After a two-year struggle, 65 short-haul truck drivers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach successfully negotiated a union contract with their employer, the Australian based Toll Group. The contract boosts pay, provides affordable health care and a pension, and gives workers a voice on the job. It’s a breakthrough contract in an industry with little if any union density.
Drivers are the backbone of the short-haul trucking industry, but they are shamefully underpaid and have few if any benefits.
The new Toll contract offers hope to all of them. Through solidarity and collective action the Toll workers overcame obstacles that kept them in poverty and semi-servitude; other short-haul drivers can do the same.
“If we can win, I know other port truck drivers across the US can unite just like we did,” said Orlando Ayala,” one of the Toll drivers. “A voice on the job means management can no longer humiliate us or force us to suffer in poverty while they profit.”
The first contract negotiated by Teamster Local 848’s newest members is remarkable. It boosts starting pay for day shift work from $12.72 an hour to $19 an hour; pay for night shift work increases from $13.22 an hour to $19.72 an hour. There’s also a $0.50 an hour pay increase for each of the next two years of the contract.
Before the new contract, the drivers’ health care premium was $125 a month for individuals or $400 a month to cover dependents, which meant that some did not have health insurance. Under the new contract, health care premiums are $30 a month for individuals or $150 a month to cover dependents.
Before the new contract, workers could contribute to a 401(k) plan, but many couldn’t afford to do so. Under the new contract, Toll Group contributes $1 per hour per driver in 2013 and 2014 to the workers’ defined benefit pension plan, the Teamsters Western Conference Pension Trust. In 2015, the employer contribution increases to $1.50 per driver.
Before the contract, Toll Group could impose changes to work rules, and the drivers had no recourse but to accept the changes or find another job. Under the new contract, the employer must give drivers notice of any proposed changes and the opportunity to meet with the employer to discuss the changes.
Before the new the contract, drivers had no paid holidays, sick days, or paid vacations. Now they do.
Two years ago it was hard to imagine this outcome. But Toll drivers began organizing and stayed with it despite company attempts to break their spirit.
In 2011, a group of Toll workers and community supporters protested Toll’s policy that prevented drivers from using bathrooms at the Toll port offices. When two drivers tried to present a petition signed 59 Toll drivers asking that management allow them use of clean restrooms, they were ignored and humiliated.
Months later, drivers supporting the union wore Teamster t-shirts to work as an expression of solidarity. The company responded by firing 26 drivers.
The firings didn’t stop the workers from organizing. Those who kept their jobs stood in solidarity with those fired, some of whom were eventually able to return to work.
In 2012, the drivers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a union election.
The company responded by stepping up its anti-union campaign. It held captive audience meetings where workers were fed anti-union propaganda. Some of the most vocal union supporters were harassed and intimidated. At least one was fired, but the workers held together and in April voted to join the Teamsters.
The drivers received ample community support. Religious and community leaders from many different backgrounds participated in rallies and other support actions to demonstrate their solidarity with the Latin American immigrant drivers.
Leaders of the Australian Transport Workers Union also stood with Toll drivers at a demonstration at a Toll Group corporate meeting in Australia and denounced the corporation for its inhumane treatment of its workers in the US.
The short-haul trucking industry, which shuttles goods between the nation’s ports and nearby retail warehouses, is unregulated and non-union. Most of the companies classify their drivers as independent contractors, which makes it illegal for them to join a union.
Toll is different. It employs its drivers directly.
Even though, most short-haul companies classify their drivers as independent contractors, the Teamsters contend that the drivers in most instances are misclassified. In the last year, the federal government and the State of California have increased efforts to investigate claims of misclassification.
If they find that employers have misclassifed their workers, then many more short-haul drivers will become eligible for union membership and have a chance to repeat the success at Toll.