New report highlights port truck drivers' plight


They move the goods we shop for every day - food, clothing, electronics, toys and much more. Without them whole segments of commerce would grind to a halt.

They work long hours for low wages under often abysmal conditions, and, as "independent contractors," receive no benefits and cannot organize for better conditions. And the conditions under which they work spread pollution through nearby areas, where they often live as well. Like low-wage workers in other industries, a large percentage are immigrants.

They are the 110,000 truck drivers who move millions of cargo containers at the nation's ports every year.

A just-released report, The Big Rig: Poverty, Pollution and the Misclassification of Truck Drivers at American Ports, focuses on their plight and proposes ways to ensure the drivers fair wages, decent working conditions and workers' rights while improving the environment in working-class communities near the nation's ports.

The study, prepared by analysts at the National Employment Law Project, the union federation Change to Win and Rutgers University, is based on in-depth interviews with drivers at 39 companies in port cities around the country and examination of employment documents such as truck leases, pay stubs, insurance provisions, meeting agendas, log books and job applications.

The authors conclude that most port truck drivers are wrongly classified as independent contractors, and that toxic diesel truck pollution in the air near ports results directly from the trucking industry's misclassification of the drivers.

The study cites long-time southern California port truck driver Max Galvan, classified as an independent contractor, paid by the load and responsible for all costs associated with the truck he drives. But, asked how he related to the only company he worked for in 13 years, Galvan pointed out that most firms make drivers sign a contract that they will only drive for that company, and pay drivers rates the company determines. "What independence?" he said. "They don't let us haul for anyone else. They'll fire you."

Because he was responsible for all associated costs, Galvan only netted between $24 and $40 for each haul, or $28,000 to $30,000 a year. At the industry average of 59 hours a week, Galvan took home about $10 an hour. As the report points out, because he and his fellow workers couldn't afford decent trucks or maintenance, they ended up driving old, poorly-maintained big rigs.

Though an estimated 82 percent of the country's port truck drivers are classified as independent contractors, for the great majority the companies they contract with control basic conditions like rates, where and when they work, and the rules they must follow.

The study's authors point out that the classification issue is receiving new attention because of its implications in the fight against deadly diesel pollution. Other studies have demonstrated the disastrous health consequences of diesel pollution in neighborhoods surrounding the ports, and for the drivers themselves.

The solution, the analysts say, is for U.S. ports to adopt uniform rules requiring trucking firms to employ their drivers and take responsibility for the trucks they operate: "Such requirements would directly address driver misclassification and immediately establish the conditions for a revived, cleaner industry."

The report also calls on Congress to pass the Clean Ports Act of 2010 (HR 5967, introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY) so ports can address misclassification where it affects environmental impact, safety or efficiency of port trucking operations. Further, the analysts say, the U.S. Department of Labor, the IRS and state agencies should implement comprehensive tax, employment and safety laws to address violations directly harming large numbers of port drivers, and government funding for programs to cut diesel truck emissions should be contingent on ending driver misclassification.

In a sad postscript, the authors note that as the report was being finalized, Galvan "recognized that he was 'paying to work,' " and returned the keys of the truck he leased through the company he worked for, and for which he had paid over $35,000 in weekly lease payments since April 2009. A job-hunting Galvan said he'd likely be blacklisted by the port trucking industry for sharing his story. "I'm a truck driver," he said. "A good one. This is all I know. But I give up. This is killing me."

Photo by Marilyn Bechtel/People's World


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  • That is such a sorry plight that the truck drivers have been put into throughout their entire career. Trade is an ongoing process that is the highest contributor towards the local economy. And I think that the pollution issue that is tagged along with trade, is really inevitable. The same example applies to the car industry. Cars and other vehicles emit the highest amount of greenhouse gases yearly but the industry is still going strong because of the ever-increasing demand for them. The main point is that when you win some, you need to lose some.

    Posted by Thomas Williams, 05/07/2013 5:34am (3 years ago)

  • I drove a truck out of port of Baltimore for years. I ended up sick ,diabetic thus disqualified to work and on disabil.ity. the industry feeds the rich on the backs of the drivers who work 65 hrs a week for nothing.

    Posted by Vasilli Zietzev, Sniper-Volgrad Patriotic War, 02/06/2011 4:00am (5 years ago)

  • This isn't just Port Drivers in this boat... It's all Owner/Operators. We ALL sign contracts with exclusivity clauses. Some contracts stipulate that WE have to give 30 day notice to terminate a lease but the Company does not.

    Posted by SniperP229, 01/20/2011 1:44pm (5 years ago)

  • I too have pulled containers in Mobile,Al. Container companies are for bottom feeders and the companies that haul them pay the Owner Operators like they did myself a very low wage. Most container companies pay less than $1.00 a mile and they all steal most of the fuel surcharge, even though the O/O is buying the fuel. Most often the container ports are slow and you have to wait in long lines to get boxes removed or put on the chassis. The chassis's are nothing but junk and you have to sort through dozens to find a good one. The Ports and Drayage companies require you to do the Port work for free, however the Container companies get paid handsomely for marrying up a box w/ a chassis. The Container companies charge you for flat tire and other repairs on chassis's that the Steamship Lines own. The only good thing about containers is you get home more and off on weekends. Some container companies have a Tractor Lease purchase program and you pay them to drive their truck, all the time you also pay for repairs and exhorbitant maintenance escrows they withhold weekly. The Drayage and container business needs reform and regulations enacted, I no longer pull containers because you go broke doing so.

    Posted by John Varda, 12/11/2010 12:10am (5 years ago)

  • sounds like the unions are trying to step up their primary function in the port trucking area, get everyone up in arms over working conditions ect., and get drivers to join the union. Then they'll go out on strike and everyone will pay thru the nose. there are drivers who are smart enough to find another job and do not need a union to improve wages and working conditions. wake up people ! These union goons only want your dues to line their pockets and the pockets of their poilitical chums. look at the auto industry or the steel industry, unions cost their members jobs when the companies moved or closed plants to cut costs so they could stay in business. non union auto makers have a better product at a better price [union members at auto plants drive hondas and toyotas look at employee parking instead of the products they build.] Buy union they say, but thats not what they do with their money. Unions outgrew their usefullness 40 years ago.

    Posted by j.k.lloyd, 12/10/2010 7:59pm (5 years ago)

  • I worked the Seattle/Tacoma waterfront hauling containers for 22 years. The long shore (I.L.W.U.) made it clear from day one that the docks belonged to them and they did not need any help from a scab driver. Dealing with the arrogance of these guys day after day was a very special kind of hell.
    I, and every other driver/"Owner Operator" was regularly and routinely cheated by the markup on the company required insurance. They purchased it by the mile and resold the coverage to us by the month. When I canceled my individual policy to go with the required company policy, I expected a lower cost fleet rate and I was surprised when my insurance cost went up by 50%. My insurance agent explained the reality of the situation to me and I came to understand that the company was making over $300,000/per year from this revenue stream alone.
    I am not fooled by the above Puff Piece article. All of these agency's have been looking at Port Drivers for some time as a way to further their own agendas. We know we are screwed. Just don't rub our noses in it.

    Posted by Bob Sullivan, 12/10/2010 7:40pm (5 years ago)

  • i pulled containers between jacksonvilleand atlanta after 2 weeks i realized i was making less than .74 cpm as a lease operator and decided i wouldnt work for such a low wage and turned the keys in. the shipping companies and the trucking companies expect you to work like a dog for nothing i willnever pull containers again

    Posted by chris clary, 12/10/2010 3:12pm (5 years ago)

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