David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Immigrant Big-Rig Drivers Threaten to Shut Down the LA Harbor
by David Bacon

SAN PEDRO, CA (2/20/96) There are some jobs that make people want to join unions.

Driving a truck in the LA harbor is one of them.

But the federal government says harbor truckers, and millions of other workers like them, cannot join a union. They may look, think, talk and work like workers, but the government tells them they are not workers at all; they are independent contractors. So when these workers-who- are-not-workers get fed up with their jobs, and want to do something about it, they face not only their own employers, but the authorities whose sworn duty used to be protecting their rights.

Raul Miramontes is a trucker in the LA and Long Beach harbor. He describes his life: "In order to get a load, you have to get up early, at four o'clock in the morning," he explains. "You pull yourself up into the cab of your truck while you're still half-awake - you don't even see your family before you leave. Then you go down to the harbor and get into the lines. And you wait."

At the truck terminals, dozens of cabs and empty trailers stand with their big diesels running. The air turns thick and acrid from the blue smoke. In the distance, huge ships are pulled up next to the docks, containers stacked so high on their decks they seem like tall buildings. Enormous container cranes stack and unstack them, moving them like toys from dock to ship and back.

"Finally, you get to the head of the line, and you get a container," Miramontes says. "Then you have to get into another line to get out of the harbor. Finally, you're on the freeway, making time as fast as you can, to deliver it to the customer. When you get there, you usually have to wait to unload as well, before you go back down to the harbor for another pick up. And during all those hours of waiting, you don't get paid anything."

Waiting isn't the only thing, he says, that gets under a driver's skin. The containers, which are the size of a semi trailer, are supposed to be inspected. Often they're not. Many times they're overweight. Sometimes they're poorly packed, and the cargo inside shifts suddenly. When that happens, the whole rig turns over - container, tractor, trailer and driver as well. On a freeway, that can be deadly, not only for the trucker, but for any other cars around as well.

Miramontes, a heavyset man from Mexico, delivers his criticism slowly and deliberately. His friend, Kaan Ural, a Turk, is just the opposite. He's thin and wiry, rattling off his complaints like a machine gun.

"The working conditions are terrible," he says, poking the air with his finger. "We often wait 10 and 12 hours a day. Sometimes we work 24 hours without stopping. We have no workers compensation, no unemployment insurance, no medical care, no nothing. I have a wife and two kids. If I go to work tomorrow and break my leg on the job, no one will take care of them."

Workers with complaints like these are the lifeblood of union organizing drives, and in fact, the harbor truckers are in the thick of one right now. Their latest effort, which has been underway for a year, is part of a struggle which goes back two decades.

The drivers have one big problem, the main reason why it's taken so long.

They own their trucks.

Not by choice. Not because they're upper-middleclass entrepreneurs. But because of deregulation.

In 1973, the federal government pulled apart the web of rules which set prices for transporting goods from one point to another, and which provided minimum safety standards for drivers. In the era of cutthroat competition which followed, trucking companies cut their costs to the bone. The most common method they used to pare down expenses was getting rid of drivers. Company after company laid off men and women who had been employees for years. Then, the same companies offered to pay a driver with his or her own truck a set amount of money to carry a load.

Old-timers in the harbor remember when the companies had big lots full of used trucks, and sold them to the same people who used to be their employees. Once drivers bought a rig, though, instead of driving for the company they drove for the bank. From then on, all the expenses were theirs - gas, insurance, loan payment, repairs - everything.

For the companies, it's been a good deal - a piecerate system in which they pay by the load, without assuming any of the risks. They no longer pay workers compensation, disability, or unemployment insurance premiums for the drivers. If taxes or the price of gas goes up, drivers have to absorb it. If a truck breaks down, it's not the company's concern.

"We get paid per load," Miramontes says angrily, "so we have to work long hours to get enough loads to make a living."

Long hours can be dangerous. "If someone is driving 18 or 19 hours in a day," Ural asks, "what can you expect from him? He's going to kill somebody on the freeway. And who'll be responsible for that?"

In addition, both men say drivers are routinely cheated. "I've seen many times," Ural alleges, "that drivers, who pay over 600 dollars a month for insurance, find they don't have any when they get into an accident. Shipping lines, stevedoring companies, insurance companies, trucking companies - they're all part of this. They violate customs laws and tax laws. They don't comply with ICC regulations. It's a mess."

Most importantly, after deregulation the drivers no longer had a union.

Originally harbor truckers belonged to the Teamsters Union. But after deregulation, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that trucking companies had no legal obligation to bargain a contract, because drivers were no longer workers in the eyes of the law. They were independent contractors.

According to Virginia Rodriguez, organizing director for Region 9 of the Communications Workers of America, "you would not think that the NLRB, which was created in the mid-1930s by Congress to protect workers' rights to organize and form unions, would stand for this. But the board over the years has sided more and more with employers. Now it's like a hollow agency. There are no teeth in the law. Employers can do anything to keep workers from organizing a union. They've turned the NLRB inside-out."

"The companies told us that it was good to be an owner-operator, and they fooled us for a while," Ural remembers. "But like they say, you can't fool all the people all the time. And we realized pretty quickly that we have to be employees in order to be protected by the National Labor Relations Act and the state labor code. Every day I have to worry about what's going to happen tomorrow. We can't have any security if we're owner-operators. It needs to be changed."

