The Port of Los Angeles has been a crossroads of global trade for decades—and a labor battleground for just about as long. Following in the wake of the historic longshore union wars and the more recent port-trucker strikes, warehouse workers are rumbling the docks.
A few dozen workers at the California Cartage warehouse went on strike on Tuesday to protest poverty wages and harsh working conditions. Though backed by the advocacy group Warehouse Workers Resource Center (WWRC), with support from the Teamsters, the strikers don’t have a union—many aren’t even permanent employees. But they’ve seized on a unique moment in the labor movement to push for a broad recognition of the equal rights of contingent workers and to hold all companies operating at the site accountable. The workers are demanding a $15 minimum wage (an immediate raise well ahead of Los Angeles County’s new target minimum wage to be phased in by 2020) and respect for the labor rights of all workers at the site.
Workers are simultaneously pressing a lawsuit filed last December against Cal Cartage and various staffing companies, charging that some 500 workers were systematically underpaid by as much as $2 to $3 per hour since at least 1999. They argue that Cal Cartage is bound by local Living Wage standards because it operates on land leased from the city. Workers also charge that they were shorted on overtime hours and forced into erratic schedules, which sometimes led to being sent home immediately because of lack of work after reporting to the site.
The workers recently expanded their legal fight with a complaint at the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the management used abusive tactics to retaliating against workplace organizing, such as “attempting to provoke a physical altercation with workers after they asked to take a break while working during excessive heat this August,” and “implicitly threaten[ing] discharge” in response to workers’ organizing activities.
Crucially, both complaints named California Cartage and staffing agencies as joint employers, based on the rationale that while Cal Cartage had not hired the agency workers directly, they were nonetheless responsible for their conditions at work, including employment decisions, disciplinary practices, compensation, and scheduling.