More than 40 percent of the goods that come into the United States from overseas come through the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. That fact alone gives thousands of truck drivers who haul those goods from the ports to warehouses considerable leverage with big companies (like Walmart, Cosco, and Home Depot) whose goods are mostly made in Asia as well as with the shipping companies, the municipal Harbor Commission which oversees the port, and the trucking companies who employ the drivers.
If the truckers shut down the port, they can disrupt a huge part of the U.S. economy that depends on global trade. That's particularly true during this time of year, when more cargo arrives at the ports in anticipation of the gift-buying holidays.
The trucking companies routinely put profits over people. For example, the Harbor Trucking Association (HTA), which represent the companies, is asking the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to relax the safety rules that dictate the amount of sleep truckers must have. The HTA wants to lift the requirements so that employers can extend drivers' hours to accommodate the increased shipping loads prior to the holidays.
No worker wants to go on strike, but several major trucking companies at these L.A. and Long Beach ports have made working conditions so miserable that many drivers believe they have no choice. So the drivers will be out of their trucks and onto the picket lines this week.
In July, drivers went on strike to protest the companies' chronic unfair labor practices. After five days of picketing that dramatically impacted port operations and garnered international media attention, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti brokered a "cooling off" period that included an agreement by three trucking firms -- Total Transportation Services (TTSI), Pacific 9 Transportation (Pac 9), and Green Fleet Systems -- to accept all drivers back to work without retaliation. But the trucking companies went back on their pledge to Garcetti. They continued retaliating against drivers who have complained about unfair conditions and who want a stronger voice in their workplaces. They even fired several of the most outspoken truckers.
So now the drivers are ready to go back on the picket lines and to shift their protests from the offices of the trucking companies to the dockside terminals where longshore workers move containers from ships to trucks. Their actions could be compounded if, the dock workers also withhold their labor. About 20,000 longshoreman at 29 West Coast ports, who have been working without a union contract since July 1, are poised to go on strike in a dispute with the shipping companies.
The drivers claim that the trucking companies have been misclassifying them as "independent contractors" in order to make it impossible, under federal labor laws, to unionize. The companies routinely deduct huge amounts from drivers' paychecks for fuel, parking, insurance and other expenses, a practice that the drivers say is wage theft. After drivers pay for the cost of renting and maintaining their trucks, their pay is often below the minimum wage.
"The companies treat us like regular employees but compensate us like independent contractors," drivers said in a joint statement.
Several times in the past year the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) sided with the drivers, finding that they are actually employees rather than independent contractors because the trucking companies establish all the conditions of their work. Since February 2013, DLSE has ruled against one of the firms, TTSI, in 17 cases awarding the drivers over $1.2 million in the form of unpaid wages and reimbursements for expenses paid by workers. DLSE admonished the trucking firms to stop retaliating against drivers who raise these issues, but the retaliations have continued.
Last summer, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a consolidated complaint alleging that GFS has committed more than 50 egregious labor law violations. And last month, a Federal Judge issued an injunction against Green Fleet Systems (GFS), ordered the company to immediately re-hire two drivers who were fired illegally, and stop other illegal labor activities or face contempt of court. The court found that in January 2014 that GFS misclassified drivers Mateo Mares and Amilcar Cardona as independent contractors and then fired them for openly supporting GFS' drivers' efforts to unionize with the Teamsters and for refusing to withdraw their wage and hour claims for illegal deductions.
"This is a great victory not just for me and Mateo," said Amilcar Cardona. "It is a great victory for all drivers serving the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and across the country. The majority of U.S. port drivers are misclassified as "independent contractors" and with this decision, we are beginning to see that the law is on our side and that we all have rights as employees to form our union."
But despite these rulings by the DLSE, the NLRB, and a federal court, the trucking companies have continued to break the law and try to intimidate the drivers, leading to the latest showdown on the docks.
The drivers have appealed to the Harbor Commission, a municipal agency that oversees port operations, to take steps to reign in the rogue companies. If the dockers walk off their jobs in solidarity with the truckers, port activity would come to a halt, but the truckers alone have sufficient clout to have a significant economic impact if they strike.
According to Harbor Commissioner Patricia Castellanos, "these trucking companies' behavior is outrageous. After all these deductions, some drivers are barely getting paid anything."
Castellanos expressed sympathy for the drivers' plight and their decision to resume their strike.
"It is very clear that the actions that their employers are taking is what's causing them to take even further action," she said.
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012)