It’s Thursday night, July the 10th, when I join two comrades to volunteer for the late shift with Los Angeles and Long Beach port drivers. They are on strike. They have been for four days. They will continue to be until they are treated as employees rather than independent contractors. The Teamsters port division, SEIU, and many others have come to help. Volunteers, such as us, have come to stand in solidarity.
Thursday night is quiet. We fix picket signs that have the pointed end of the wooden plank sticking out because, one of the workers says, “They said it can be viewed as a weapon.”
We de-weaponize bundles and bundles of signs, taking no chances.
My comrades and I work quietly next to men and women in orange reflective vests. We unload trucks returning from the day’s strike sites. One woman asks if we’ve eaten.
“Yes. Thank you.”
We don’t go out to march because Friday is an early day. Workers come in at 5:30, volunteers at 6, to prepare for the noonday rally at Wilmington Waterfront Park.
This is where Mimi and I join unionists from every conceivable trade, education reps, other community organizations, and (to my surprise) a few hired bodies, to demand unemployment for laid off workers, workers’ comp for injured employees, the right to collective bargaining, and to hold these employers accountable to pay taxes to cover their currently misclassified employees.
“The Big Rig Overhaul” report “estimates that in the 10 most important port states, $485 million in workers’ compensation premiums alone are going unpaid each year.” This gives these employers a competitive advantage and lowers job quality, and this is what speakers on the stage at the terminal speak loud and passionately about.
We are bussed over the Vincent Thomas Bridge to Terminal Island for the middle part of the rally. This is the part that really matters because this is when we get to dance to cumbia. Aside from the live band that greeted us as we marched from the school busses to the distribution front, what was really important about this part of the rally was that here we were visible. We were accompanied by media; we were visible to the other drivers (many of whom were honking in support); and we were visible to the dispatchers. After hearing riling words from all elements — the organizers, the worker, the religious delineative, and the misleading democrats — we’re told we’ve done our job, that those running things at the docks today are shaken. We get back on the busses, waving our flags, chanting, feeling victorious.
Changes in labor practices began in the 1970s but in recent years the US has seen more strikes, legislative campaigns, community-based activism, and the first unionization vote since deregulation 30 years ago.
As synchronicity, fate, chance, luck, or whatever has it, on the way back to the car after the rally Mimi and I run into AFL-CIO Executive Councilwoman, Maria Elena Durazo (main speaker of the day’s event). Mimi asks a few quick questions and we get a better idea of what this reemergence of union power is looking like from the 2013 Democratic National Committee’s Vice Chair:
Mimi: What is the impasse right now between the workers and management?
Maria: There’s two goals, but the union’s trying to merge them into the same struggle; into the same fight. One is that they reclassify them—stop classifying them as independent contractors, reclassify them as employees. (Because then as employees they can demand the collective bargaining rights, etc.) So they’ve got to make the same demand at the same time and part of that is trying to establish a legal case about how they function on a day to day basis. So they follow hundreds of claims around that.
It’s also to establish a case here at the port, here at the city level, that they are violating state and federal laws, which should disqualify these three companies (just to start) from doing business at the port.
So it’s a combination of (1) they shouldn’t even be doing business because of these violations—because of these violations they should be reclassified as employees, and (2) we want collective bargaining.
Mimi: What’s your progress like right now?
Maria: Well, in a previous struggle with a company called Toll (that was like a year-long fight), they won that, and they reclassified them as employees—so that was the first one. The problem is the entire industry is abusing the classification, so it’s like, breaking through, being the first, is the toughest, and that’s where they’re at now. So, you know, we’ll see. I think on the legal front, there’s probably (ironically) more progress.
But for the workers, the fact that they went out on strike is a really big deal.
Mimi: It is!
Last question—how would the left in L.A. best support the workers?
Maria: Well on an ongoing basis, of course, every time there’s action. And they do do a lot of smaller actions in between. So I think one is we’ve got to pay more attention to the smaller (the less dramatic actions) you know, they’re not the big strikes, but they are very important—when they picket, when they go to the port, when they go to city hall to make demands. And ultimately it’s the demand for collective bargaining. God knows, without that, they’ll always be subject to abuses.
Update from Justice for LA/LB Port Drivers:
“LA port truck drivers agree to “cooling off” period requested by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti after trucking companies agree to accept all drivers back to work without retaliation and without being forced to sign away all future rights
Los Angeles, CA – After an historic five-day unfair labor practice strike that dramatically impacted three of the ports’ leading drayage firms, clogged truck traffic, an…d delayed cargo at terminals at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, striking port truck drivers voted unanimously to agree to a “cooling off” period requested by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti. The port drivers agreed to the “cooling off” period after the trucking companies agreed to accept all drivers back to work without retaliation and without being forced to sign away all future rights in new truck leases. Drivers will return to work on their regular shifts.
“We are grateful to LA Mayor Garcetti for meeting with us and hearing our concerns. We have accepted his request for a “cooling off,” but if the companies retaliate against us again, we will immediately go back on strike,” said Carlos Martinez driver at TTSI.
“I am grateful for the support and solidarity that we received this week from other workers and the community,” said Byron Contreras driver at Green Fleet Systems. “We are no longer alone in our struggle for dignity and respect.”
“This week, with the support of my family, I walked the picket line to show that a handful of workers really can make a difference. Never again will we be silent and accept the harassment and indignities that our bosses inflict on us. We will not be intimidated. We will not be silent in our fight for our families and our dignity,” said Daniel Linares, a misclassified “independent contractor” at Pacific 9 Transportation.
“This week, striking port truck drivers showed tremendous courage and commitment to stopping the injustices they face hauling the goods that Americans rely on every day,” said Fred Potter, International Vice President, International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Director of the Teamsters Port Division. “While the drivers wanted to continue the strike, they agreed to a cooling off period because Mayor Garcetti personally committed to them that he will thoroughly investigate the serious injustices the drivers presented and take strong action as there is no place for law breakers at the Port of Los Angeles.”