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L.A. Port Truck Drivers Put Their Jobs on the Line for Decent Pay and Cleaner Air

05/05/2015 12:57 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

Following the most recent work stoppage by port truck drivers in southern California, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the formation of a new trucking company, which will be a model for good pay and protecting the environment. The announcement takes the port drivers' ongoing protest of low wages and exploitative working conditions to a new level.

Eco Flow Transportation's founding came out of a long-running dispute between port drivers and Total Transportation Services, which had fired some 35 drivers who had filed claims for their unlawful misclassification as independent contractors and for illegal deductions from their paychecks.

The new company, breaking with the widespread, illegal practice of treating drivers as independent contractors, already employs 80 drivers with a goal of expanding to 500 within a year. The firm promises to be neutral in efforts by its employees to join the Teamsters Union, which has been supporting the drivers' protests and legal actions against misclassification as contractors.

Eco Flow also aims to address diesel pollution from port trucks that are not maintained at standards, established in 2008, which aimed at drastically lowering the environmental health threats from the trucks. A court ruling in 2010 effectively placed the cost of maintaining clean trucks on drivers. The port drivers, who are forced by the trucking companies to be  "independent contractors," work an average of 59 hours a week, with take-home pay of under $29,000. The drivers' low-pay makes it difficult for them to keep trucks at a level to meet clean air standards. But because Eco Flow owns the trucks, it assumes full responsibility for maintaining the fleet's clean air standards.

Eco Flow is also working to introduce a new model for the ports, called "free flow" cargo, which can help move cargo out of terminals more rapidly and increase the velocity of Port of Los Angeles terminals. The benefits will be less pollution from idling trucks and less port congestion. More efficient deliveries will also make it easier for the firm to pay the drivers a decent salary. This is a sharp contrast from most port-trucking companies who, by treating drivers as contractors, pay them by delivery and so pass on the cost of idling time to the drivers.  

What does it take for workers to risk their jobs in actions that often result in retaliation by employers? I talked with Nick Weiner, an organizer at Change to Win, about the transformation that port drivers went through over several years, which led them to go from accepting their status to protesting.

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Q: What has been the barrier to port drivers taking actions?

Weiner: The Teamsters have tried over the last 30 years but failed because we've allowed the illusion that drivers are independent contractors to drive strategies in the past. The drivers had used the language of the boss -- calling themselves independent owner-operators. Part of the helping them come together was to use different language, so they could engage one another.

In '96 in L.A. there was a big strike. And there were smaller ones. All failed, because drivers didn't have the right language and didn't engage government officials to enforce law. We learned our history.

Sometimes they said, "We want to be reclassified as employees." But they weren't saying, "We are your employees now." That's what's needed to go from defensive. It's not just we want to be employees, and everything is fine. It's by being employees, we can join a union and negotiate a contract. The end is not being an employee; there are a lot of employees not doing well.

We have this term "misclassification" -- a very wonky, inside-baseball, but now it means something. Yeah, we know we're misclassified. It means taking away our rights, employers stealing from us. New language has been liberating.

Q: How do drivers get an understanding of how they could do better through organizing?

Weiner: Drivers see that [unionized] longshoremen get treated well: they are paid well, get time off, while the drivers sit for hours on line [at the ports], without getting paid. They've come to see that the do critical work and are the largest set of workers in the port economy who are left out of the prosperity of the port economy.

We've worked to tie those things together, being employees and the union. They thought they needed to deal with misclassification and then organize. Instead, needed to get them to understand you're an employee now, you can organize now.

It takes time for drivers to undo the brainwashing, to engage in collective struggle.

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The collective struggle has taken two forms. The first has been a series of unfair labor practice pickets, aimed at specific companies, which block access to the ports of those companies trucks. The second is legal action under California law. Drivers have filed more than 400 claims against companies under California's wage and hour law. The first 19 rulings resulted in an average award of $66,240, largely for wage and hour violations and illegal paycheck deductions for items like truck leases.

The drivers are also filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which governs union organizing.

Slowly, the organizing is paying off. One firm, Green Fleet, avoided being picketed last week by reaching a comprehensive labor peace agreement with the Teamsters. After a U.S. Department of Labor ruling, another firm, Shippers Transport Express, reclassified its "independent contractors" as employees and in February signed a contract with the Teamsters, which resulted in higher pay and fully paid healthcare benefits for the drivers.

The growing militancy of exploited workers, from Uber drivers to Walmart "associates" to home care workers and many more, is building a new movement of workers to challenge the 21st-century economy, in the same way that workers built the labor movement 100 years ago. Their organizing and militancy helped drive the New Deal economic reforms, which built the middle class in the 20th century. The fight of today's workers is laying the foundation for the reforms we need to rebuild the middle class today in an economy based on good jobs and environmental sustainability. 

Cross-posted from Next New Deal

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the new trucking company would be employee-owned.