Beginning Monday, April 28, Southern California truck drivers at the Long Beach and San Pedro ports, will go on a limited two-day "exhibition" strike to protest what they see as a gross misclassification. Truckers as far away as Savannah, Georgia, are expected to join in the protest.
Needless to say, trucking companies are doing everything in their power to maintain their stranglehold on these drivers. Classifying them as "independent contractors" rather than "employees," works wholly in their favor, as it not only gives them near dictatorial powers, but prohibits drivers from seeking union representation.
Conversely, classifying them as "employees" opens up a wide array of choices, one of which is union membership. It doesn't mean they have to join a union, only that they can. As is so typical of methods used by management to squelch union drives, the companies insist that "most drivers" are happy with the current arrangement, and that it's the Teamsters who are fomenting trouble, in order to get more union dues.
Of course, when a trucker belongs to a union, it's a whole new ballgame. No more impossibly long hours, no more abysmally low wages, no more deadhead time. As union members, they're entitled to negotiate their wages, hours, benefit package, and working conditions -- the prospect of which terrifies trucking companies as much as giving African-Americans the right to vote terrified the Deep South.
Being recognized as employees (rather than independents) makes all the difference in the world. That's why football players at Northwestern University filed their grievance with the NLRB. The only way these athletes will ever have a genuine say in how they are treated is to be recognized as university "employees." Once that hurdle has been cleared, they are free to carve out their own niche.
With Corporate America getting pretty much anything it wants, outside contractors are very much in vogue. When you hire a contractor (and not an "employee"), you don't worry about vacation liability, holiday pay, pensions, health care, or training costs. These guys may be "working" on your property, but they are "employed" by someone else. Or in the case of truckers, they're conveniently classified as "self-employed."
This contractor issue triggered a memory. Back in my union days, a contractor was fired for urinating in a bathroom sink. Even though our maintenance men resented these guys for coming in and "stealing their work," the union executive board nonetheless tried to get this guy reinstated. As much as we despised outside contractors, we didn't think he deserved to lose his job. Simple as that.
Unlike our production workers who adhered to a "tag relief" system (i.e., where workers are relieved on their machines by a designated relief person), these contractors took their breaks at the same time, meaning their jobs were left unattended. Because all work stopped the moment they went on break, they weren't allowed to take so much as a minute longer than authorized.
On one such occasion, this particular contractor (a kid in his twenties) visited the nearest restroom and found it jam-packed with men. There were two urinals and two stalls, and all four were occupied. Because time was of the essence, he felt he had no choice but to use the sink as a urinal. Any port in a storm, as they say.
Clearly, what he did was wrong. After all, there were men trying to wash their hands in that basin, and here's this kid with his dick slung over the side, pissing in it. Not something even Quentin Tarantino would want to see. Apparently, a mechanic reported him, and his contracting company, taking the easy way out, ordered him fired.
Our union argued that he should've been warned, not fired, and requested a meeting. They refused, telling us this was none of our damned business. They were right, of course; we had no jurisdiction. Alas, the guy who got fired was oblivious, never even knowing that our union had tried to save him.
David Macaray is a labor columnist and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor, 2nd Edition).