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Truckers Ordered to Let Firm Reclaim Trailers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Carson distributing firm took possession of dozens of cargo-filled truck-trailers that had been held hostage, in effect, for nearly four days outside the company’s offices by about 100 truckers protesting their employment status and working conditions.

The truckers, members of the Waterfront Rail Truckers Union, an unclassified and uncertified union, remained camped out Wednesday in front of H&M; Terminals Transport Inc. on East Watson Center Road. But a restraining order granted Monday by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Huss prevented the truckers from interfering in the removal of the trailers, which contained as much as $10 million worth of VCRs, television sets, lingerie and other merchandise.

The truckers are demanding that the company recognize them as employees so they can be eligible for benefits and stop forcing them to drive in violation of state laws. The aim of the protest, which began Saturday, was to expose what they called exploitative labor practices, the truckers said.

Patrick J. Heaney, owner and president of H&M; International Transportation Inc., the Carson firm’s New Jersey-based parent company, declined to return calls for an interview, as did local company representatives.

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State law requires that truckers drive no more than 80 hours a week, but the Carson firm keeps its drivers behind the wheel as many as 120 hours a week, said Paul Galis, spokesman for the 1,200-member union.

Drivers are also forced to carry excessive cargo weight that could lead to accidents, he said, and to sign lease agreements that make them liable for any mishaps.

“We’re asking that the company comply with the law,” Galis said. He termed the company’s policies “common practice in the industry,” but said, “H&M; has pushed the workers harder than the other companies.”

Ernie Nevarez, an accountant who has been working as a consultant for the union, said H&M; Terminals has routinely deducted money from the truckers’ paychecks for workers’ compensation and liability insurance. But because the company lists them as independent contractors, the workers are not eligible to collect those benefits, Nevarez said.

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Nevarez said he is representing about 100 truckers from throughout the Los Angeles Harbor area in their efforts to obtain classification as employees. H&M; Terminals, he said, designates its truckers as independent contractors to avoid paying federal corporate and payroll taxes.

Judith Golden, a spokeswoman for the Internal Revenue Service’s district office in Laguna Niguel, although not speaking specifically about H&M; Terminals, said the practice is becoming increasingly widespread.

“Whenever you have cash-flow problems, this is a way to save money,” Golden said. “This is a very big issue, but it is not located in any one industry. It is being looked at very closely.”

Sheriff’s Lt. Ken Masse said H&M; Terminals moved about 50 trailers from the street into the company’s office yard.

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“There was some shouting, and one of the truckers was pounding on one of the trailers, . . . but there was no violence,” Masse said.

This is the second waterfront picket in a month. In mid-July, 23 union truckers targeted a Gardena freight company, maintaining that they were owed as much as $9,000 each in back wages. Union representatives said the picket, which also consisted of parking rigs in front of the firm, Associated Transportation, lasted 10 days and was successful.

A hearing seeking to prevent further job action by the truckers is scheduled for Aug. 28.


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