There have been quite a few attempts to change the status of drivers in the last two decades. At first, those who had been Teamsters asked each other to show their union card when they went to pick up loads. But the port was being mechanized in the early 1970s. Many people were unemployed and saw trucking jobs as a way to survive. Little by little, the union lost control of the industry.

In the summer and fall of 1984, drivers unhappy over declining conditions spontaneously struck and shut down the harbor. The workforce of that period, about 2500 drivers, simply stopped driving, although they mounted no picketlines. In the strike's aftermath, they tried to set up a cooperative, but it failed.

Then, in December of 1986, drivers organized the Waterfront and Railway Truckers Union. They discovered that harbor truckers in New York and New Jersey were being paid for their waiting time. One driver went to small claims court in Los Angeles to make the same claim here. He won. Truckers' wives then set up tables in the lines, and filled out hundreds of similar claim forms. The total amount of money in dispute quickly mounted into the tens of thousands of dollars, and the companies brought in high-priced lawyers. They took the case into Superior Court, and the drivers were defeated.

Finally, in 1988, drivers mounted the biggest challenge of all. After trucking companies refused to improve conditions, they were struck for six weeks. Families brought bathtubs full of tamales down to the picketlines the union set up in the harbor. But one of the companies brought in 300 people from El Salvador to break the strike, promising to get legal status for them. With the threat of violence and replacement staring workers in the face, the strike eventually ended.

Rising gas prices led to a wildcat movement in 1993, which swept across the country as owner-operators refused to pick up loads until trucking companies absorbed part of the increased cost. In the LA harbor, the strike lasted a lot longer than it did nationally. "After five days, "Ural remembers, "we got a call, saying the nationwide strike was over, but we stayed out here for three weeks. We had a lot more problems to solve here than drivers did in other parts of the country." Police in the harbor came down hard on the drivers, however, and they eventually went back to work.

As the harbor's trucking wars have ground on, the workforce has changed. Now over 90 percent of the drivers who move containers in and out of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are immigrants, almost all from Mexico and Central America. The harbor battles have become part of the immigrant labor upsurge, which is reshaping southern California's union movement. This upsurge is as much social protest as it is a classic workers' struggle. Common national experience has combined with the shared status of being the workforce at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Together, these two factors are the source of unity for the drivers, as they have been for drywallers and framers, janitors, farmworkers, hotel workers, and factory workers, all of whom have struck and won union contracts in the last few years.

"We all come over here with the intention of sharing the American dream," Ural says. "But once we get here, we see the reality. We can't have that dream. Back in Turkey, I saw America on TV. But now that I'm here, I see the real America. Employers had a purpose in bringing us here - they want our labor because it's cheaper. But we are not against unions, especially the Mexicans. We are all union people. We fight for unionism. That's why we're trying to organize."

In January of 1994, the port drivers organized the Latin American Truckers Association, and began looking for a union which would help them to challenge their owner-operator status. They found Local 9400 of the Communications Workers of America. In the last year, CWA has signed up the vast majority of the 6000 truckers who now drive in and out of the harbor. Drivers' weekly meetings at the CWA hall often bring out 1000 workers.

Last month, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were shaken by over a thousand drivers, who organized a miles-long caravan of big rigs from Lynwood to Long Beach City Hall. Hundreds of cabs and trailers moved slowly down the Harbor Freeway, and through the streets of Long Beach in a tightly organized formation, flying flags and banners demanding the right to organize.

On their arrival at City Hall, the drivers told the Long Beach City Council that they expected the city, which controls the Port of Long Beach, to support their demands for better treatment.

The caravan was preceded by a large rally under an overpass of the 105 freeway in Lynwood. Labor and political leaders, including Lynwood Mayor Paul Richards, Mark Bixler, executive vice-president of CWA Local 9400, David Sickler, director of AFL-CIO Region 6, Los Angeles City Councilmember Richard Alarcon, former state senator Art Torres, and United Farm Workers leaders Arturo Rodriguez and Dolores Huerta, all pledged their support to the truckers. They also heard from two Mexican unionists, Leopoldo Navarro and Umberto Samaniego, organizers for the Transport Workers Union of Mexico.

During the rally and caravan, the union reiterated the three basic demands drivers are making on shipping companies. They want a centralized dispatch system which can regulate the work, and alleviate the long lines. They want to be paid for the time they spend waiting to pick up containers. Finally, drivers demand strict inspection of the containers themselves. Overweight containers damage the trucks, and often cause blowouts and accidents.

Last October, after a similar caravan from the ports to downtown Los Angeles, the LA City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the three demands. When drivers and their union approached the city council in Long Beach, however, they met an unsympathetic response. The city attorney told the union that the council would not consider a similar resolution.

Virginia Rodriguez accuses Long Beach city authorities of "listening to shipping interests, and not listening to the drivers. We say these are working people," she adds, "human beings who deserve a living wage. And this owner-operator status is being used to deny them that. It keeps these workers captive of an industry where they have no rights."

"In the last strike," Ural concludes, "it only took us a day to get the support of over 3000 drivers. The trucking companies should listen to us carefully. Either they go along with us, or we'll roll right through them."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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