Port truck drivers and warehouse workers make progress in their fight for justice

After hearing testimony from port truck drivers and warehouse workers, the Los Angeles City Council Trade, Travel and Tourism Committee unanimously voted to recommend passage of a city ordinance aimed at ending labor abuses of port truck drivers and warehouse workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Port truck drivers, who ferry goods between the ports and nearby warehouses, and warehouse workers are important links in the global supply chain that delivers $450 billion worth of consumer goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to retail stores, but they work under appalling conditions.

Council member Mike Bonin, a committee member who listened workers’ testimonies before the vote, described their working conditions as “modern day sharecropping.”

Duane Wilson, a warehouse worker who testified before the committee, said that racial discrimination, low wages, and his status as a temporary worker, who never knows from one day to the next whether he will work, make it impossible for him to earn a living wage.

With the help of the Teamsters union, drivers and warehouse workers are building a political campaign at the local, state, and federal level to end labor abuses at the ports.

Their political campaign complements their actions on the job that include strikes and an ongoing organizing campaign to make their jobs good-paying union jobs.

The campaign won a victory when the Trade, Travel, and Tourism Committee voted to recommend that the city council consider denying companies that violate city, state, or federal labor laws access to city property.

Currently, port trucking companies and warehouse owners operate on city-owned land at or near the ports.

At the federal level, Rep. Grace Napolitano has filed the Port Drivers Bill of Rights bill in the US House of Representatives.

On November 30, Sen. Bernie Sanders met with port truck drivers. After the meeting, Sanders said that he would support the Port Drivers Bill of Rights because “the federal government should not be rewarding trucking companies that exploit and abuse their workers.”

One way that these trucking companies exploit and abuse their workers is by misclassifying them as independent contractors instead of employees.

In doing so, companies don’t pay for social security, unemployment, or workers compensation benefits. They also don’t pay overtime when drivers work more than 40 hours a week, which they frequently do.

Also by misclassifying their drivers as independent contractors, trucking companies can find more ways to exploit drivers such as leasing trucks to drivers.

The lease agreement that workers are forced to sign in order to work requires them to pay as much as $60 a day to rent a truck and requires them to pay for insurance, fuel, and some maintenance costs.

These expenses can leave drivers in debt to trucking companies.

Judy Gearhart and Sarah Newell of the International Labor Rights Forum write that these “unethical leasing agreements” amount to “debt bondage” that result in some drivers being paid as little as $3 an hour, well below the federal minimum wage.

When drivers speak up about their working conditions, they often face reprisals.

Rene Flores, a port truck driver, told committee members at the hearing that he was fired for talking to a reporter about conditions on the job.

Despite the risks, port truck drivers and warehouse workers have been fighting back.

Since 2014 when the workers first began organizing, there have been 15 strikes by port truck drivers. They also have filed more than 1000 legal actions charging their bosses with wage theft and misclassifying them as independent contractors.

According to USA Today, which published an extensive expose about working conditions at the ports, judges have ruled in favor of the workers in 97 percent of these cases.

Most recently, an administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of workers when he agreed that International Bridge Transport, which ships goods to warehouses owned by Amazon, Target, and others, had misclassified its truck drivers.

The judge ordered the company to stop misclassifying its drivers and stop intimidating and harassing drivers trying to form a union.

“Intermodal Bridge Transport has made it increasingly difficult for me to make a living by illegally and immorally classifying me as an independent contractor instead of an employee,” said Daniel Aneseko Uaina, an International Bridge Transport driver after learning about the judge’s ruling. “With this ruling, justice has been served and the company can no longer deny me my employee rights.”

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Port truck drivers strike to end misclassification

Striking short haul port truck drivers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Wednesday, April 29 expanded their picketing to the Union Pacific’s Los Angeles Transportation Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Wednesday was the third day of the strike against for four trucking companies at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach: Pacific 9 Transportation (Pac 9), Pacer Cartage, Harbor Rail Transport, and Intermodal Rail Transport.

The striking drivers haul freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to nearby rail centers and warehouses. The freight is then transported all across the US.

Until Wednesday, they had limited their picketing to the properties owned by the companies being struck. If the strike continues, the picketing could be expanded again to the maritime terminals at the ports.

The workers are striking because they have been misclassified as independent workers even though they have little independence and work directly for their companies.

The misclassification, according to the striking workers, has led illegal deductions from the pay for things like truck leases, insurance, fuel, and maintenance.

“We are (striking) to make sure that these companies stop their lawless behavior,” said Hector Flores, a striking driver. “They cannot keep engaging in wage theft. We demand re-­ classification to employees.  We know what we are doing is right, and we are not going to stop striking until these companies stop breaking the law.

“We had no choice but to go on strike again because my company is continuing to violate the law.” said Humberto Canales another striking truck driver. “The courts have ruled that I am an employee and that their illegal deductions from my paycheck must stop. But they keep fighting me so I am fighting back.

Canales works for Pacer Cartage.

Seven Pacer employees in 2013 filed complaints with the California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) charging the company with misclassifying them as independent contractors.

DLSE in April 2014 ruled in favor of the drivers, noting that the drivers were forbidden from working for another trucking company, couldn’t turn down work without facing sanctions, were required to report to work at specific times, and were assigned routes by a company dispatcher.

DLSE ruled that Pacer owed the workers $2 million in back pay for the illegal deductions.

Pacer appealed DLSE’s decision.

A California Superior Court judge  in January upheld DLSE’s decision and ordered Pacer to pay the workers the $2 million in back pay.

Pacer appealed the judge’s decision and continues to classify drivers as independent contractors.

About 5o port drivers for Pacific 9 Transportation, another company being struck, have filed misclassification charges against the company that are still pending before the DLSE.

In all about 500 port drivers have initiated claims of misclassification with DLSE, which so far has ruled on 56 of them and in every case ruled in favor of the drivers.

Despite the fact that the companies continue to lose in the courts and at DLSE, they appear to be pinning their hopes of maintaining their illegal misclassification system by using the lengthy appeal process to wear down the drivers.

The workers’ strike appears to be an attempt to force the issue and make the companies follow the law.

One port trucking company, Green Fleet Systems, has broken ranks with the others.

The Teamsters, which has been supporting the drivers in their efforts to fight misclassification, announced before the strike began that it reached an agreement with Green Fleet.

“We are pleased to announce that Green Fleet Systems, LLC, and the Teamsters Union have entered into a comprehensive labor peace agreement designed to ensure that Green Fleet’s drivers have an opportunity to exercise their rights under the National Labor Relations Act and, if they choose, to select an exclusive representative for purpose of collective bargaining,” said the Teamsters in a statement announcing the agreement.

Green Fleet drivers went on strike last summer to protest their misclassification.

Another trucking company, Shippers Transport Express in November reclassified its independent contractors as employees, and in January, the new driver/employees voted to join the Teamsters.

Two of the companies being struck, Pacer and Harbor Bridge Transport, are owned by the same company, XPO Logistics.

According to the Teamsters, XPO Logistics recently acquired 3PL Norbert Dentressangle a French company for $3.5 billion.

“We are shocked to learn that just as XPO Logistics battles the company’s immigrant port truck drivers in California Superior Court to avoid reimbursing them more than $2 million in illegal deductions stolen by the company’s subsidiary, Pacer Cartage, from their paychecks, the company has gone on what is being called an acquisition spree,” said Fred Potter, director of the Teamsters’ Port Division.