Teamsters seeking to organize port truckers
About 50 protesters marched into the offices of a Port of Los Angeles freight hauler Monday and demanded the reinstatement of four truckers who they said were wrongfully terminated.
The small demonstration at Swift Transportation in Wilmington is part of a new effort by the Teamsters to organize some port drivers, less than six months after they were hired as employees under new city requirements for drayage firms.
Among those who attended the demonstration Monday was City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who is running for reelection today.
In October, the port implemented its Clean Trucks Program, which requires the phaseout of older, polluting diesel trucks and, more controversially, elimination of the decades-old practice of hauling freight containers by so-called owner-operators -- drivers who owned their rigs and were paid by the job.
Under the new concessionaire agreements, shipping companies that do port drays will have to employ 20% of their drivers by the end of the year and 100% by 2012.
In the face of these changes, the Teamsters and labor and community activists staged work actions at Swift and port drayage company Southern Counties Express, which have purchased hundreds of new, clean trucks under subsidies for use in the port.
“As they move to this employee model, they want to have these drivers do exactly the same thing -- violate the law -- as they did as independent contractors,” said Chuck Mack, ports division director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “No breaks. No lunches. Haul the overloads. Drive excessive hours.”
Bismark Sanchez Jr., 21, of Gardena, said he was among the first group of truckers hired by Swift when it began its L.A. port drayage operation last fall. He was fired Feb. 9.
Sanchez said the company accused him of damaging the tires on a manager’s Dodge Charger, but he said he was fired for encouraging co-workers to speak up when they were mistreated and because he was involved with the union.
Sanchez said drivers were asked to stay late but weren’t paid overtime. He said many drivers were told to take loads that exceeded weight limits. “They’ve been mistreated for so many years they don’t know what right is,” Sanchez said.
A Swift spokesman declined to comment, saying it would be improper to discuss personnel matters.
The Teamsters filed a complaint against the firm with the National Labor Relations Board, saying Sanchez and the others were fired in retaliation for union involvement.
The Swift protest came one week after a similar demonstration at Southern Counties Express. There, workers and activists tried to deliver a petition that demanded that the company stop using employment agencies and hire drivers directly. They also claimed that a worker was fired improperly.
“I’m not going to accept anything from a mob,” owner Brian Griley said. He was miffed that he was being singled out and insisted the truckers were getting a better deal through the labor brokers, because they had the support staff to handle complicated scheduling and human resource matters.
“We’re not playing games with the guys. We’re trying to give the guys things they didn’t have before,” he said.
But port officials say that using employment agencies doesn’t meet the program’s requirement that companies employ staff drivers.
The Teamsters’ Mack said many of the truckers who had become involved with the union had participated in the Clean Trucks campaign, and testified at hearings about poor working conditions.
Port truckers were unionized before deregulation allowed the industry to move to independent contractors, Mack said. Later efforts to unionize the drivers failed because, as independent contractors, they had no employer with which to bargain. What’s worse, Mack said, is that if drivers discussed higher pay rates among themselves, they could be considered in violation of antitrust laws.
The switch to an employee-driver system makes union membership possible for the drivers, in the same way that a switch to third-party payers of home health aides made that group eligible for union representation years ago.
But Mack said that did not mean all of the truckers would necessarily join unions.
“This is not the campaign that you say: ‘All you guys run down and organize workers,’ ” he said. “It’s one more step on a long path.”