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Labor Struggles with MAERSK

Disclaimer - The following article is reposted here because it is an issue with some relevance to the IWW. The views of the author do not necessarily agree with those of the IWW and vice versa. 

Article  by David Bacon

As evening fell on November 5, Gilberto Soto received a call on his cell phone at his mother’s home in a working-class neighborhood of Usulutan, El Salvador. Unable to understand the caller, Soto stepped out of the door to get better reception. In the street outside three men lay in wait. According to witnesses, they ran up to Soto and shot him in the back and then fled in a car and bicycle as he lay bleeding on the pavement. Soto was taken to a local clinic where he died shortly afterwards. 

Soto’s death was no ordinary assassination. He’d left his home in 1975 and was later a supporter in exile of the FMLN, El Salvador’s left-wing movement that carried out an armed guerrilla war during the 1980s. But this was not the likely reason why three thugs pumped bullets into him as he stood on his mother’s doorstep. It is much more likely that his murder was connected to a new international campaign to organize trucking workers—from the docks of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Soto had been working, to those of Central America, where he met his end. 

Soto had returned to his native country just days before. His visit to his family was a brief prelude to a series of meetings he’d set up before leaving the United States. In calls to El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras, Soto had sought to contact harbor drivers who ferry huge shipping containers to and from the ships in port. 

This was an extension of his work for the Teamsters Union in the U.S. For the last four years Soto and other Teamster organizers have sought to build ties with U.S. drivers who do the same work, often for the same shipping companies that employ their coworkers in Central America. 

Chuck Mack, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7 in northern California and director of the union’s port division, notes there was nothing in Soto’s history that provides a motive for his murder. “The fact that he was not robbed, the fact that he was talking to workers in the area about their conditions of employment, the fact that he was a Teamster organizer talking to workers in that country, seems to be the motive,” he charges. “There’s no proof or evidence that the companies are behind the assassination, yet. But we will be sending a delegation of our own to El Salvador to develop our own facts and assessment.” 

Meanwhile, IBT President James Hoffa and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney met with the Salvadoran ambassador to the U.S., Rene Leon, to demand a full-scale investigation. The Teamsters, joined by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the International Longshoremens Association, offered a reward of $75,000 for the apprehension of the people responsible. 

In El Salvador port drivers have a long history of fighting the Danish corporation that has resisted the organizing efforts of truckers around the world more than any other—the Maersk Corporation. Three years ago, 100 drivers for Bridge International Transport were fired when they tried to win a union contract and their organization was destroyed. Bridge is owned by Maersk and hires the drivers who deliver the containers to the company’s container ships as they sit at the dock. 

The terminations made big political waves in El Salvador. The fired unionists approached the International Transport Federation, an umbrella group for transport unions around the world. The ITF brought some of the Salvadorans to Denmark, to put their case before the Danish Transport and General Workers Union. Maersk has its world headquarters in Copenhagen and corporate representatives, forced to respond to the exposure of the firings in the press of their own home country, called the drivers thugs and terrorists. But Maersk did admit that the manager of its Salvadoran trucking facility was no longer employed there. The workers, however, remained fired. 

When Soto began making calls to El Salvador three years later, asking non-governmental organizations to search out the fired workers and set up meetings with them, he was unearthing a piece of that history. And when he made more calls looking for Maersk workers in Honduras and Nicaragua as well, it might easily have set off alarm bells, at least in the local offices of Bridge International Transport, and perhaps even in Copenhagen. 

In late November, the Teamsters turned down an offer by A.P. Moller, the parent company of Maersk, to investigate Soto’s murder. “This murder investigation is best left to the Salvadoran authorities who have indicated their willingness to accept assistance from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies. If the Salvadoran police engage in a cover-up, we will seek the assistance of human rights organizations with a track record of integrity and independence,” Mack said in a Teamster press statement. 

The Teamsters then sent a 10-person delegation, including Congressperson Linda Sanchez (D-CA), to El Salvador to meet with government officials. Sanchez is one of 72 members of Congress who signed a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, asking him to make U.S. resources available to the Salvadoran government’s investigation. 

On December 3, however, Salvadoran police suddenly announced the arrest of Soto’s mother-in-law, accused her of hiring the three assassins and attributed the murder to a family quarrel. When she was paraded before a press conference with three men, including two members of a notorious street gang, Rosa Elba Ortiz claimed in tears that she was innocent. “I don’t know those men,” she said. 

Her arrest was denounced by El Salvador’s Ombudsperson, Beatrice de Carrillo, in a press conference on December 6. De Carrillo accused the national police’s Organized Crime Unit, led by Rodolfo Delgado Montes, of seizing control of the case from the local prosecutor in Usulutan. Two supposed witnesses, she said, had “been handcuffed, hooded, taken to solitary places,” and “threatened with violations of various kinds.” Elba Ortiz was also “strongly coerced and interrogated.” 

Additional doubt was cast on the case against Elba Ortiz, who authorities say was motivated by a desire to collect on a life insurance policy supposedly benefiting her daughter, Soto’s wife. According to John Slatery, director of the Teamsters benefits department, Soto’s beneficiaries are his son and two daughters. 

The accusations against Soto’s own family will not still the calls for an independent investigation into his death and any connections it may have to his work organizing harbor truck drivers. 

