The harbor trucking firm Toll Group didn’t encourage its drivers to join the Teamsters union. But now that they have, Toll wants drivers at other companies to join up – and the company has even offered the Teamsters an incentive to organize local truckers at competing firms.

In an unusual arrangement, executives at Toll, a global firm based in Melbourne, Australia, have promised to consider rewarding their drivers with greater pay if the Teamsters can unionize drivers at nearby companies.

Toll spokesman Christopher Whitefield said part of a three-year deal that drivers ratified New Year’s Eve calls for the union to “work toward improving conditions for all employees at the port” – or more explicitly, to organize many more truckers. If the union is successful in doing so, Toll could raise pay for its 80 drivers to match or surpass the other unionized shops.

“If 50 percent of L.A. port (trucking) companies negotiate new agreements, Toll has committed to renegotiating terms to ensure our workers remain among the best paid port drivers in L.A.,” Whitefield said in an email.

That’s an uncommon offer, and it might seem odd coming from a company that’s been under attack by the union for more than a year. The union in the past claimed Toll drivers worked in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, and it filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board on other issues.

But it will be tough for the Teamsters to cash in on Toll’s offer. Organizing drivers at half of the hundreds of local harbor trucking companies is a lofty goal, considering Toll is the union’s first success story there in decades.

But the tale of the Toll and the Teamsters has been strange from the start, and the company’s offer might make good business sense. If Toll has to pay higher wages and potentially put itself at a competitive disadvantage compared with the lower-cost, nonunion shops nearby, it makes sense that it would want other companies to shell out more to their drivers, too, said John Logan, a professor of labor and employment relations at San Francisco State University.

“It’s not common, but it has a certain amount of logic to it,” he said. “Toll now has an interest in what happens in the rest of the sector.”

New deal

After a nearly two-year organizing campaign, Toll drivers voted in April to join the Teamsters union. Last month, drivers ratified a contract with Toll that provides more job security, higher wages and lower health insurance premiums.

Toll and the Teamsters agreed the drivers will get more money, but they each provided different figures. Teamsters officials said drivers’ base wage will rise to $19 an hour from about $13. Toll representatives said drivers used to make about $21 an hour, but that includes overtime and incentive pay. They estimated that the new rate is about $22 an hour.

Toll will also pay $1 an hour on drivers’ behalf into the Teamsters pension fund, pay a larger share of employee health insurance premiums, and provide more sick leave and vacation days.

Toll driver Alberto Quiteno said the most important part of the contract is job security. As a union member, he said he feels confident he won’t be fired without cause. And the contract ensures workers will be paid for at least a partial day if they are scheduled to work, even if there are no loads to haul.

“In the past, I’d go to bed and I didn’t know if I’d be working the next day,” said Quiteno, a 57-year-old father of two. “But the contract assures I’ll be working tomorrow.”

The contract also hints that he and other drivers could get a bigger paycheck if the Teamsters are successful in efforts to organize more drivers. Coral Itzcalli, a spokeswoman for the Teamster-backed labor coalition Change to Win, said it’s now in Toll’s best interest for the union to represent drivers at more firms.

“Toll is now taking responsibility for the overhead it takes to run a business – wages, health care, a pension plan,” Itzcalli said. “For them to remain competitive, others need to be following the same standards.”

Isolated case

Still, it’s unlikely Toll will have to make good on its promise anytime in the near future, as the successful union drive there won’t be easily replicated at other harbor trucking firms.

Toll, one of the roughly 950 companies that haul cargo short distances to and from the ports, is an oddity among harbor trucking companies in that its drivers are employees. That made the company a relatively easy union target.

Nationwide, the vast majority of harbor trucking companies work with independent drivers who operate their own rigs. Such independent contractors, unlike employees, cannot join unions.

Why does Toll use employee drivers? The company started hiring drivers at its local operations in Wilmington and San Pedro in 2009, preparing to comply with a provision in the Port of L.A.’s Clean Truck Program that would have required all harbor trucking companies to do likewise. But the courts eventually threw out that provision, leaving Toll as one of the only companies to make the switch.

With other trucking firms holding fast to their independent contractors, unionization likely won’t spread, said Robert Millman, an attorney with Littler Mendelson PC in Century City who represents companies trying to remain union free. He called Toll’s contract provision odd, but likely meaningless.

“The reality is most people who work at the port are not employee drivers, so you can’t organize them,” he said. “I don’t see what this does.”

Indeed, despite union-backed legislation to limit or ban the use of independent contractors and efforts to crack down on companies’ supposed misclassification of employees, the Teamsters have made little headway in making more harbor truckers eligible for unionization. Trucking industry officials say they aren’t concerned.

“Toll is a singular case,” said Curtis Whalen, executive director of the American Trucking Associations’ Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference, which represents port trucking firms. “The fact that Toll decided, for whatever reason, to have their drivers become union members, more power to them. Good luck.”

Nevertheless, harbor truckers represent a vast pool of potential union members and organizing them remains a high priority for the Teamsters. Now that the union has successfully organized and negotiated a contract for port truckers, labor professor Logan said he expects the Teamsters to use the Toll drivers as an example for others.

“The Teamsters will be able to use this as a concrete illustration of what can be achieved by organizing and having a collective agreement,” he said.

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