After leaving the Port of Los Angeles with a full load, Xiomara Perez-Barragan parked her short-haul truck at a McDonald’s to use the restroom and grab a quick bite to eat. She came back to her truck about ten minutes later and delivered her load on time. Three days later her employer, Toll Group, fired her for her rest stop. Stopping for rest breaks is a common practice among truckers, but the company told her that such stops are against company policy.
“How can they fire someone for using the restroom?” asked Perez-Barragan to La Opinion, a Latino community newspaper.
Perez-Barragan and her fellow workers think that Toll Group, a multi-billion dollar international transportation company based in Australia, fired her not so much for taking a rest break but for her union organizing activity.
She has been an outspoken critic of the company’s treatment of its drivers, which she and others describe as inhumane. For example, the company prohibits drivers from using the clean, sanitary restrooms at its offices. Instead, it requires them to use ill-maintained portable toilets in the port’s parking area. Drivers also complain of low pay and inadequate and expensive health care coverage.
To address these problems, Perez-Barragan and other Toll drivers are working with the Teamsters to organize a union. But Toll, whose trucks ferry goods from the port to warehouses of prominent US brands such as Guess?, Ralph Lauren, Polo, and others, has resisted their efforts.
“I don’t think we’re asked for anything extraordinary,” she said. “Safe, sanitary facilities to wash our hands and use the bathroom has even been too much for management to provide us. If we had our collective bargaining rights we could also negotiate fairer schedules, so we could catch our children’s soccer game or attend a parent-teacher conference. We are professionals who work so hard. We make them rich. We just want a shot at a middle-class paycheck.”
Perez-Barragan’s firing isn’t the first incident that Toll drivers and the Teamsters say are aimed at intimidating union supporters. In October, 26 Toll drivers were fired after union activists came to work wearing Teamster t-shirts and presented a petition signed by 75 drivers asking that they be allowed to use the company’s office restrooms. The Teamsters subsequently filed an unfair labor practice complaint charge against Toll. Ten of the 26 have subsequently been rehired.
Things heated up in January after the workers filed a petition for a union representation election with National Labor Relations Board. The petition was signed by 80 percent of the drivers. Since then Toll has been holding a series of mandatory meetings during which company representatives explain to drivers why they don’t need a union.
The Teamsters say that some of the information presented to drivers are “outright lies” and that the meetings are an attempt to intimidate workers and cut into the overwhelming support for the union among drivers. At one of the February meetings, Andrew Ehell, Toll’s General Manager for Group Corporate Affairs, flew in from Australia and along with Toll’s head of US operations spoke to workers.
“We couldn’t believe it,” said Tomas Pena, a Toll driver with eight years on the job. “We’ve unfortunately become accustomed to Toll’s West Coast management harassing us, but now a top executive flew all the way in from Australia to push us around too.”
The Teamsters say that Perez-Barragan’s “cruel termination” was just another example of Toll’s anti-union campaign. Six days after her firing, male co-workers delivered a letter to Toll’s Southern California management demanding that she be rehired. The workers also filed an unfair labor practices charge against the company over her firing.
The Los Angeles Toll drivers have received international support especially from their counterparts in Australia, where Toll bargains with its workers’ union, Australia’s Transport Workers Union. TWU recently issued a statement condemning Toll and praising Perez-Barragan’s courage and leadership.
“The behavior by Toll is truly shocking,” said Michael Aird of the TWU. “We know Xiomara was sacked for wanting a union, and any worker that must endure management who fires a woman for needing to make a pit stop clearly needs one.”