price along with us.
Why? Just like Wall Street doesn’t have to abide by rules, our industry isn’t bound to regulation. So the market is run by con artists. The companies we work for call us independent contractors, as if we were our own bosses, but they boss us around. We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels. We cannot negotiate our rates. (Usually we are not allowed to even see them.) We are paid by the load, not by the hour. So when we sit in those long lines at the terminals, or if we are stuck in traffic, we become volunteers who basically donate our time to the trucking and shipping companies. That’s the nice way to put it. We have all heard the words “modern-day slaves” at the lunch stops.
There are no restrooms for drivers. We keep empty bottles in our cabs. Plastic bags too. We feel like dogs. An Oakland driver was recently banned from the terminal because he was spied relieving himself behind a container. Neither the port, nor the terminal operators or anyone in the industry thinks it is their responsibility to provide humane and hygienic facilities for us. It is absolutely horrible for drivers who are women, who risk infection when they try to hold it until they can find a place to go.
The companies demand we cut corners to compete. It makes our roads less safe. When we try to blow the whistle about skipped inspections, faulty equipment, or falsified logs, then we are “starved out.” That means we are either fired outright, or more likely, we never get dispatched to haul a load again.
It may be difficult to comprehend the complex issues and nature of our employment. For us too. When businesses disguise workers like us as contractors, the Department of Labor calls it misclassification. We call it illegal. Those who profit from global trade and goods movement are getting away with it because everyone is doing it. One journalist took the time to talk to us this week and she explains it very well to outsiders. We hope you will read the enclosed article “How Goldman Sachs and Other Companies Exploit Port Truck Drivers.”
But the short answer to the question: Why are companies like SSA Marine, the Seattle-based global terminal operator that runs one of the West Coast’s major trucking carriers, Shippers’ Transport Express, doing this? Why would mega-rich Maersk, a huge Danish shipping and trucking conglomerate that wants to drill for more oil with Exxon Mobil in the Gulf Coast conduct business this way too?
To cheat on taxes, drive down business costs, and deny us the right to belong to a union, that’s why.
The typical arrangement works like this: Everything comes out of our pockets or is deducted from our paychecks. The truck or lease, fuel, insurance, registration, you name it. Our employers do not have to pay the costs of meeting emissions-compliant regulations; that is our financial burden to bear. Clean trucks cost about four to five times more than what we take home in a year. A few of us haul our company’s trucks for a tiny fraction of what the shippers pay per load instead of an hourly wage. They still call us independent owner-operators and give us a 1099 rather than a W-2.
We have never recovered from losing our basic rights as employees in America. Every year it literally goes from bad to worse to the unimaginable. We were ground zero for the government’s first major experiment into letting big business call the shots. Since it worked so well for the CEOs in transportation, why not the mortgage and banking industry too?
Even the few of us who are hired as legitimate employees are routinely denied our legal rights under this system. Just ask our co-workers who haul clothing brands like Guess?, Under Armour, and Ralph Lauren’s Polo. The carrier they work for in Los Angeles is called Toll Group and is headquartered in Australia. At the busiest time of the holiday shopping season, 26 drivers were axed after wearing Teamster T-shirts to work. They were protesting the lack of access to clean, indoor restrooms with running water. The company hired an anti-union consultant to intimidate the drivers. Down Under, the same company bargains with 12,000 of our counterparts in good faith.
Despite our great hardships, many of us cannot — or refuse to, as some of the most well-intentioned suggest — “just quit.” First, we want to work and do not have a safety net. Many of us are tied to one-sided leases. But more importantly, why should we have to leave? Truck driving is what we do, and we do it well.
We are the skilled, specially-licensed professionals who guarantee that Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart are all stocked with just-in-time delivery for consumers. Take a look at all the stuff in your house. The things you see advertised on TV. Chances are a port truck driver brought that special holiday gift to the store you bought it.
We would rather stick together and transform our industry from within. We deserve to be fairly rewarded and valued. That is why we have united to stage convoys, park our trucks, marched on the boss, and even shut down these ports.
It’s like our hero Dutch Prior, a Shipper’s/SSA Marine driver, told CBS Early Morning this month: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
The more underwater we are, the more our restlessness grows. We are being thoughtful about how best to organize ourselves and do what is needed to win dignity, respect, and justice.
Nowadays greedy corporations are treated as “people” while the politicians they bankroll cast union members who try to improve their workplaces as “thugs.”
