Demanding Employee Status, Wage-Theft Protection, Truck Drivers’ Protest Continues at Port Complex

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Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joined protestors outside a Port of Los Angeles terminal Thursday as they continue their push for being classified as employees. Photos: Jason Ruiz

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and union leaders joined port truck drivers in San Pedro Thursday morning as the fourth day of strikes slogged on at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, with port truck drivers demanding equal pay from short-haul trucking companies as well as legislation that would put an end to wage theft and misclassification.

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Nearly 100 truck drivers gathered outside the entrance of the Everport Terminal in San Pedro holding signs denouncing unfair labor practices and blocking traffic into the terminal. They were joined by Villaraigosa, who championed the clean truck program during his time as mayor, an issue that many drivers have pointed to as one of the largest issues regarding the cycle of poverty and wage theft that has led to their strike. 

Several workers shared their stories of having their wages garnished to pay for the lease of their trucks, gas, insurance and entry fees to access port entries, an equation that some say has led to their checks reflecting earnings at less than the California minimum wage. Villaraigosa, who is running for California’s governor seat next year, said that it was hard to believe that things like this were still happening to working people in 2017.
 
“When you heard that story, that before you clock in you owe the company money, that’s like sharecroppers, that’s what that is,” Villaraigosa said. “That’s what used to happen in the sharecropping business, you owe more money before you start the day and often times at the end of the day you still owe money.”


 

The former mayor had unsuccessfully pushed for an employee mandate while advocating for the greening of the port which included an overhaul of the port’s trucking fleet including 16,000 heavy polluters. A ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals ruled that the mandate was unlawful as it would have forced trucking companies to hire union truck drivers.
 
The overhaul of the port’s truck fleet came with a roughly $2.5 billion price tag to remove all the older, pollutant-producing trucks with newer, cleaner rigs—a price that has been allegedly passed on to drivers.
 
“We know for a fact that these people that are running these companies have found all kinds of ways to get rid of people,” said Tracy Ellis, a short haul truck driver that was recently part of a few hundred drivers that received employee status. “They put you in a contract, you get two, three, four years in and then they’ll figure out some way to take the truck back, lease it to someone else and make double off of that same vehicle.”
 
A front page story by USA Today last week chronicled the ramifications of such a system employed at the nation’s biggest port complex where short-haul truck drivers, responsible for moving much of the country’s goods off the docks to middleman-facilities before hitting retail shelves are forced to do so at the expense of their own paychecks.

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Port truck drivers block the entrance to a terminal in San Pedro as trucks carrying cargo wait in line. 
  
The one-year investigation into port trucking companies in Southern California, home to one of the world’s largest port complexes, showed that those companies have been forcing their workers to foot the bill for items they need to carry out their jobs, including the trucks that move the cargo to and from the port.
 
The story detailed how drivers were forced into lease-to-own contracts for those new trucks mandated under the clean port program with many truckers losing tens of thousands of dollars paid into the trucks when they were fired by their employers or fell behind on payments.
 
It also shed light on the overworking of port truck drivers who are paid by the load and not by the hour with thousands of instances over the past few years where workers violated federal laws requiring drivers not to work for more than 11 hours, or to work at all after a 14-hour shift without a 10 hour break.
 
Some of these drivers ended up taking home dramatically less than they reported in earnings with some even owing money to the companies they worked for.
 
Labor groups estimate that the number of misclassified short haul truck drivers is about 100,000 nationwide with about 12,000 of those working right here in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.


 

Daniel Aneseko “Seko” Uaina, who has worked for Intermodal Bridge Transport (IBT) for the last four years says what’s advertised as a pay-to-own program for the truckers is not accurate, stating they will never own the trucks. He estimates that around $1,200 per month is deducted from his earnings to pay for his truck fees not including fuel and insurance which is charged daily.
 
Seko, who says he is one of the thousands of misclassified drivers in the area, said that generally speaking truck loads can net drivers between $53 and $180 but the larger payoffs are associated with longer distances which means more money deducted for fuel costs. The lowest check he can recall bringing home was about $300, a figure that came after he said he logged 50 hours of work in one week.
 
“It really dictates our food,” he said of week-to-week fluctuations in his take-home pay. “Sometimes we’re left with just eating soup for the night. I have to hope everyday. I have to hope that I’m going to have a job, I have to hope that I can make money to make sure that me and my wife are okay.”
 
He added that while he has not personally been subjected to the long shifts detailed in the USA Today report, it’s not an uncommon story of other drivers in the port complex. He explained that IBT runs their trucks 24 hours a day but drivers switch out to prevent violating labor laws. However, Seko said that’s not the case with all companies.
 
“That is definitely an issue,” he said. “I have fellow truck drivers that do work eighteen, twenty hours, and to be honest with you, I know a truck driver that worked for two days straight at another company that also misclassified.”
 
An opinion piece published Tuesday by USA Today authored by Shawn Yadon, CEO of the California Trucking Association (CTA), and Weston LaBar, executive director of Harbor Trucking Association, argued that truckers want the independence that picketers this week have denounced as misclassification.
 
“Drivers prefer the independent owner-operator model for two reasons: better pay and more flexibility,” the submission read, citing a 2015 study commissioned by CTA that showed three quarters of independent operators earned more than those classified as employees. “Most drivers participating in lease-to-own programs eventually own their trucks, trade them for newer equipment, or finance additional trucks — growing their businesses one truck at a time.”


 

Lee Peterson, a communications official with the Port of Long Beach, said that the protestors have been circulating between a few of the terminals at the complex and the Port expects the protests to continue through Friday. He added that the Port had yet to experience any kind of backup due to the protest and that the facilities were “open and operating”.
 
The protests spilled into Long Beach City Hall Tuesday night where the port truck drivers and union organizers made their way outside Mayor Robert Garcia’s office demanding to be heard by the mayor. The group intends to do the same Friday when it will head to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office to deliver a petition demanding action be taken at the port complex.
 
While the picketing may end tomorrow the fight will most likely continue. Wage theft has been a topic of concern for organizations in Long Beach—including multiple protests and demonstrations over the years—and while the city has finally budgeted some money toward enforcing it, those groups have remained critical of the outreach being done to ensure that those funds set aside are making it to where it’s truly needed.
 
Until then, the scene of workers marching in front of terminal openings and the line of container trucks backing up onto the streets at the port complex will play out again and again, vowed union and teamster organizers. The honking of horns of the drivers stranded as their peers protest “is the sound of drivers being paid by the truck load, not by the hour,” one organizer quipped.
 
For people like Seko, it’s about being treated like any other person who has a job and is paid for the time that they put in. To be classified as an employee, he said, would be life-changing.
 
"That would make a huge impact because then we could get social security, or pay into it, we could get disability, FMLA (family leave of absence), all those things that a regular employee can get, now we have access to it,” Seko said. “Benefits, hopefully a pension, those are the things we’re actually out here for. But really, it just starts out with respect.”



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