Port truck drivers seek support from a city pension board

Port truckers, saying they were fired over wage theft complaints, want to put pressure on the trucking firm

Port truck drivers on Tuesday told the managers of the biggest pension system for the city of Los Angeles that they should closely examine their investment in a trucking company that they claim illegally fired them when the drivers pressed their claim for back wages.

The drivers' appearance before the board for the Los Angeles City Employees’ Retirement System, known as LACERS, was one in a series of protests they plan to make to try to get concessions from Total Transportation Services Inc., which has been locked in a battle with several dozen of its employees. Two other large pension systems — for police and firefighters in L.A. and for state employees — also have investments linked to the trucking company.

At least 33 drivers said they were fired when they refused to drop claims with the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. The agency found that 14 of the drivers were effectively employees of Compton-based Total Transportation, even though they were treated like independent contractors. It also found that excessive payroll deductions and unpaid waiting and break time deprived the workers of nearly $1 million in pay.

The drivers and a representative of the Teamster’s union addressed the pension board Tuesday because LACERS has an estimated $8 million invested with Saybrook, a West Los Angeles-based firm that, in turn, is an investor in the trucking firm.

The public pension plan has an “investment risk” because the trucking company is a repeat violator of labor relations laws, said Barbara Maynard,  spokesperson for the Teamster’s Justice for Port Drivers campaign. Maynard accused Total Transportation of “repeatedly harassing, threatening, intimidating and now firing drivers as retaliation for attempting to form their union.”

The committee governing the LACERS pension system, which manages retirement funds for 42,000 current and former city employees, said it would take up the investment issue and the drivers’ complaints next week.

Jonathan Rosenthal, a principal in Saybrook investment and board chairman of the trucking company, called the allegation that Total Transportation tried to force workers to drop their wage claims “categorically false.”

When asked why some truckers are no longer driving for Total Transportation, Rosenthal said some had left because the company is transitioning to a new arrangement — no longer leasing trucks to drivers but requiring, instead, that they supply their own trucks and equipment.

“TTSI is very thoughtful in the way they treat all of their independent operators and their staff,” Rosenthal said. He said the biggest issue for truck drivers now in the port is crowding and long waits, making it difficult for drivers to deliver the number of loads they need to generate adequate income.

“We want to be part of a bigger solution to the issues at the port,” Rosenthal said.

Drivers said that the company has been far from the reasonable partner depicted by management.  Jose Rosales Romero told the LACERS pension board Tuesday that when he visited the company to learn about a new financing program for his truck, a manager started screaming obscenities and telling him, “There are no rules and no laws. No law or politicians will help you.”

Teamsters spokeswoman Maynard said that the trucking firm is in danger of being banned from doing business with the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach if it did not adhere to wage rules. That, she said, would put the pension system’s investment at “great risk.”

Another 16 wage claims against Total Transportation are pending before the state agency. Along with the 14 cases in which the company was already found liable for back pay, Total Transportion faces a liability of $4.8 million, the drivers said.

Rosenthal said Total Transportation will appeal the lost claims in Superior Court.

Romero asked the pension board to pressure Saybrook, and therefore Total Transportation, “to stop this illegal behavior.” The driver said that action by the board would show “ports here in L.A. and across America … that they can't keep breaking the law and stay in business.”

Twitter: @latimesrainey

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