Cargo Cowboys : Truckers' Roads From Harbor to Rail Yards Aren't All Lined With Gold

Times Staff Writer

An hour after sunrise, Gonzales Sanchez brings his rig to a halt near Tuna Street on Terminal Island, jumping out of the cab as other truckers quickly line up behind him. Another long, frustrating day has begun.

"I go from one big line to another," the 37-year-old Sanchez says as the row of trucks grows by several hundred yards within minutes. "There are big lines here, and there are big lines downtown at the rail yards. I spend a lot of time doing nothing but waiting."

Sanchez, an independent owner-operator who started driving two months ago when he was laid off at a furniture factory, is one of hundreds of drivers who travel in and out of Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors ever day, hauling containers filled with everything from televisions to teapots.

Drivers More Numerous

As the amount of container cargo moving through the ports has increased, and since deregulation of the trucking industry, the diesel drivers have grown in number, becoming a part of the landscape in harbor communities as their rigs sit idle on city streets waiting for a turn at a cargo terminal.

They are visible elsewhere. Motorists on the Harbor and Long Beach freeways sometimes feel the truckers, in their haste to reach destinations, breathing down their tailpipes. California Highway Patrol officers fume helplessly when a trucker barrels past a roadside weight scale.

But in recent months the truckers, called cowboys because of their free-wheeling spirit, have drawn attention for other reasons.

Last February, the truckers staged a one-day work stoppage at the two ports. A convoy of more than 300 drivers converged on the downtown area near the rail yards, blaring horns and exchanging thumbs-up signs in a peaceful demonstration. Their complaints: long delays at the cargo terminals and stingy rates paid by port businesses.

At the same time, the Teamsters Union, for the second time in three years, is attempting to organize the owner-operators. The union, which says more than 900 truckers have filled out membership applications, claimed a victory in June when it announced that an agreement had been signed with 11 companies that use about 450 independent and company-affiliated drivers.

The contract calls for the drivers to receive $102.50 for a round trip between the ports and the rail yards if they haul a full load each way--about a 25% boost over prevailing rates. The agreement also calls for the truckers to be reimbursed $25 an hour after the second hour they are forced to wait in line to be loaded.

Truckers and industry officials are hard-pressed to estimate the number of independent truckers who operate out of the ports. Monte Ogden, executive director of Teamsters Local 692, which has spearheaded the drive to organize the drivers under its owner-operator division, estimates that there are about 1,500 such truckers, but says others place the number closer to 2,500.

Whatever the figure, Ogden and others say the independents have mushroomed in number as the amount of container cargo flowing through San Pedro Bay has continued to rise in recent years--officials at both ports say the amount increased more than 20% in 1984 over the previous year--and the trucking industry has gone through the throes of deregulation.

'Marketplace Economics

"What you are seeing are pure marketplace economics," says Joel Anderson, an economic development specialist with the California Trucking Assn., a trade organization.

Before the federal government deregulated the industry in 1980, industry officials say, the rates paid for transporting cargo to the rail yards and other inland areas were set by carriers and subject to Interstate Commerce Commission approval, making it easier for unionized trucking companies in the harbor area to compete with non-union carriers and owner-operators.

Since then, union companies have found it tough to compete as rates have either fluctuated or dropped as competition has grown. Many have fallen on hard times; others have shut down. California Cartage Co. halted its trucking operations in April after operating in the harbor for 40 years.

"Since 1980, it has all turned to the owner-operator structure," said Gordon Kirby, director of industrial relations for the trucking association. "I think you would find one unionized carrier out of 50 down there now."

The truckers are lured by the prospect of earning more as independents than they would if they worked for a company for wages. With a lot of hustle and long hours, they explain, an owner-operator can sometimes make three or four hauls a day from the ports to the rail yards or other inland destinations.

For example, Robert Cooper, a 28-year-old owner-operator, says he has been hauling out of the ports for five years, and earns $88 per round trip for hauling containers between the ports and a warehouse in the City of Commerce. He says he makes $1,200 a week.

