POLITICS
07/18/2016 11:16 am ET

Watch What Happens When You Try To Unionize Some Truck Drivers In The South

Three Teamsters organizers were passing out union flyers in a small town in Georgia. Then the cops showed up.

Workers in the state of Georgia are less likely to be union members than workers in almost any other state. After watching an encounter between three union organizers and a pair of cops in the state last month, it’s easy to understand why.

Three Teamsters stood outside the gates of a company called XPO Logistics on June 10, passing out flyers along the side of the road. When a truck left the XPO facility near the Port of Savannah, the Teamsters ― wearing orange blaze safety vests ― would flag them down, hand them a piece of paper about the union campaign and answer any questions. Then the drivers went on their way.

The practice is known as leafletting. It’s a way for unions to inform workers of their rights and to let them know the union is trying to organize their workplace. Leafletting is legal, as long as organizers don’t do it on company property. Since the Teamsters were stationed in a public right of way on the side of a road, they assumed it was fair game.

The City of Port Wentworth disagreed. 

As the Teamsters later learned, someone from XPO called the police to report them. When two officers arrived, Ben Speight, one of three organizers, explained to them that he and his colleagues were merely passing out fliers.

But the police said they were impeding the flow of traffic ― even though the public road dead ends at the company gates, and there was no traffic other than the occasional truck leaving the facility. The organizers only stepped into the road when a trucker waved them over to accept a leaflet, Speight said. 

“You might wanna consider doing something else,” one officer said, according to the bodycam video the Teamsters obtained through a public records request. (A condensed version of the videos is above; the full versions can be viewed here and here.)

The video shows Speight asking where the union members could legally pass out leaflets, and an officer’s response suggests the encounter was about more than traffic flow.

“It ain’t like it was back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with all those wildcat strikes and the [unintelligible] and everything,” the officer says. (It’s unclear exactly what labor unrest the officer was talking about. He may have been referencing the national wildcat strike by postal workers in 1970.)

“You smell that?” he then asks rhetorically. “You smell that?”

“The paper mill?” Speight responds, clearly confused.

“No. Fresh air,” the officer says. “We want to make sure everybody can continue to breathe fresh air.”

The Teamsters took that as a suggestion that their union organizing was fouling the air and wasn’t welcome in the 7,600-person city of Port Wentworth. They are now weighing a lawsuit against the city, considering what happened next.

After discussing amongst themselves, the two officers decided to take down the organizers’ information and issue them warnings for being pedestrians in the roadway. The officers asked Speight and his colleagues, Jerome Irwin and Kedrix Murray, for their names, addresses and phone numbers. When Murray asked why the police needed their phone numbers, one of the officers grew agitated.

Murray asked for one officer’s badge number, and the cops decided a warning was no longer sufficient.

“We’ll settle this in court,” one of them said.

The warnings were changed to court summonses. In the “remarks” section of one citation, an officer wrote “picketing drivers to become union.”

In an interview, Speight said the encounter epitomized what it’s like to do union organizing in union-unfriendly pockets of the South. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia has the fourth lowest rate of union membership in the U.S., behind just North Carolina, South Carolina and Utah. Just 1 in 20 workers in the state is in a union.

Speight said the truck drivers were generally receptive to their message and cordial in their encounters with the organizers. But the citations by police, he said, would make drivers nervous about talking with union representatives in the future.

“They wanted to make it seem like us dispersing content is illicit,” Speight said. “Not just that we were out there passing out papers ― the content, the union aspect, is what they were trying to stop. It spooked some drivers down there, so I think they achieved their desired goal.”

Matthew Libby, the director of Port Wentworth’s public safety department, said the city would not comment on pending court cases.

A lawyer for the Teamsters sent a letter to the city attorney saying the union would sue Port Wentworth if the charges against the organizers are not thrown out. The lawyer asserted that the Teamsters were targeted for their union organizing, and that there was “no other reasonable interpretation” of the “fresh air” remark other than that “the Police Department considers union activity pollution.” The lawyer argued that the citations violated the First Amendment and the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the right to organize.

XPO did not respond to a voicemail message left at its headquarters on Friday. The Teamsters have been trying to organize XPO drivers at various ports, including Los Angeles. The union says the company misclassifies drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees, in order to shift costs onto the drivers. The union says XPO has aggressively opposed its campaign.

The organizers are due in court on July 20.

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