More Roadblocks for Teamsters in Drive to Unionize Port Drivers
By DAVID GREENBERG
Only 65 people turned up at a recent union rally held by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters at the Port of Long Beach.
The union was trying to convince the thousands of port truck drivers to join their fold. But after more than two years of a stepped-up campaign for unionization, there remain few takers, despite what Teamsters say are tough working conditions for the drivers.
Union officials, who have been trying to organize the truckers for over 20 years, claim they will win them over in a matter of months. But there are several roadblocks, including concern by drivers that they’ll lose their jobs if they join and an under-staffed group of organizers.
Thus far, the Teamsters have yet to convince trucking companies that drivers are their employees, not independent contractors, who by federal anti-trust laws are prohibited from unionizing.
“That’s going to be a massive hurdle,” said Warren Hoemann, vice president of the California Trucking Association, which represents trucking companies. “You can’t organize a single individual and an independent contractor is a single individual.”
Gary Smith, the union’s West Coast representative who is spearheading the drive to organize at the two local ports, said that as members of the Teamsters, drivers would get company-paid benefits and hourly pay instead of the current flat rates per trip.
Drivers gross an average of $1,000 per week but they often work more than 40 hours in a week and spend 45 percent of that income on insurance, fuel, road taxes and vehicle maintenance.
“We think they are mis-classified,” said Smith. “They really are employees. That set-up is a ruse for the employers to avoid paying workmen’s compensation, employee taxes and they avoid the possibility of unionization.”
Trucking companies maintain that drivers are not their employees because they choose who they work for each day, negotiate their rates, purchase their own insurance and business permits and are responsible for the maintenance of their own vehicles.
“I would not want to negotiate with a third party,” said Joe Nievez, president of Qwikway Trucking Co. of Vernon. “The negotiations should be directly between the prime carrier and the independent contractor. If any problem that comes up, I can deal directly with the independent contractor.”
San Francisco-based Pacific Rim Transport Inc., which has a Long Beach operation, remains the only trucking company of more than 300 serving local ports that employs Teamster members. The company signed a collective bargain agreement more than a decade ago.
“All the companies call us independent but we’re not,” said independent trucker Demetrio Beltran, who owns his own truck and drives solely for CLA Trucking Inc. of Carson. “I’m an employee. I just work for one company. If you’re independent, you set your rates and we don’t set our own rates. They tell us what to do. If they don’t pay you enough money for a run and you don’t want to do it, they can send you home or fire you.”
Smith claims there are non-unionized trucking companies interested in joining the campaign, as long as they are part of a consortium large and powerful enough to demand higher rates from the ship companies without fear that business would be taken away by competitors with lower fees.
Now the union must persuade them and others to step forward.