High Operating Costs

But Cooper complains that his operating costs are high. He says the weekly fuel bill for his 1971 truck is $130, and his insurance bill is more than $350 a month. He also complains that long delays at terminals sometimes means he can't make enough hauls to cover his costs--a complaint shared by other owner-operators, some of whom also face high truck payments. Prices range from about $15,000 for a good used truck to $80,000 or more for a new one.

"Yesterday I was at this berth, and it took me an hour to get in and another hour to get out," said Pascual Flores, a 28-year-old Gardena driver. Flores said he has thought about "parking his truck"--getting out of the business--or going to work for a trucking company where he would earn a steady wage.

Dennis Prosenko, who has been in the trucking business for four years, said he has experienced worse. "It's not unusual to sit down here 4 1/2 to five hours waiting for a load," said the 40-year-old Glendora resident.

Besides the long waits, many owner-operators grumble about the rates they are paid, which they claim have plummeted since deregulation. Jim Foote, business manager for the Associated Independent Owners-Operators, a 1,000-member truckers lobby, estimates that the rates paid to drivers have fallen 30% since 1979, creating hardships and high turnover among truckers operating in the harbor area.

"So many either go bankrupt or are forced to find something better because they can't make their truck payments or pay their other bills," Foote said. He added that it is probably unusual to find an owner-operator who has been working out of the harbor area for two years or longer.

'Losing Battle'

One trucker who got out of the business of hauling containers is Neff Amador, 64. He said he hauled containers in and out of the ports until about three years ago. "It is just impossible to make a living," said Amador, who now hauls palm trees for developers. "It's just a losing battle."

Port and industry officials say they are aware of the truckers' concerns about long delays. Brian Harrison, head of the Los Angeles Steamship Assn., said some shippers have operated "night gates" to alleviate the lines and move cargo faster. Several companies have discussed allowing truckers to make appointments to pick up cargo.

In addition, Mike Powers, a manager at the Port of Long Beach, said meetings between truckers, terminal operators and other shipping industry representatives are held on an infrequent basis under the auspices of the "Harbor Talking Committee." The committee's next meeting will be in August.

As for complaints by owner-operators that they are not being paid enough, several officials at companies who act as brokers for the drivers complain that they, too, have experienced a decrease in the amount they are paid because of the increased competition. Ken Albertson, operations manager for Custom Truck Service Inc., a City of Commerce company that contracts with owner-operators to haul cargo containers, said that in the last three years the company has experienced a 33% drop in payment for hauling freight for shipping and other companies.

'Cutting Own Throats'

Jan Kroll, corporate secretary and dispatcher for Gardena-based Southwest Transportation which uses five owner-operators, said the independent drivers must assume some responsibility for the rates that they are paid. She said many truckers are hurting themselves by bidding against one another for work and driving prices down. "They are cutting their own throats," she said.

Truckers and companies say there are no signs that the intense competition will ease. Moreover, they say the expected opening next year of a $54-million rail yard near the ports will decrease the need for cargo trips to the rail yards downtown, thus cutting into the drivers' work. Foote estimates the new rail yard could cut the number of containers being hauled downtown by as much as 30%.

In addition, Ogden of the Teamsters Union admits it will be difficult to organize the owner-operators for higher wages and better working conditions because they are fiercely independent and are continually entering and leaving the business.

Not Into Unions

Truck driver Robert Cooper, for instance, says he hopes to stop hauling containers and switch to hauling building materials. He also says he has no desire to join the union. "I'm not into that," he said.

Despite the frenzied competition and hardships, truckers still flock to the ports seeking work. One day last week, Robert Bunch of Carson sat in his cab, engine off, waiting for the trucks in front of him to move toward the cargo terminal. It was his second day on the job. While not an owner-operator, Bunch, using a company's truck, was motivated to make as many hauls as he could because he was earning a fee for each container he hauled. The first day on the job he made only $28.

"You can make a living if you get up early enough and get into the terminals," Bunch explained as he sat in his cab. "Once I get the hang of it and learn where the the different berths are and how to get in and out fast, I should be able to make a pretty good chunk of change."

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