They move the goods we shop for every day - food, clothing, electronics, toys and much more. Without them whole segments of commerce would grind to a halt.
They work long hours for low wages under often abysmal conditions, and, as "independent contractors," receive no benefits and cannot organize for better conditions. And the conditions under which they work spread pollution through nearby areas, where they often live as well. Like low-wage workers in other industries, a large percentage are immigrants.
They are the 110,000 truck drivers who move millions of cargo containers at the nation's ports every year.
A just-released report, The Big Rig: Poverty, Pollution and the Misclassification of Truck Drivers at American Ports, focuses on their plight and proposes ways to ensure the drivers fair wages, decent working conditions and workers' rights while improving the environment in working-class communities near the nation's ports.
The study, prepared by analysts at the National Employment Law Project, the union federation Change to Win and Rutgers University, is based on in-depth interviews with drivers at 39 companies in port cities around the country and examination of employment documents such as truck leases, pay stubs, insurance provisions, meeting agendas, log books and job applications.
The authors conclude that most port truck drivers are wrongly classified as independent contractors, and that toxic diesel truck pollution in the air near ports results directly from the trucking industry's misclassification of the drivers.
The study cites long-time southern California port truck driver Max Galvan, classified as an independent contractor, paid by the load and responsible for all costs associated with the truck he drives. But, asked how he related to the only company he worked for in 13 years, Galvan pointed out that most firms make drivers sign a contract that they will only drive for that company, and pay drivers rates the company determines. "What independence?" he said. "They don't let us haul for anyone else. They'll fire you."
Because he was responsible for all associated costs, Galvan only netted between $24 and $40 for each haul, or $28,000 to $30,000 a year. At the industry average of 59 hours a week, Galvan took home about $10 an hour. As the report points out, because he and his fellow workers couldn't afford decent trucks or maintenance, they ended up driving old, poorly-maintained big rigs.
Though an estimated 82 percent of the country's port truck drivers are classified as independent contractors, for the great majority the companies they contract with control basic conditions like rates, where and when they work, and the rules they must follow.
The study's authors point out that the classification issue is receiving new attention because of its implications in the fight against deadly diesel pollution. Other studies have demonstrated the disastrous health consequences of diesel pollution in neighborhoods surrounding the ports, and for the drivers themselves.
The solution, the analysts say, is for U.S. ports to adopt uniform rules requiring trucking firms to employ their drivers and take responsibility for the trucks they operate: "Such requirements would directly address driver misclassification and immediately establish the conditions for a revived, cleaner industry."
The report also calls on Congress to pass the Clean Ports Act of 2010 (HR 5967, introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY) so ports can address misclassification where it affects environmental impact, safety or efficiency of port trucking operations. Further, the analysts say, the U.S. Department of Labor, the IRS and state agencies should implement comprehensive tax, employment and safety laws to address violations directly harming large numbers of port drivers, and government funding for programs to cut diesel truck emissions should be contingent on ending driver misclassification.
In a sad postscript, the authors note that as the report was being finalized, Galvan "recognized that he was 'paying to work,' " and returned the keys of the truck he leased through the company he worked for, and for which he had paid over $35,000 in weekly lease payments since April 2009. A job-hunting Galvan said he'd likely be blacklisted by the port trucking industry for sharing his story. "I'm a truck driver," he said. "A good one. This is all I know. But I give up. This is killing me."
Photo by Marilyn Bechtel/People's World