Union Gets Partial Win in Truck Ruling

By DAVID GREENBERG
Staff Reporter

A federal judge's ruling in a longstanding class-action lawsuit granted Teamsters organizers a partial victory against large trucking firms but much less than union officials had hoped for.

Late last month, U.S. District Court Judge Mariana Pfaelzer issued injunctions against four trucking companies serving the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, mandating they accept liability for any independent trucks that they hire at the ports but don't own.

Teamsters officials had hoped that Pfaelzer would declare that independent drivers are employees of the trucking companies that contract their services, a ruling that would have opened the door for the Teamsters to organize a membership campaign.

"It is a step in the right direction in cleaning up the industry," said Gary Smith, West Coast representative for the Teamsters' port division. "But a victory isn't tomorrow. Under the National Labor Relations Act, the ruling doesn't necessarily classify these drivers as employees in and of itself."

The ruling is the latest chapter in a class action drama that began with a suit filed by L.A.-based law firm Kumetz & Glick in 1996 against 33 port-area truck companies. The suit was later divided into separate cases against each defendant. (Only a dozen are still involved.)

The Teamsters have been trying to organize 12,000 independent port truck drivers since the trucking industry was deregulated in the 1980s, allowing companies to undercut each other with lower rates on hauling container cargo.

The cost cutting was then passed down to independent drivers who are paid by the load, not the hour. They gross an average of $1,000 per week but pay as much as 45 percent for insurance, workmen's compensation, vehicle maintenance, fuel and road taxes, according to the Teamsters.

Pfaelzer's ruling affects K & R; Transportation, Harbor Express Inc., Rail Delivery Services Inc. and RWA Trucking Co.

The ruling provides independent haulers a measure of protection if their trucks are damaged while working for the four companies.

The four firms must now sign written agreements showing they will take "exclusive possession" of independently owned trucks for as long as they are contracting with the vehicles' owners.

This prevents what drivers claim is the frequent tactic of companies trying to avoid liability by claiming trucks were hauling somebody else's cargo at the time of an accident.

The agreements must also contain an itemized listing of all expenses deducted from drivers' paychecks, which limits companies being able to overcharge drivers for insurance costs.

"(Companies) are already liable but they are now required to put it in writing," said Stephen Glick, a Kumetz & Glick partner. "They don't want to put it in writing because if they control the truck, they control the driver. It is one more piece of evidence to show these drivers are employees."

At least one of the companies, La Mirada-based Rail Delivery, said it has been issuing agreements since 1999 and only took out the language out because the Teamsters was trying to use the wording to show drivers are employees.

But the companies and trucking industry officials said nothing in the ruling will further the Teamsters' cause.

"We believe that just because the language is required by federal regulation, it cannot be used as an indicator of employee status," said Greg Stefflre, chief executive of Imagine Transport Group, which owns Rail Delivery Service.

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