Unions unite to organize port truckers

LOS ANGELES – An attempt by the Teamsters to organize approximately 15,000 port truckers on the West Coast will be one of the focus issues of the upcoming Solidarity Day rallies to be held on June 27.

Truck drivers work 60-hour weeks, earning poverty wages with no benefits. “Driving a truck used to be considered a job where you could support your family, but that is not true today for port truckers,” said Gary Smith, West Coast representative of the Teamsters Port Division.

Trucking companies typically keep 25-30 percent of the freight rate, giving the rest to the trucker. Out of this money, the trucker must pay for the truck, insurance, fuel and other operating costs, resulting in the average trucker earning less than $8 an hour.

The 10,000 truckers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach port, mostly Latino drivers from Mexico and Central America, have attempted to join a union in organizing efforts by other unions but were denied because they are considered independent contractors, not employees. Independent contractors are prohibited under antitrust laws from forming unions.

Shipping lines can voluntarily choose to recognize the truckers as employees but have refused to do so. The Teamsters have been trying to convince regional trucking companies to hire the truckers as direct employees and lease the trucks from the drivers, which would allow the drivers to be unionized.

“Being in the Teamsters could eventually raise truckers’ wages comparable to Teamster wages and benefits in other industries, which are over $20 an hour,” said Smith. “This would have a big impact in fighting poverty in the overall Latino community of Los Angeles.”

The challenge of organizing port truck drivers has good prospects according to Smith, primarily because of the historic unity pact the Teamsters signed with the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) last December at the National Convention of the AFL-CIO.

Smith told the World that the agreement, which was also signed by the East Coast/Gulf Coast International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), began a national alliance where the three unions will support one another in organizing 50,000 truck drivers at ports nationwide.

The agreement provided that Teamsters would organize drivers who haul containers from the marine terminals to railyards and distribution warehouses, while the ILWU and the ILA would claim jurisdiction over the movement of containers within and between terminals. The majority of truckers at the ports would be under the Teamster jurisdiction.

A successful truckers organizing campaign would be formidable. The collective bargaining power achieved would result in the Teamsters, ILWU and ILA controlling the major links in the intermodal move – the vessel, the marine terminal and the local truck haul. A shutdown in any link in the chain could paralyze the entire network.

Another important element of the pact was the agreement by the Teamsters and the ILA to support the ILWU in their contract negotiations.

“Drivers here are aware that after many years of trying, that they are close to getting justice at the port, due to the alliance with the ILWU and the recent political pressure on the shipping lines,” said Smith.

Supported by the Teamsters and the ILWU, two bills before the state legislature have brought public attention to the role of shipping lines in blocking pollution-solving measures and safety for truckers. The Teamsters and ILWU have held rallies in Los Angeles, Oakland and other ports in support of the bills. Teamsters are also working with the ILA to pass similar legislation on the East Coast.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com