In their largest demonstration yet, truck drivers who haul cargo in and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will go on a limited strike Monday to protest what they contend are widespread workplace violations.
The truck drivers, from some of the region's largest trucking companies, have accused the companies of illegally misclassifying them as independent contractors instead of as employees. That misclassification results in lower wages and denies them protections that employees get under state and federal labor laws, they contend.
Tensions between drivers and the drayage companies have escalated in recent years. Industry experts estimate that only 10% of 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.
In California, port drivers have filed more than 500 complaints for wage theft related to misclassification, according to the state Department of Industrial Relations. So far, 32 drivers have won decisions against 13 trucking firms, securing $3.8 million in wages and penalties, the agency said.
"The era of misclassification is over," said Rebecca Smith, deputy director for the National Employment Law Project. "When you see that nearly every relevant federal and state agency is coming to the same conclusion — that these workers are misclassified — the industry should be sitting up and taking notice."
Justice for Port Truck Drivers, the group organizing the strike, has mounted a campaign to draw attention to the issue.
They have already picketed at local trucking companies' workplaces, and on Monday their protest will arrive at the cargo terminals inside the ports, organizers said. The strike is intended to last 48 hours, organizers said. Truck drivers in Savannah, Ga., are also planning to protest on Monday.
Organizers notched a victory last month when Pacific 9 Transportation, a major trucking company, agreed to post notices acknowledging the workers' right to organize.
Alex Cherin, a spokesman for the trucking companies, couldn't be reached for comment. But last month Cherin said that most drivers were happy with their jobs and that recent actions were part of a Teamsters union plan to push the truckers to organize.
Still, for truck drivers like Dennis Martinez, a 28-year-old Los Angeles resident, the fight is simply to earn good pay for a long day's work.
Martinez has hauled cargo for three years and says he often works more than 10 hours a day, six days a week.
Because he is classified as a contractor by the company he hauls cargo for, Martinez says, he is expected to pay for fuel, maintenance and insurance on the truck he drives. He says he typically makes about $400 a week, which works out to an hourly rate below the state's minimum wage of $9 an hour.
"This system the companies have has to change," he said. "It's been hard for me and for my family because there's not enough, even if I work every day and work long hours."
California began cracking down in 2008 on trucking companies that misclassified employees as independent contractors. Jerry Brown, then the attorney general, filed at least five suits against Southern California trucking companies on allegations of circumventing labor laws.