But we believe in the power and potential behind a truly united 99%. We admire the strength and perseverance of the longshoremen. We are fighting like mad to overcome our exploitation, so please, stick by us long after December 12. Our friends in the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports created a pledge you can sign to support us here.
We drivers have a saying, “We may not have a union yet, but no one can stop us from acting like one.”
The brothers and sisters of the Teamsters have our backs. They help us make our voices heard. But we need your help too so we can achieve the day where we raise our fists and together declare: “No one could stop us from forming a union.”
SSA Marine/Shippers Transport Express
Port of Long Beach
Ports of Seattle & Tacoma
6-year port driver
Port of Los Angeles
Port of Oakland
7-year port driver
Ports of New York & New Jersey
15-year port driver
December 9, 2011
On the first business day following a meeting truck drivers had with a lawyer to file a wage theft lawsuit against Proud 2 Haul, Ivana Koprowski, the owner, terminated two of the drivers who attended the meeting. Felix Jay and Gonzalo Chirino claim that they were told their terminations were for “working against the company and not with the company.”
In response, truck drivers filed charges with the labor board and organized a rally at the Tullo Truck Stop in Kearny, NJ in support of the two terminated drivers.
Flanked by community leaders and Teamsters, Felix and Gonzalo marched into Proud 2 Haul’s offices to demand that they be reinstated, with back pay and full employee rights for all drivers at the company.
“I’ve been hauling containers for three decades at these ports and over the years conditions for truck drivers have only worse,” said Felix Jay a married father of five and one of the drivers who was terminated. “Low-road companies like Proud 2 Haul and ruthless owners like Ivana Koprowski have made it impossible for port truck drivers to earn a living. They never miss an opportunity to deduct money from our paychecks or to deny us basic employee rights.”
A number of elected leaders and community, environmental and faith leaders have also lent their support to the truck drivers at Proud 2 Haul and made phone calls to the company expressing their concern.
“It’s an outrage that these workers – or any workers for that matter – become the targets of retaliation and harassment for simply exercising their right collective action,” said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano. “I’m also deeply concerned about the allegations of wage theft and worker misclassification, something the trucking industry has brushed off as ‘a long accepted practice’. I believe these practices are highly controversial and morally unconscionable.”
“Our ports are an economic engine that should generate good, quality jobs for New Jersey,” said Congressman Albio Siris. “This appears to be an example of employment practices that are used in port trucking and illustrates that we must review and reform this industry.”
“What’s happening at Proud 2 Haul is endemic of how the port trucking industry operates,” said Amy Goldsmith, chair of the Coalition for Healthy Ports and the statewide director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “By calling truck drivers ‘independent contractors’ instead of ‘employees’ trucking companies have stripped drivers of their rights, and evaded any responsibility for the diesel pollution and environmental health injustices the industry has imposed on port communities.”
Earlier this year truck drivers at Ironbound Express in Newark made similar wage theft allegations. Ramiro Gotay, a truck driver at Ironbound Express claims that the company deducted 6 percent of his weekly earnings, or just over $20,000 over five years working at the company. “That is money that was stolen from my daughter’s future, for her college education. The trucking companies operate as if they have a license to abuse truck drivers, but we’re saying ‘enough is enough.’”
The terminations at Proud 2 Haul are one example of a growing trend by port truck companies to silence truck drivers that are organizing to improve their working conditions in the run up to the busy holiday season. At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach 26 truck drivers were abruptly axed under the guise of “lay-offs” from the Toll Group – a company that hauls apparel for major retailers like Polo and Guess – after truck drivers demanded clean, permanent restroom facilities instead of the dirty outhouses the company offered them.
In a CBS Early News report, Robert Digges, a spokesman for the trucking industry tripped on his own tongue when he tried protesting the idea that trucking companies routinely cheat truck drivers. “They (trucking companies) believe they get a more productive employee – excuse me a more effective worker – a worker who is efficient, who has some skin in the game.”
Trucking industry exposed for “ripping off” workers and taxpayers; Department of Labor vows crackdown
December 2, 2011
What is the trucking industry response to claims that port drivers are actually employees who have been stripped of their basic rights by trucking companies? Robert Digges, a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, tripped on his own tongue on a CBS national news segment when he tried protesting the idea that trucking companies are cheating workers – and it’s getting picked up on blogs like the Daily Kos.
