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Troqueros Wildcat California Ports

By Jon Bekken - Industrial Worker, June 2004 - Based on reports by Brendan Crill and Ernesto Nevarez, as well as various indymedia sites.

Thousands of waterfront and other truckers joined a wave of wildcat strikes that reached as far north as Tacoma, Washington, and across the country to Virginia, but were strongest in California, where the truckers are commonly known as "troqueros."

The strikes began in ate April and were ending as the Industrial Worker goes to press, although 100 truckers in Concord, California, struck May 14, demanding that trucking companies increase rates and improve working conditions: Given the widespread grievances, a new round of strikes remains quite possible.

Only about 15 percent of California's 12,000 port truckers were working at the height of the strike, tying up cargo at ports in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland.

The port truckers haul cargo from the waterfront to nearby rail and trucking terminals. They are paid by the load, out of which they must pay fuel costs and other expenses. Some own their (often heavily mortgaged) rigs, others lease trucks from the freight companies. The California Trucking Association, an employers group, said fuel prices are so high that many owner-operators lose money every day they are on the road. Shipping companies insist the truckers are "independent contractors" even though they have no say over their rates or working conditions.

The strikes were called by a loosely organized network of troqueros, with supporters in nearly every trucking company. However, the companies are unevenly organized one company is solidly organized but others only have a handful of militants. The most militant have worked the ports for many years, waging a difficult struggle against deteriorating conditions.

Hundreds of workers struck the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports in April 1996 to demand union recognition and dispatch from a union hiring hall, but the strike was undercut by union scabbing and legal maneuvers. At that time, truckers complained that they were working under a motorized shape-up in which they waited for hours at the ports. Since then, waits have only grown longer.

Two unionization drives and efforts by Los Angeles truckers to organize a co-op to get around employers' efforts to use anti-trust laws against the troqueros also failed.

Without a stable organization, workers have been unable to develop an effective strategy to get past the bosses' refusal to recognize them as workers. Several militants are trying to pierce the elaborate veil of contractors and subcontractors, insisting that they actually work for the Pacific Maritime Association -- an association of shipping and dock companies that control West Coast ports. But to date, their network has been able to mobilize thousands of workers for short-term actions and to win substantial concessions on a firm-by-firm basis, but has been unable to develop an agreed-upon strategy or the power to force the port bosses to abandon the "independent contractor" fiction and address the troqueros' needs.

The strike centers were in the Los Angeles and, San Francisco Bay area ports, each of which saw 2,000 or more truckers join rallies and picket lines, and thousands more stay away from work in support.

Other areas were also affected. In the inland city of Stockton, hundreds of truckers struck the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Sante Fe freight terminals April 26, cutting off 95 percent of truck traffic in and out of the terminals. In an article characterizing the strikers as "independent truckers;" the Sacramento Bee reassured readers that the "truckers aren't unionized employees going on strike," but rather "independent contractors" seeking higher shipping rates.

But the strike took off April 30, when troqueros in Los Angeles and Oakland, California, joined in. In Los Angeles, police said truckers parked three rigs on Interstate 5, south of town, tying up rush hour traffic for an hour before they could be removed. An informant had tipped off police, who had tow trucks ready; otherwise the blockage could have taken hours to clear. Several other trucks carrying containers slowed and blocked traffic moving northbound and southbound on the Interstate 110, (Harbor) Freeway, which links downtown with the Port of Los Angeles.

Troqueros also struck the Port of Oakland April 30, demanding substantial pay hikes to compensate for 10 years of wage stagnation and skyrocketing fuel prices. Diesel prices average nearly $2.27 per gallon in the state, up dramatically from previous levels. Because the truckers must buy their own fuel, the increases pose a major hardship. Workers also sought agreements to reduce the hours-long waits that have become routine at maritime terminals in recent years.

Leading port hauler APL Inca reported that its movement of cargo was off 90 percent at the Port of Oakland, down from 1,100 moves daily to just 115 on May 4.

Port of Oakland officials announced a settlement May 4 without allowing a committee of truckers time to discuss the terms with their coworkers. Under the agreement, roundly rejected, the next day, a committee would meet four times a year to hear truckers' complaints and attempt to resolve them. That committee would include truckers and representatives of shipping companies, terminal operators and railroads.

The Teamsters quickly hailed the agreement as "a step in the right direction." Said Chuck Mack; director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' Port Division, "It would open up an avenue of communications for a group that just doesn't have a voice."

But truckers rejected the agreement, insisting that they needed an immediate response to their most pressing grievances. Negotiations continued into the evening of May 7, but while several trucking companies offered 20 percent pay hikes, some of the largest firms refused.

That same day, the port secured a temporary restraining order against the truckers, and ordered them to stop picketing Workers refused to accept copies of an injunction ordering them to leave Port Authority property, but withdrew to nearby sidewalks under threat of mass arrests.

However, strikes continued at terminals across the state for a few more days. Workers shut down the Yang Ming terminal in Los Angeles May 7, demanding union recogni- tion. The company's 80 workers settled latex that day, winning substantial pay increases and reinstatement of four fired coworkers but leaving union recognition for another day.

Strike action spreads

Two hundred port truckers in Norfolk and Hampton Roads, Virginia, set up picket lines at the ports May 6 and 7. Hundreds of other truckers honored the lines,tying up one of the East Coast's busiest cargo ports.

One trucker told reporters that she earned $76,000 last year, but was left with just $15,000 after paying for fuel, insurance, maintenance and taxes. Trips that once took an hour now take three hours or more, as a result of increased port security and truckers being required to mount their own chassis (a job longshoremen did until recently).

Like their coworkers across the country, Virginia truckers also question whether freight companies are passing along fuel surcharges assessed to shippers, and are demanding an open registry to prevent chiseling. In Houston, 100 port haulers walked off the job in a one-day action May 10.

Jim Stewart, port division representative for the Teamsters union, said port haulers were fed up over many issues besides fuel, prices: chassis that are not made ready or safe for the road before they're hooked up, the practice of "bobtailing for free," where truckers are expected to haul empties back and forth from off-port locations and not get paid for it; and long waits necessitated by security precautions, among other things. Once the strikes 'began,' Teamsters officials distributed literature on the picket lines. But in the days leading up to the strike, they, discouraged strike plans.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union was noticeably absent from the lines. The ILWU agreed to meet with the troqueros to discuss ways to reduce waits in the ports, but has shown little interest in organizing this sector of maritime workers. During the strike, the troqueros picketed at truck gates, allowing longshoremen to report to work without encountering picket lines.

"It's quieter than usual, but it hasn't shut us down," Theresa Lopez, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles port, told the Bloomberg. business news service. "The longshoremen continue to unload the cargo, and they have just been waiting for the truckers to show up."

No money for food

"We are just asking for our fair share, nothing more than that, and we're going to be out here as long as it takes," said Oakland driver Jatinder Singh. "We're getting paid the same as 10 years ago, but everything else keeps going up. Insurance goes up. Everything goes up. And now gas. We make no money."

Truckers receive $50 to $200 per container hauled, depending on where they are taking the load. While many make $70,000 a year, they spend $30,000 or more a year for fuel, insurance, registration, repairs and maintenance. And because of long waits at the ports and the high cost of maintaining their rigs, many work 15 to 18 hours a day, resulting in hourly wages of $8 to $9.

"I have no money for food, for my family, for my house, for nothing," said angry driver Raul Rivas.