Nearly two weeks ago short-haul truck drivers at the Port of Seattle stopped working to protest their poor pay, unsafe working conditions, and their misclassification as independent contract workers. The port and local economy are starting to feel the impact of the work stoppage, and on Friday representatives of the port, the trucking companies, ocean carriers, and drivers met for two hours to try and resolve the impasse. But so far, the wildcat strike is still on.
Hundreds of drivers, who have been picketing near the port, and their supporters met Saturday at the Teamster Local 174 union hall in Tukwila, Washington to press their demands for safer working conditions and an end to their misclassification. A community and labor solidarity rally to support the drivers is planned for Monday morning.
The walkout began on January 31, the day after about 150 short-haul drivers left work for Olympia, the state capital, to testify at a legislative hearing on a truck safety bill The drivers, who ferry goods between the port and nearby rail yard, also wanted to show their support for another bill HB 2395, which would end their misclassification, making it possible for them to unionize and earn a decent wage.
When the workers, many if not most of whom are immigrants from East Africa, returned to work, a trucking company suspended one of its drivers, Yared Meconnen, for going to Olympia. The suspension triggered the strike. Drivers also complained that they were the target of racist remarks by company representatives. KPLU, the local public radio station, reports that 30 percent to 40 percent of the port’s drivers went on strike.
When the drivers went to Olympia, they told legislators what it’s like to do their jobs. “Our work is extremely dangerous,” said Semere Woldu, a short-haul driver for eight years.
“The shipping and rail lines force us to use faulty equipment. One time I got a load that was 4-5,000 pounds overweight, and it was on a chassis that was insufficient for carrying heavy loads. The company told me to take it anyway,” said 13-year driver Calvin Borders. “I was really nervous about it. All that extra weight puts a lot of wear and tear on the truck. It blew my wheel seal. It cost me $450. My truck is my livelihood. If it doesn’t work, I don’t work.”
While the drivers are grappling with unsafe loads, they’re also working for very low wages. They are paid a piece rate for the loads they deliver, sometimes worth millions of dollars. Out of that piece rate, they have to pay for gas, repairs, and maintenance. After all the expenses are deducted, the average pay is equal to between $10 and $11 an hour.
In some cases, pay is much less. Mekonnen told KING5 News that after he paid all of his expenses, he earned $15,000 last year. “I do have a family,” Mekonnen said in frustration.
Even though some drivers continue to work, the strike is having a big impact on business at the port. “We’re seeing a larger impact than just the pure numbers of drivers who might not be showing up for work,” Seaport Managing Director Linda Stykr told KING5 News. She said that if the strike isn’t resolved soon port business could go elsewhere.
Port Commissioner Rob Holland has been talking with the drivers directly. He called the trucking companies’ labor model, which relies on contract labor, a “dog eat dog process” and said that the drivers’ low pay is a weak link in the intricate supply chain that moves goods from the port to rail yards to warehouses and to retail stores.
“They’re doing piece work, and historically piecework has been unsustainable,” said Dave Freiboth, King County (Seattle) Labor Council executive secretary.
In addition to support from the Teamsters and local labor council, the strikers have also received support from community and religious groups. “Drivers should be able to go to Olympia to ask for safer trucks, without having to worry about the possibility of losing their jobs and being verbally harassed or threatened, ” said Michael Ramos, director of social justice ministries for the Church Council of Greater Seattle at a community rally supporting the strikers.
On Friday, the Washington House of Representatives passed HB 2395.