Truckers force port to talk and lawmakers to act

SEATTLE – An independent grass roots campaign by short-haul truckers serving the Port of Seattle has forced port authorities to talk with them, lawmakers to start action to improve the truckers’ labor rights and working conditions – and a Teamsters local there to seize an organizing opportunity.

The action began when at least 100 truckers, all of them now classified – they say they’re misclassified – as “independent contractors” and thus unprotected by labor law, nevertheless banded together and turned off their motors and shut down their trucks on Jan. 31. Their action effectively brought much of the port to a halt.

Some 600 other truckers joined the Seattle Port Truckers Association. Their movement has spread to truckers hired by 12 major firms that pay the drivers to haul loads from the port to warehouses owned by major shippers, such as Wal-Mart.

After achieving their initial goal of demanding – and getting-talks with port officials and political action to begin on resolving their work issues, the drivers went back to hauling the loads on Feb. 14, while keeping the pressure on, Teamsters West Coast organizer and spokeswoman T.J. Michaels says.

IBT Local 174 is working to formally organize the drivers, part of the union’s 6-year drive among such West Coast short-haul “drayage” drivers from area ports. “Drivers all over the coast are all in the same boat,” Michaels adds.

While the truckers were out, commerce at the Port of Seattle slowed to a crawl. The truckers staged rallies and marches, picked up community support, and descended upon the state legislature in Olympia to lobby. The latest rally was Feb. 13.

The Seattle truckers demand the short-haul trucking “drayage” firms take responsibility for working conditions the drivers toil under. They want the firms to repair or replace the unsafe trucks they provide, stop overloading truck chassis’, and pay for such things as insurance – not to mention the hefty fines trucks receive when state troopers stop them and find safety violations.

“They want to make the owners responsible for the equipment they (the truckers) use,” Michaels explains.

The truckers also want to be paid for waiting times at marine terminals, have restrooms available at the trucking firms’ yards and demand an end to company retaliation for activism. That includes an end to retaliation for the time drivers take off, at their own expense, to testify before state lawmakers about port conditions. But one firm already retaliated against one trucker for testifying. That led the driver’s colleagues to walk out of that firm for two days, Michaels added.

Photo: Hundreds of truck drivers at the Port of Seattle walked off the job last week to protest unsafe working conditions and other abuses. Photo by David Bacon.

Most importantly, the Seattle short-haul truckers also want to be classified as “employees,” not “independent contractors.” Being employees would bring them under labor law and would let them organize with unions. It would also bring them under wage and hour law, overtime pay law, workers’ comp laws and would force the companies to pay employers’ shares of Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes.

In its grass-roots beginnings, the drive among the Seattle truckers is like other independent organizing drives that have sprung up around the country, especially among heavily immigrant groups of workers, in recent years.

The key issue in Seattle is, in so many words, that the firms that hire the short-haul “drayage” drivers take much of the profits and leave the truckers with all of the risk. The average short-haul driver nets $30,000 yearly, their group says. But that’s after paying all the expenses the firms should pick up, and after backbreaking workweeks.

The truckers also took their campaign to the state legislature in Olympia, where the state House passed legislation declaring the drivers are legally “employees.” The measure is now pending before the state Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.

“Our work is extremely dangerous. So the safety laws are very important,” driver Semere Woldu testified. “Unfortunately, we drivers are forced to pay for violations we are not responsible for. We often get tickets or are cited for faulty equipment we don’t own. One time, my boss knew I had a heavy load. He told me to go by the scale early in the morning when it was closed to avoid having the load weighed.”

“Every day, I haul two or three loads that are overweight, possibly putting myself and others at risk,” driver Aynalem Moba added. “The truck could tip over. I’m afraid I might kill myself or someone else. Sometimes we’re carrying hazardous materials, and we don’t know it.”

The truckers picked up community support, the backing of the Martin Luther King County (Seattle) Central Labor Council, the Teamsters and an unexpected ally: The state police. Officers testified about horrifying safety conditions of the trucks they pull over. Estimates of trucks immediately yanked off the road due to safety flaws started at 32% and went up. Truck firms – not the drivers – should be responsible, troopers said.

The Feb. 13 rally drew hundreds of truckers and supporters, including truckers from Los Angeles-Long Beach who are in the Teamsters organizing there. A Feb. 11 town hall meeting in Tukwila drew 300 drivers.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.