Union victory for port drivers

May 9, 2012

Truck drivers in the Port of Los Angeles who work for Toll Group, an Australian company worth $8.8 billion, voted 46-15 on April 11 to be represented by the Teamsters.

The workers had pushed to organize a union due to working conditions which make trucks "sweatshops on wheels," in the words of the report "The Big Rig: Poverty, Pollution and the Misclassification of Truck Drivers at Americas Ports." The spark for this organizing drive was that requests for clean toilets and clean drinking water were denied. Drivers in the port have been trying to organize for at least a decade, and they saw an opportunity.

The election was notable for several reasons. First, almost no port truck drivers have been able to win union recognition since the deregulation of the trucking industry under the federal Motor Carrier Act of 1980. Since then, nearly every port trucking company has treated drivers as independent contractors, forcing them to pay for their own trucks and expenses while denying them benefits. The Toll drivers are almost unique in that they are recognized as employees. Only two companies in the vast Port of Los Angeles, Toll and Horizon, consider their drivers to be employees.

For years, drivers in Los Angeles have tried to organize cooperatives, like the Port Truck Drivers Association, and activists and supporters have been backing their efforts to organize through efforts like the blog Port of Aztlan. In 2006, LA port drivers shut down traffic at the port by blocking a major highway in the struggle against the anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner bill in Congress.

The union victory at Toll Group now gives labor a stronger foothold in the port. The successful National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vote was also notable because of Toll Group's vicious anti-union campaign. The company did everything from hiring new drivers, who were there specifically to be anti-union and divisive, to firing 28 driver-organizers. (These 28 have since gotten their jobs back because of an unfair labor practice complaint filed with the NLRB).

But the Toll drivers in LA had the support of the 12,000 unionized truck drivers at Toll in Australia, the Teamsters and Change to Win labor federation, community organizations and, most importantly, other drivers in the Port of Los Angeles who hope that this union victory will help to give people confidence to struggle for broader changes in the industry.

Leonardo Mejia is one such truck driver. Although he doesn't work for Toll, he provided essential support in the union drove. T.J. Michels is an organizer with the Teamsters who worked on this campaign. The two spoke to Sarah Knopp and Michael Brown about the significance of this victory.

LEONARDO, WHY would a driver like yourself, who doesn't work for Toll directly, be involved in this campaign?

Leonardo: Before 1980, when Reagan deregulated the trucking industry, 90 percent of port drivers were unionized. The [Motor Carrier Act] changed everything, because according to this law, the government can't regulate any kind of interstate transportation commerce. The companies simply said that the truck drivers were "independent contractors," and many owned their own trucks and were paid per load.

Since that very moment, though, the companies started taking back control from drivers who were "independent," bit by bit. And the drivers adapted to it, bit by bit, even though they kept the label "independent contractors." The whole time we were fighting it. There was a massive strike in 1996, where we tried to get a hiring hall like the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has, which wasn't successful.

The big change happened in 2008. The City of Los Angeles and the port developed a plan to clean the air. The new environmental regulations made it too expensive for us to own the trucks. So the companies bought the trucks and the air got cleaned, but they forgot the last part of the deal, which was to recognize us as employees. [Note: The Harbor Commission of Los Angeles did change the rules so that drivers would be considered employees as opposed to contractors, but a California court overturned the action.]

Trucks pass through the gates at the Port of Los Angeles
Trucks pass through the gates at the Port of Los Angeles

Now the companies really control us, because they own the trucks, and we can't take our trucks elsewhere if they're abusive. But we're still considered "independent contractors," except at Toll and Horizon. All the port drivers need a union so we can unite and fight for our basic rights. One step at a time.

HOW DID the union drive start?

T.J.: Teamster organizers already had close contact with several workplace leaders and activists at the port who sought to unionize at their former company, Swift--a large national transportation carrier that entered port trucking following the Clean Truck Program.

When Swift reverted its employees back to independent contractors and tried to force them to lease their vehicles just to keep their jobs (as many of the companies did due to the court injunction), several were hired by Toll, a newly acquired company by the Australian giant that utilized employees.

The Toll drivers sought assistance from the Teamsters when they began to organize themselves to address the unsanitary facilities and inhumane treatment.

WHY ARE the Toll drivers considered employees, while others aren't?

T.J.: It's believed from an industry perspective that employees best serve Toll's business model. This assumption comes from the fact that their customers tend to be high-end fashion and apparel brands, such as Under Armour, Jones, Guess, Polo. You can run multiple shifts in a 24-hour-period if you control the truck and workforce, and better guarantee "just-in-time" logistics with an employee model.

TOLL HAD a lot of tricks up their sleeve to undermine the union organizing drive. How did you beat them?

Leonardo: Up to 95 percent of the employees are immigrants. We come from Mexico, where we don't have as much exposure to unions, or the unions we have are corrupt. So the workers are more susceptible to anti-union rhetoric, like when they tell us that unions are bad because they're going to break the company. Immigrants are also more susceptible to intimidation. Our biggest accomplishment was to stop the intimidation.

When the Teamsters got involved, they helped to educate us. They made us more conscious of how to organize a union. They explained how, if someone comes after your job, we can fight it.

SO WHY did the union win in this case?

T.J.: The victory belongs to the strength, unity and determination of these port workers, who for years have been denied their employee and union rights. Couple that with the Teamsters' global alliance with Australia's Transport Workers Union--and the local coalition of community, environmentalists and clergy that the Teamsters have been working on the ground closely with for years--and a successful and sophisticated campaign to beat an $8.8 billion multinational logistics giant was born.

Toll employees, backed by exploited drivers at other companies across the waterfront, effectively made themselves symbols of a broader struggle and were eager to use the media to expose the truth about their employers' behavior and the port industry on the whole.

WHAT LESSONS do you think that other port drivers will take from this, even if they're independent contractors?

T.J.: If you can do it, we can do it. Their counterparts were watching the news, showing up at their rallies, talking them up at the terminals to hear their progress. That demonstrates that the majority of port drivers don't make distinctions between who is independent and who gets a W-2, but rather they simply see themselves as port drivers united in a shared struggle for economic and social justice.

While the pathway to unionization presents a different set of challenges for workers who are misclassified--how's that for irony, the employer breaks the law, making it illegal for the worker to seek representation--I find it incredibly hopeful that these men and women unequivocally see themselves as employees who are merely disguised as contractors, and are fighting to win back their collective bargaining and other workplace rights.

Leonardo: Things went much more rapidly than I thought they would. I thought that this struggle was going to take a decade. Before, we were fighting alone. Now it's us--the community, religious people and the unions. All the people that are involved now realize that we need to demand more favorable laws.

But it's not going to be the Teamsters who win it--it's going to be us. This law that we can't be recognized as employees affects the drivers every day. It will be the drivers that change it.

But this victory is a major change, because drivers all across the port are paying attention. We learned some things about organizing. We're more self-confident. We don't have so much fear of the company. We saw that victory can be achieved.

We'd like the community to support the actions we have in the future, with your experiences as organizers and workers. Our biggest fear as drivers was that we were all alone. If we're not alone, then we'll gain confidence. We're at the beginning of the process.

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