They wanted to use clean bathrooms in the company’s office. When the company said no, they decided to form a union. When they showed up for work one day last month wearing their union t-shirts, the company fired them. That’s the story of 26 port truck drivers, who haul containers from the Port of Los Angeles to Los Angeles’ high-end fashion stores. Before they were fired, they worked for Toll Global, an Australian company that is one of the world’s largest transportation companies.
The fired workers and about 150 of their supporters on November 10 picketed the Australian consulate in Los Angeles urging the Australian government to convince Toll to rehire the drivers.
“They work in deplorable conditions, and that’s why they wanted to join the Teamsters,” said TJ Michaels a spokeswoman for the Teamsters at the demonstration.
“They treat us like dirt,” said Alberto Quiteno, one of the fired drivers who has worked as a port driver for 17 years.
Conditions at the Toll facility at the Los Angeles port led workers to begin thinking about joining a union. For one thing, drivers are required to use portable toilets in the parking lot where there is no drinkable running water. Because the portables are dirty and unsanitary, the workers asked the company to allow them to use the same bathrooms that management and office workers use.
The company refused their request. A company spokesperson told the Los Angeles Business Journal that the outhouses that the drivers were required to use were ”deluxe portable private bathrooms” and that when it got hot, the company provided them with bottled water.
The drivers, who are mostly immigrant workers from Latin America, also wanted the better pay and benefits of union jobs. They contacted the Teamsters after they learned that their union drivers in Australia who work for Toll earned middle-class wages and benefits and were treated with more respect than the Toll workers in the US.
After the Teamsters started to help them organize, Toll hired a union avoidance company from Texas. The workers filed unfair labor practices charges against the company for its harassment and threats against union supporters.
Things came to a head in October. Union supporters circulated a petition demanding access to the company’s clean bathrooms. sixty-two out of the 75 drivers who work for Toll at the Los Angeles port signed the petition. Quiteno along with a representative of Teamsters Local 848 and local clergy who are supporting the workers took the petition to the Toll headquarters in Melbourne, Australia and presented it to the outgoing company CEO Paul Little during the corporation’s annual shareholders’ meeting.
While the shareholders’ meeting was going on, members of the Transport Workers Union, which represents Toll workers in Australia, demonstrated in support of their Los Angeles brothers and sisters outside.
In the meantime, 25 Los Angeles Toll workers showed up for work on October 26 wearing Teamster t-shirts. Outside, supporters organized by the Teamsters and the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, an environmental and labor coalition fighting to clean up the Los Angeles ports and their surrounding neighborhoods, picketed and rallied for the workers.
The next day, Quiteno and the workers who wore their union t-shirts were fired. They have since filed more unfair labor practices against Toll.
A delegation from the November 10 demonstration met with Australian consul-general Chris De Cure. Before the meeting, Michaels told the media, “We want to call attention to the fact this Australian-based company does not treat its workers in the US in the same humane manner it treats its truck drivers in Australia. We want to expose what is going in the LA operations and hope we can turn it around and get the drivers’ jobs back.”
After the meeting, De Cure told the Sydney Morning Herald that ”I . . . told the delegation that Australia had one of the fairest and most balanced industrial relations systems in the world and that it would be regrettable if anyone were to use this dispute in the United States to infer otherwise.”