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America's Sweatshops on Wheels Find a Light at the End of the Tunnel

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TRUCK DRIVER
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It's been a long, dark road for America's port truck drivers, but finally there's a light at the end of the tunnel. After nearly 30 years of ruthless exploitation by the trucking industry, the drivers who transport the goods that fuel our consumer economy may be poised to rejoin the country's middle class, thanks to an important determination by a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

Last month, the NLRB's Los Angeles office announced the settlement of a case brought by truck drivers against Pacific 9 Transportation Inc. The drivers alleged that the company had illegally used threats and intimidation to prevent them from exercising their right to form a union, a practice that is rampant across the country thanks to our lax labor laws.

But here's where it gets interesting. Pac 9's drivers are considered independent contractors by the company and, according to labor law, independent contractors -- unlike employees -- don't have the right to form a union. This means that the NLRB could easily have dismissed the drivers' charges by finding that no matter what Pac 9 might have done, it didn't matter because the drivers couldn't form a union anyway.

That's not what happened, though. The settlement agreement that Pac 9 signed referred to the drivers as employees rather than as independent contractors. And that is a game changer for the entire industry, because since the 1980s port trucking companies have misclassified tens of thousands of drivers as independent contractors -- thereby denying them basic rights afforded to most American workers. Truckers misclassified as independent contractors are deprived of workers compensation, disability, unemployment insurance and a host of other rights, and are subject to huge, unlawful deductions from their paychecks, relegating many to poverty.

The scam of misclassification within port trucking has been well documented over the past seven years, thanks to campaigns centered in our nation's largest port complex -- the Ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach -- and spreading to seaports across America. But this is one of the first settlements by the NLRB that goes to the heart of the independent contractor myth, and the ripples could be felt beyond port trucking. Indeed, the settlement sets the stage for workers across the country to be recognized as employees -- and once that happens, the whole system of exploitation will begin to crumble.

In California, that has already started to happen, thanks to the more than 500 drivers who have brought wage and hour complaints to the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. DLSE has issued 30 rulings so far -- and every single one has found that the drivers are employees, not independent contractors. The state has awarded over $3.5 million in back pay to drivers, and there's a lot more to come.

While California has led the way in the fight to dismantle port trucking misclassification, drivers and activists in other states are also taking action. New York recently passed an anti-misclassification law that makes it harder for the port trucking industry to classify drivers as independent contractors, and drivers in Savannah, Georgia, have launched a new effort to challenge their second-class status as independent contractors.

Where is all this leading? To a huge sea change in the low-road U.S. supply chain and beyond, including a likely new wave of workers joining unions. As Frederick Potter of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters remarked, "Now every port driver who wants to end their sweatshop conditions -- get fairly compensated for every hour they work so they can drive safely, have sanitary bathroom facilities, clean drinking water, and medical insurance for their families -- can bargain collectively to climb the economic ladder into the middle class."

It won't happen overnight, but the nation's port truck drivers are leading the way for all American workers to once again have a shot at the American Dream.

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