L.A., Long Beach port truck drivers launch protest, allege wage theft

Justice for Port Truck Drivers accuses companies of wrongfully classifying drivers as independent contractors

More than 100 port truck drivers launched a protest Monday against what they say are widespread work violations, picketing three regional trucking companies and their rigs that haul freight at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Picket lines went up shortly after dawn at multiple locations operated by three trucking firms in the harbor area, including Carson and Wilmington. Truck drivers, backed by Teamsters Local 848, at times blocked the driveways at the companies' truck yards, chanted slogans in Spanish and solicited honks of support from passing motorists.

The protest, which organizers said is intended to last 48 hours, also moved inside the two ports and briefly disrupted operations at one cargo terminal at the Port of Long Beach.

Justice for Port Truck Drivers, the union-backed group organizing the walkout, has accused trucking companies of wrongfully classifying truck drivers as independent contractors, a designation that denies drivers workplace protections such as overtime and mandated work breaks. It also results in lower pay, the group said. 

"We're here fighting for a better future for our families," said Dennis Martinez, a truck driver who moves cargo for Total Transportation Services Inc., one of the three companies targeted by the drivers. The other two are Green Fleet Systems and Pacific 9 Transportation, both based in Carson.

Martinez, who has worked for Total Transportation Services for 2 1/2 years, said that he is wrongfully classified as an independent contractor and that he has filed a wage theft complaint against his employer with state labor officials.

Alex Cherin, executive director of the Harbor Trucking Assn. and a spokesman for the trucking companies, criticized the drivers' actions and blamed the Teamsters and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a worker advocacy group, for organizing the demonstrations.

"Outside interest groups like LAANE and the Teamsters are continuing to spend their members' hard-earned money to battle an issue that a vast majority of harbor truck drivers have soundly rejected time and time again" by telling management they didn't favor union representation, Cherin said.

"There are literally hundreds of unfilled vacancies for company drivers throughout Southern California," Cherin said. "If a driver wants to become an employee rather than an independent contractor, he or she can do so."

Xiomara Perez, a driver at Green Fleet Systems, said the majority of company employees do not want a union and have resisted the efforts by other drivers who are pushing to organize. At that company, the question of whether to form a union also has been rolled into the protest.

"This is a very good company, and they provide us with many benefits," Perez said. "Why do we want to pay dues when we're being treated well already?"

Monday's demonstration, the largest yet by the group, escalates tensions between drivers and trucking companies. Industry experts estimate that only 10% of the region's roughly 12,000 short-haul truckers are directly employed by companies, and truckers who are classified as independent contractors have filed lawsuits and complaints with state and federal labor agencies to change their status.

The strike is the third in the last year, and more are planned in the coming months, organizers said. Previous actions took place only at the truck company sites.

At a handful of cargo terminals inside the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, drivers carrying signs circled and chanted. The protesters targeted only rigs operated by Green Fleet, Total Transportation and Pac 9.

In the morning, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 13 briefly honored the picket line at the Long Beach Container Terminal, then resumed work. Picketers also hit the Evergreen and Yusen terminals at the Port of Los Angeles.

During the two-day protest, drivers plan to fan out at the three trucking companies' sites in Carson and Wilmington as well as other locations.

In recent months, port drivers in California have filed more than 500 complaints of wage theft related to misclassification, according to the state Department of Industrial Relations. The agency said 32 drivers have won decisions against 13 trucking firms, securing $3.8 million in wages and penalties.

Some of the employers are appealing the rulings.

Organizers notched a victory last month when Pacific 9, a major trucking company, agreed to post notices acknowledging the workers' right to organize.

At Green Fleet Systems, about two dozen drivers carried picket signs reading "Stop this unlawful war on workers." Green Fleet drivers accuse the company's management of intimidation tactics aimed at discouraging unionization, they said.

Byron Contreras, 45, was among Green Fleet drivers protesting what he said was the wrongful termination of two drivers. The Lakewood resident said the company has retaliated against workers who seek to form a union. 

"I'm here to support these guys," he said as the group of truckers blocked the trucking company's driveway. 

Trucks driving past would occasionally honk their horns in support. So did a passing train.

Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Los Angeles) issued a statement supporting the protesters, saying "the misclassification of your status as an 'independent contractor' is unfair."

The issue of misclassifying truck drivers isn't a new one. California in 2008 began cracking down on trucking companies that misclassified employees as independent contractors. Jerry Brown, then the attorney general, filed at least five lawsuits against Southern California trucking companies on allegations of circumventing labor laws.


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