“They (trucking companies) believe they get a more productive employee – excuse me a more effective worker – a worker who is efficient, who has some skin in the game.”
So, the industry that dismantled the Los Angeles Clean Truck Program finally lets the truth slip: port truck drivers are actually employees who have had their rights stripped from them by greedy port trucking companies seeking to pad their bottom line.
“As long as we are independent contractors (the company) doesn’t have to cover benefits, they don’t have to cover sick days, bereavement leave time, holiday pay. It just saves the company money,” said Dutch Prior, a port driver for Shippers Transport in Oakland.
While the scheme is a boon for port trucking companies like Shippers Transport, a subsidiary of the giant SSA Marine (half-owned by Goldman Sachs), it’s drawing the attention of the Occupy movement and the Department of Labor.
“These (practices) have astronomical impacts on local governments, state governments and federal government and also hurts good, legitimate businesses that are playing by the rules and for employees that are being ripped off,” said Hilda Solis, the head of the US Department of Labor.
Last year the agency collected more than $5 million for nearly 8,000 misclassified workers, but with 300 new investigators on staff the Department of Labor will be looking more closely at misclassification schemes.
On December 12th the Occupy movement is organizing a shutdown of the West Coast ports while the Occupy protesters in New York take their case directly to Goldman Sachs on the same day (Goldman Sachs – half-owner of SSA Marine – has its own checkered history with paying taxes. It’s easy to understand why the Occupy folks are targeting the company in the coordination with the port shut down.)
The CBS Early Show segment is only the latest in a series of investigative news pieces on the port trucking industry generally and on Shippers Transport in particular.
Salon.com interviewed Leonardo Mejia, a truck driver for Shippers Transport who works out of Long Beach. “Mejia is part of the shadow economy, though not in the sense that that term is commonly understood: as an autonomous netherworld entirely off the books and underground, invisible to the taxman and mainstream society. Mejia’s shadow economy is something a little different; purposefully created from the top down, its growth driven by employers increasingly eager to shed costly, legally mandated commitments to their employees.”
New laws will help port truck drivers and other employees who are purposely misclassified by their employers, but enforcement of new and existing laws is key. Without strict enforcement from government agencies an imbalance of power exists which keeps truck drivers under the thumb of the giant trucking companies like Shippers Transport.
“There’s an imbalance of power in the market which enables the big shippers to control the cost of shipping,” According to Dr. David Bensman, a professor at Rutgers University and author of “The Big Rig”, a report about misclassification in the port trucking industry. “And as long as you have that imbalance of market power you are going to have intense competition and substandard industry practices.”
November 1, 2011
With his last $8 in his wallet, Alberto Quiteno said goodbye to his wife and teenage daughters last Friday and traveled 8,000 miles to Melbourne to plea to his employer, the Australian logistics giant, Toll Group, for humane working conditions in the United States.
In his carry-on, Alberto had carefully packed a petition signed by 62 (out of 75) co-workers that local management had previously refused to accept. Along with it was a copy of his sincere letter he sent to Toll CEO Paul Little before his journey to outline the mistreatment and local management missteps. Hearing no response, Alberto headed to LAX and boarded a plane, joined by officials representing America’s largest transportation union, the 1.4 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
It took an overseas pilgrimage to grab front-section seating at the $8.6 billion corporation’s annual shareholder meeting to nab the undivided attention of the top brass. Alberto even landed a meeting with Mr. Little and another top executive, CFO Brian Kruger. Mission accomplished? Wrong. The 17-year port driver was stunned to learn he had no job to return to once he flew home.
That’s right, after a 30-minute face-to-face and cordial encounter with the retiring executive and his successor, Quiteno – along with 25 other Toll drivers — were all sacked.
The final paychecks of “The Toll 26” were dated and cut on Thursday, October 27, when employees from both the day and night shifts, in a show of unity, clocked in to work wearing T-shirts of the union they desperately want to represent them. That same afternoon 200 community residents, environmental and labor advocates picketed in support of the drivers outside the company’s San Pedro facilities, complete with 1,000 hand-gathered signatures urging justice for the workers who are the backbone of the port economy.
The workers filed another set of retaliation charges at the labor board on Monday, adding a new layer to an ongoing federal investigation. But first, some more backstory from Down Under.
