The drivers who haul apparel and merchandise shipped to our shores for America’s brand name stores will kick start 2013 with a contractual raise of more than $6 per hour along with paid overtime, sick leave and holidays, a far more affordable health care plan with zero change in coverage, guaranteed shift hours and other provisions to provide job security – plus a pension plan.
“Justice…it’s sort of an indescribable feeling, but it is overwhelming and incredible to finally have the American Dream at our reach,” said Jose Ortega Jr., a driver for global logistics giant who served on the bargaining committee for his co-workers along with representatives from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Local 848 in Long Beach, Calif. The Australian corporation operates near the nation’s largest port complexes on both coasts and handles accounts for Guess?, Polo, Under Armour and other fashion and sportswear lines sold at big box and department retailers like Walmart and JC Penney.
The landmark agreement culminates more than 24 months of worker struggle and employer resistance in which these truckers – aided by a community coalition, their children, and clergy – borrowed bullhorns, leafleted consumers, gathered signatures practiced their picket lines, staged noisy protests, crashed shareholder meetings in a dogged campaign to end the Third World-like working conditions they once routinely endured.
U.S. port drivers are the most underpaid in the trucking industry: A typical professional earns $28,873 a year before taxes. Their net incomes often resemble that of part-time fast food or retail workers though they clock an average of 59 hours a week. They must possess specialized skills and licensing to safely command an 80,000 lb. container rig, but they fit the profile of America’s working poor. Food stamps, extended family, or church pantries are needed to get by; their children often lack regular pediatricians or only receive care at the public ER.
With American wages in freefall due to the imbalance of power enjoyed by multinational corporations, the scope and significance of such a labor accord with a transportation titan that operates in some 55 countries is alone a jaw dropper. What observers further find remarkable: The 65 workers who secured these middle-class benefits with their $8 billion employer are blue-collar Latino-Americans who hold jobs within a deregulated, virtually union-free industry at the ports.
“It upends the common wisdom that a workforce that lacks rights on the job cannot build the courage or bargaining strength to take on the Goliaths of the global economy. But these drivers, like the workers at the warehouses and Walmart and Wendy’s, understand they cannot raise families on such low wages, so they are coming together to rewrite the playbook,” noted Dr. John Logan, the director of Labor and Employment Studies at the College of Business at San Francisco State University. “The faces of this new movement are ordinary parents and churchgoers and community members who value the influence of a local priest as much as the expertise of an international overseas union. Not only do they have the guts to strike – they have the faith they can win.”
Their collective resolve paid off. Mr. Ortega, a single father who works the night shift, will see his new per-hour rate of $19.75 reflected on his next paycheck, plus any overtime will be paid at a time-and-a-half rate of $28.
“As a truck driver, I wanted the assurance that things would be okay for my daughter if I was injured, that I could take her to see the doctor if she got sick,” the 36-year-old explained. “When we started organizing ourselves, we weren’t asking for anything out of this world. To be treated with dignity. A fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work. Decent, sanitary facilities to make a pit stop, rest, eat…you know, perform our jobs safely.
“But we knew winning basic respect would take a fight at every turn. So when we were afraid to lose our jobs, we asked our allies for help. When we were afraid to take action, we prayed for the courage to speak out. And we always stuck together, and never ever gave up.”
Elected leaders praised the union contract as both a middle-class builder and noted its high-road business merits.
“We’re talking about the men and women who are the backbone of our regional and national economy, yet they have never shared in the prosperity of the corporations they make so profitable,” said Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino, whose district includes the largest port in America. “The standards that Toll Group, its workers, and Teamsters Local 848 have set make it possible to reward and attract responsible port businesses that want to compete on a more level playing field based on innovation and quality, rather than who can pay Los Angeles’ vital workers the least.”
Fair wages –The day shift hourly rate increased from $12.72 to $19, and the night shift hourly rate from $13.22 to $19.75. In addition to the over $6/hour increase in hourly pay rates, drivers won $0.50/hour per year raises over the life of the contract, giving Toll port drivers over a 60% hourly wage boost over the life of the 3-year contract. Overtime pay of time-and-half kicks in after a typical full time 40-hour week, which is extremely rare in an industry where truckers are exempt from federal overtime laws and an average week hovers around 60 hours.
Secure retirement –Prior to the contract, less than a dozen Toll drivers could spare any extra dollars, even pre-tax, to participate in the corporate 401(k) plan. As Teamster Local 848 members, they have been automatically enrolled in the union’s Western Conference Pension Trust. Such a retirement plan at the port has rarely been seen since trucking was deregulated in 1980. Toll will make a pension contribution of $1/hour per driver until 2014, and a $1.50/hour per driver by 2015.
