Jim Hoffa, center, president of Teamsters union, leads marchers to the Port of Los Angeles in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles, Thursday, April 17, 2008. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
A rare union election victory in New Jersey and a battery of wage theft complaints in California represent the latest steps in the Teamsters union’s effort to transform port trucking, a growing industry in which most workers aren’t considered employees under the law.
“These guys are sharecroppers on wheels,” said Teamsters International Vice-President Fred Potter, who directs the union’s port division.
Port truckers carry freight from the nation’s ports to chains like Walmart and Starbucks. Since trucking deregulation during the Carter administration, most such workers have been classified as “independent contractors,” a growing category of American workers who aren’t legally anyone’s employees. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters alleges that over 80 percent of port truckers are misclassified—wrongly denied “employee” status.
As I’ve reported, port truckers charge that their status comes with all the downsides of employment—the companies they work for set their compensation and regulate their work—and little of the upside. Most port truckers pay for their trucks (sometimes leasing them from their bosses) and the fees and upkeep costs that come with them, get paid nothing for the extra time they spend idling in traffic and have no legal right to unionize. Such a “Who’s the boss?” problem has become increasingly prevalent for US workers, as increasing numbers are cast among the ranks of temps, informal workers or independent contractors lacking the legal rights of employees—including collective bargaining.
Citing a series of public and private sector studies, a spokesperson for the federal Department of Labor told The Nation in an e-mail that the “numbers suggest that misclassification occurs in significant numbers and, across the country, workers are finding themselves without the basic protections that Congress has enacted to ensure they receive fair pay, safe workplaces, and necessary supports when they are hurt or lose their jobs.” The spokesperson said that the DOL does not have sufficient data to determine the extent of the issue in port trucking specifically.
The Teamsters and the Change to Win labor federation have attacked the port trucking status quo on multiple fronts: legal charges against companies, lobbying for state law changes and stepped-up federal enforcement and organizing efforts among both drivers with legal unionization rights and those without them.
In National Labor Relations Board election ballots counted last Wednesday, Toll Group employees at the Port of Newark—among the minority of US port truckers classified as employees under law—chose by a three to one margin to join the Teamsters. As I’ve reported for In These Times, that election follows an NLRB union election victory involving Toll employees at the Port of Los Angeles last year. Both campaigns turned ugly; the Teamsters allege Toll fired union supporters in Los Angeles in an effort to intimidate workers. During regular anti-union meetings in New Jersey, said driver Fred Schmitt, “they tried to lie, to discourage us from voting in the union.” But he said that the California victory “made it a little bit easier for us to organize here.”