The Toll shareholder meeting was quite the spectacle. Alberto’s allies roamed inside the halls circulating a new white paper by investor analysts with evidence that Toll’s instigation of a contentious low-road relationship with their truck drivers at American ports – at odds with their constructive labor approach in Australia – is a risky move that impairs the company’s reputation, operations, and relations with their retail customers.
Outside, Aussie Toll employees and officials from the Transport Workers Union staged a “sausage sizzle.” It was a lampoon-like BBQ fundraiser for their cash-strapped mates in the U.S., larded with a heavy point: Toll’s non-union employees at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Newark and New Jersey do not earn a fair day’s wage for a hard day’s work like their 12,000 unionized counterparts in Australia.
And in the virtual arena, the Teamsters and the Transport Workers Union together launched a website to detail the grim truth at Toll Group in their new joint effort aptly titled GrimTruthAtTollGroup.com.
The result of Alberto’s presence and his backers? Mr. Little was forced to publicly defend his actions which include banishing his truck drivers to filthy, unsanitary outhouses that lack running water. There would be no “riding off into the sunset” for Mr. Little after what should have been his final “legacy” presentation to shareholders, thanks in part to the scrutiny and negative press of Toll’s U.S. operations.
Pretty pathetic for a profitable company that is sending away its head honcho with a golden handshake worth millions. And pretty risky for a company that recently announced its intension to expand its U.S. acquisitions but already carries cargo for popular fashion retailers that come with sweatshop baggage like Guess? and Ralph Lauren’s Polo.
October 17, 2011
What’s fueling the ire behind the Occupy Wall Street protests that have spread from Manhattan’s financial district to cities in every state of the country and around the world? For starters, a certain corporation that 99% of us bailed out received $23 billion from the government but only paid one percent of its 2008 income in taxes after raking in $2.3 billion in profit.
And a new Salon.com story “Employers New Ruse: ‘Independent Contracting” may help unearth another master scheme in which Lloyd Blankfein and Goldman Sachs’ tax-avoidance maneuvering runs amok, only this time, the industry they’re manipulating isn’t banking – it’s global shipping transportation and the tens of thousands of port truck drivers that keep our economy moving.
Salon.com tells the story of Leonardo Mejia, a truck driver for Shipper’s Transport Express, a subsidiary of the massive container terminal operator SSA Marine. Mr. Mejia is one of the nation’s port truck drivers whose employer treats them, for tax purposes, as the boss – even as they boss them around just like the rest of America’s employees. In other words, his company simply hands him a 1099 rather than a W-2, and voila! – bye-bye pesky payroll taxes and business expenses.
Misclassification, as it’s more wonkily known in Department of Labor and union parlance, cost the U.S. government an estimated $54 billion in underreported employment taxes, according to a 2009 report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
What the story doesn’t report, is that Goldman Sachs owns half of the global supply chain giant that Mr. Mejia hauls for, one of the world’s largest transportation and shipping outfits in the U.S. – and the entire planet.
Home foreclosures aren’t enough, apparently. U.S. port truck drivers like Mr. Mejia are facing “foreclosures on wheels” at the hands of Goldman Sachs-owned SSA Marine. Here’s a snippet:
Mejia is part of the shadow economy…purposefully created from the top down, its growth driven by employers increasingly eager to shed costly, legally mandated commitments to their employees.
On an economy-wide scale, the calculated misclassification of employees as independent contractors is a nightmare for workers. It removes the normal protections employers are legally required to give their employees without offering any real freedom in exchange. The practice is also a disaster for governments struggling to balance their budgets, depriving both federal and state governments of billions of dollars in tax revenue.
“It’s a great scheme. The boss pretends their employee is his or her own boss to skirt taxes and force business costs onto the workers, and then the real boss bosses that worker around just like every other employer,” said Dr. David Bensman of Rutgers University, a co-author of a groundbreaking research report, The Big Rig: Poverty, Pollution and the Misclassification of Truck Drivers at America’s Ports,which concluded the typical port truck driver is truly an employee.
“Gaming the system, Goldman Sachs’ Wall Street style is not welcome at our trade hubs, one of the state’s most valuable economic engines,” wrote California Assemblymember Sandre` Swanson in an Oakland Tribune editorial. “World-class ports are vital to our economic progress. We cannot permit Wall Street-style trickery to stand in our way.”
And if you’re a part of the 99% that’s fed up with Goldman Sachs anti-worker, tax-avoidance games at our country’s ports then sign your name to the growing list of Americans who are doing something about it.