Affordable health care – The Toll Group health care plan was financially out of reach for most of its truck drivers. The few who managed to meet the premium, deductibles and copayments will now keep significant more money in their pocket without sacrificing coverage, and the rest of their co-workers finally have access to quality, affordable health insurance coverage, including dental and vision care. The company will pay 95% of the premium for individuals and 90% for family coverage. Drivers who previously had to shell out $125/month for individual or $400/month per family will drop to roughly $30 or $150, respectively.
Stable work hours and paid time off – Most truck drivers lose a day’s pay if they cannot work, are penalized by dispatchers for being unable to haul a load, and lack paid sick or holiday leave, making it stressful for family budgets and planning. But Toll drivers made substantial gains in all these areas. They will receive seven paid holidays, three paid personal days, and six paid sick days annually. They will accrue one or two weeks of vacation within the first two years of service, with longtime employees earning up to a month. They can also bank on guaranteed full- or half-day of pay regardless of seasonal slowdowns if they are scheduled to work.
Incentives to grow responsibly, level competition, and raise market standards – The agreement establishes a high-road business model for the port trucking industry that recognizes Toll’s competitors have not yet embraced livable wages and working conditions. To encourage a more level playing field and wide-scale unionization, drivers will have the ability to re-negotiate for improvements when a simple majority of the Southern California market is organized.
“We commend the drivers at Toll for their leadership in challenging the status quo at the ports. Workers everywhere are standing up and saying enough to poverty wages and Toll drivers have demonstrated that working families are ready to bring middle-class wages back to America,” said Teamster General President Jim Hoffa.
“For too long companies in the global supply chain have gamed the system by undercutting U.S. businesses that actually create good jobs. Toll Group and its drivers have raised the bar for responsible competition, and the Teamsters will not stop until the rest of the nation’s port drivers have a shot at the American Dream.”
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.
Flanked by a large group L.A. port drivers, and opening for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sierra Club’s Allison Chin, Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa delivered a thundering keynote last Thursday at the Los Angeles Good Jobs, Green Jobs Regional Conference on the on-going fight to make port trucking a good and green American job. And he got a second by both environmental champions Allison Chin and the L.A. Mayor! “We are going to look for every way we can to make sure that independent truckers who are misclassified, who are really employees in every respect of the word, that they get their justice,’’ Villaraigosa told the audience (port drivers and the greenies went bonkers after he dropped that line!). No doublespeak for the mayor either, he delivered that same message at the shippers’ conference in Long Beach a week before.
Despite the drastic reduction of drayage-based pollution at the L.A. ports, Hoffa also echoed Mayor Villaraigosa’s declaration that the fight is far from over, and the Teamsters remain fervently committed to achieving the “blue” goals of this Blue-Green Alliance—delivering good wages, and a voice on the job for drivers. The mayor reaffirmed his administration’s and the city’s commitment to changing the way the port industry treats their workforce, a.k.a. ending the misclassification swindle.
Well Xiomara isn’t holding back something else either—her story, and willingness to continue the fight. With Hoffa and her fellow port drivers on stage, and both TWU national secretary Tony Sheldon and the L.A. mayor in the audience, Xiomara delivered a heartfelt speech on what they’ve endured to arrive at the cusp of achieving the biggest Teamster victory in the port industry with Toll’s upcoming union election. And guess who has her back? L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
As if Xiomara’s story and the treatment by her employer wasn’t shady enough, she was joined by Carla Campos, a worker from a local recycling facility, American Reclamation, who also described the third-word like workplace conditions she stand against. Like Xiomara, Carla Campos was also fired for flagging health and safety obligations. Based on the successes and framework of the Clean and Safe Ports Campaign, cleaning up the L.A. recycling industry has been the basis of the “Don’t Waste LA” campaign, a blue-green effort to increase the rates of recycling, and set safety and workplace standards.
Two valiant women, mirror image campaigns, and one common goal: cleaning up industry’s act. If L.A. waste doesn’t end up in our backyards in urban landfills, it finds its way to the ports ready for export on trucks being driven by workers like Xiomara Perez.
The message out of the conference is crystal clear: jobs can’t be good or green if they’re not union!
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.
Toll Watch provides real-time dispatches, live updates and social media/video updates to assist LA workers achieve democracy in the workplace. We keep tabs on Toll Group by monitoring and reporting the company’s attempts to undermine their worker’s right to a free and fair vote to unionize. [Read our first Toll Watch and sign up here for instant alerts.]
Determined to keep all eyes on a fair process, a group of community watchdogs went out on their first monitoring shift outside Toll’s yard. The units, consisting of community, labor, and public health groups, are serving as roving watchdogs to closely monitor management’s behavior.
Weathering the cold evening breeze near the port, and with clipboards in hand, they talked to a dozen Toll drivers eager to relay Toll’s latest dirty tricks and anti-union election shenanigans. True to form, what they heard and documented is consistent with Toll management’s antagonistic behavior thus far. See what community monitor, Amanda Mendoza, found out…