Seattle port drivers return to work; major strike issues still unresolved

As their strike entered its third week, about 400 Seattle port short-haul truck drivers on Tuesday agreed to return to work. In return for agreeing to resume hauling shipping containers between the port and the nearby BNSF rail yard, the drivers won some modest concessions from employers.

But members of the drivers’ newly formed organization, the Seattle Port Truckers Association, said that the main issues that sparked the walkout, low pay, unsafe working conditions, and their misclassification as contract workers, remained unresolved and that they would continue their fight after their return to work.

“This is an ongoing process,” said Calvin Borders of the truckers association to the Seattle Times. “We will continue to fight as time goes on to make sure these problems will be resolved.”

“This is just the beginning, not the ending, said Demeke Meconnen, whose suspension by his employer sparked the wildcat strike, “Because we just showed them how strong we are.”

Some companies that were paying drivers $40 a trip agreed to raise pay to $44, the standard rate at the port. The companies also agreed pay drivers who wait in line for a load at the port for more than one hour and to pay drivers for some trips when they return to the port without a container.

However, the walkout, which began in January 31, was about more. “This is not only about the money,” said Meconnen, who like many of his co-workers is an immigrant from East Africa, to the Times. “We’re talking about  safety, respect, dignity and fairness.”

At a Monday solidarity rally organized by the Teamsters, other unions, and community supporters, drivers told the audience about the unsafe and unfair conditions under which they work.

Often drivers will be given a container that exceeds legal weight limits. If drivers refuse the load, they run the risk not getting other work. If they take the load and are stopped and ticketed by the police, drivers pay the fine out of their own pocket.

The loads are also sometimes too heavy for a truck’s suspension, creating a safety hazard for drivers, other motorists, and anyone close to the truck as it travels between the port and the rail yard. If the heavier than legal load causes damage to the truck, drivers have to pay for repairs and can’t work until the repairs are complete.

The companies are making their profit by forcing drivers to shoulder all the burden and risk, said Zekarias Abebe, a member of the truckers association. “We feel like they’ve backed us into a corner.”

One of the ways that the truckers will continue their fight is to build support for HB 2395, a bill recently passed the Washington House of Representatives and sent to the Senate. HB 2395 would reclassify port drivers as employees rather than contract workers. Changing their status will allow them to bargain collectively and be protected by state and federal labor laws. The Teamsters have been helping the drivers and would like to represent them if they can get their status changed.

The strike began two weeks ago after Meconnen was suspended for traveling to Olympia to testify in favor of a bill that would improve truck safety. His suspension outraged other drivers, who said that the suspension was an example of the companies’ racist and disrespectful attitude toward drivers.

The strike, which was honored by about one-third of the port’s drivers, caused the movement of cargo to slow down, which in turn created pressure from port officials and the shipping companies’ for the trucking companies to settle the strike. The two sides began talking with each other last Friday. They were joined by representatives of the port and the shipping companies.

The agreement that ended the strike came after some of the companies that were most affected by the strike said that they were losing accounts that would reduce their need for services provided by the drivers.

As long as the issues that caused the strike remain unresolved, the flow of goods remains vulnerable to another work action, which has led port officials to continue sponsoring talks between the two sides.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s