Drivers at San Pedro harbor trucking company Toll Group Inc. voted last week to join the Teamsters, the first time the union has successfully organized port truckers in the past three decades.

Teamsters see the April 11 election, with drivers voting 46-15 in favor of joining Local 848, as a sign of union momentum even though Toll drivers are among a small number of port truckers who can legally organize.

“This is just a very important, significant campaign for our strategy of building rights for port drivers,” said Teamsters Vice President Fred Potter. “These courageous employees have inspired other port drivers to fight for good, middle-class jobs at America’s ports nationwide.”

Potter came from New Jersey to San Pedro for the election, highlighting the importance the Teamsters put on the vote. The union had been working to organize the Toll drivers for nearly a year. Teamsters President James P. Hoffa met with the drivers in December, and Rep. Janice Hahn, D-San Pedro, spoke to drivers the morning of the election.

But the successful union push at Toll could prove to be a one-off event rather than a sign of things to come.

Most port truck drivers own or lease their trucks and work with harbor trucking firms as independent contractors, who are prohibited by federal law from organizing. But drivers for Toll, a logistics company in Melbourne, Australia, are employees.

Toll officials say they started hiring drivers as employees in 2009 to prepare for a labor-backed provision in the port’s Clean Truck Program that would have banned independent contractors from the harbor. A federal court threw out that provision, but Toll continued with employees.

Robert Millman, an attorney at Littler Mendelson PC in Century City who represents employers in labor issues, said last week’s election wasn’t a union game-changer, but rather a natural result of Toll’s decision to use employee drivers.

“They opened themselves up to a potential organizing drive, which is exactly what happened,” Millman said. “To the extent the Teamsters are claiming this as a breakthrough, that is not accurate.”

The Teamsters continue to lobby state and federal governments to crack down on trucking firms they say misclassify employee drivers as independent contractors. In the meantime, Potter said he believes independent truckers are encouraged by the union vote at Toll.

“It shows what you can do when you’re properly classified,” he said.

Toll spokesman Christopher Whitefield said the company recognizes the drivers’ decision and will begin contract negotiations with the Teamsters in 30 to 45 days.

Catalina Construction

Catalina Express, a San Pedro company that operates ferries between Santa Catalina Island and the mainland, has started building a new terminal in San Pedro.

It’s part of a series of moves at the Port of Los Angeles that will give China Shipping Co. more space at its terminal, get Catalina Express into a bigger facility and move the World War II merchant marine vessel S.S. Lane Victory.

Catalina Express, which also operates ferry terminals in Long Beach and Dana Point, broke ground on the new San Pedro terminal last month. The new building will be just a few yards south of the old one, near port Berth 94. Along with a new terminal, Catalina Express will modernize the docking system for its ships and add more parking for passengers.

The new terminal is expected to be complete by Memorial Day.

The Lane Victory, now a floating museum, was moved earlier this year from its Berth 94 site near the Vincent Thomas Bridge to a temporary home near the Cabrillo Marina. Port managers have yet to decide on a permanent location for the Lane Victory.

Back in Business

After a three-year hiatus, the Harbor Gateway enterprise zone will be back in May, meaning businesses in cities and neighborhoods from San Pedro to Huntington Park will qualify for reduced utility rates and state tax credits for hiring workers and buying equipment.

Carolyn Weiss, incentive zone manger for the Los Angeles Community Development Department, said port-related logistics companies and manufacturers have already expressed interest in moving into the zone.

The enterprise zone was created in 1989 but incentive programs ended in 2009. Los Angeles city and county, along with the city of Huntington Park, applied two years ago to restart the zone. The California Department of Housing and Community Development, which funds the enterprise zone program, gave its final approval last week. Incentives will kick in May 1.

Staff reporter James Rufus Koren can be reached at jrkoren@labusinessjournal.com or at (323) 549-5225, ext. 225.

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