In its campaign to help the 100 fired Salvadoran truckers, the International Transport Federation organized meetings with Maersk employees from many countries. At one meeting, Teamster leaders Mack and Ron Carver heard about the price paid in Central America by those who oppose the Danish conglomerate. It rang a bell, sounding much like actions taken by the company against its U.S. workers when they try to organize. 

Hundreds of drivers do the same labor in U.S. ports as the fired Salvadorans did in Central America, ferrying huge shipping containers to and from Maersk vessels.

These workers, however, aren’t employed directly by Maersk or its subsidiaries. Instead, drivers own their own trucks, at least in theory. Actually, they’re heavily indebted to banks and finance companies, which loan them money to purchase their rigs. Drivers have to pay all the costs of operating them—diesel fuel, insurance, parking charges—everything. By the time bills are paid, the average take-home earning for a harbor trucker is $8-9 an hour, making them the lowest-paid big-rig drivers in the United States. They make up a huge group of 50-55,000 people nationally—some 12,000 work in the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach alone, with about 3,100 in Oakland, 1,800 in Portland, and 2,800 in Tacoma/Seattle, according to Bob Lanshay, Teamsters port organizer. 

Every morning, harbor truckers bid for the right to pick up a container from Maersk subsidiaries like Pacific Rim Transport International, HUDD, or Bridge International Transport. If the dispatcher gives them the load, they then wait for hours in front of a terminal to pick it up or drop it off. Dozens of rigs in huge lines, their motors idling, stretch for miles in front of the gates to the docks before they open every morning, in ports from coast to coast. By day’s end, most drivers have put in as many as 16-18 hours. 

Because they’re owner-operators, these workers have no rights under much of U.S. labor law, including the right to overtime pay. They’re not covered by wage and hour protection since they supposedly work for themselves. They have Workers Compensation Insurance to cover workplace injuries only if they buy their own policy, an expense most can’t afford. 

Most important, the National Labor Relations Board says they’re not workers at all and therefore aren’t covered by the laws that protect the right to form unions. In fact, the Federal government says that if drivers even try to agree with each other on a price to charge the shipping companies for carrying a container, they’re in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed originally to restrain monopoly corporations. The fines and jail time they might incur by violating the Act would break any self-employed truck driver. 

Soto was not a harbor driver, although in ports like Los Angeles hundreds of his fellow countrymen are. Instead, when he arrived in the U.S. in 1975, he got work as a garbage collector, a waiter and cook, and a factory worker—nothing like his career as a bank teller in El Salvador. Finally he landed a job in a factory where the Teamsters Union had a contract. He became a shop steward, and then was elected president of Local 11, the first Latino to head a Teamster local in New Jersey. He later went to work as an organizer for Hospital and Healthcare Employees Local 1199, returning to the Teamsters as a business agent, and then international organizer, four years ago. In the meantime, he put himself through community college, and then earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. 

Soto joined the group of Teamsters organizers helping port drivers around the country as they began to organize a national network, despite enormous legal obstacles. For the last decade, without the right to form unions or bargain, drivers have nevertheless organized associations, and tried to get the shipping companies to deal with them. These efforts have escalated as oil companies began raising the price of diesel fuel to unheard-of levels, cutting deeply into drivers’ income, during the first Administration of oil-friendly President George Bush. 

Maersk soon became notorious for punishing workers who helped organize these protests. In 2000, in Oakland, California, Naim Sharifi, an Afghan university graduate, began petitioning for price adjustments to compensate for fuel costs. Sharifi, who died three months ago, called himself “one of the top drivers” for Maersk’s PRTI. The company rejected the workers’ petition, and eventually the drivers organized a brief work stoppage.  

In September of that year, the Teamsters organized a rally in the port to protest the bad conditions, and Sharifi spoke for the drivers. As he did so, PRTI officials looked on, an act that would constitute illegal surveillance if the workers had rights under the National Labor Relations Act. “The next day they called me into the office and cancelled my contract,” Sharifi remembered. “They said, ‘We don’t have to give you a reason. We don’t need a reason.’” 

When the ITF planned a series of 20 nationwide rallies highlighting Sharifi’s termination the following year, a Maersk attorney called the group’s head in London, David Cockroft, and told him Sharifi was being investigated by the FBI as a possible terrorist. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks that year, Middle Eastern and south Asian immigrants were targets of FBI sweeps in general. Nevertheless, some wonder how Sharifi, who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, made it onto the Federal list of subversives. 

Sharifi wasn’t unique. Frank Misterka was denied work by BIT in Baltimore for participating in protests the same year. Gene Suggs in Nashville helped organize a work stoppage in 2000 over high fuel costs and low pay. When it was over, BIT blacklisted Suggs and other active participants. In Houston, workers tried to get a “bill of rights” from the port authority, but when they put Teamsters’ bumper stickers on their rigs, they were told, “Take off the Teamster sticker, or take off the BIT placard.” In Hampton Roads, Virginia, BIT terminated the contract for Robert King and HUDD, another Maersk subsidiary, cancelled that of Paul Barnum for the same crime of organizing. 

The worst retaliation came in Miami. There workers organized a 2004 stoppage at the same time as drivers in Oakland, Charleston, and other ports. In Oakland, the Port got an injunction that forced them back to work after eight days and filed a lawsuit against the personal assets of three individual truckers who had stepped forward as spokespersons, for damages arising from the action. The Teamsters and the ILWU provided legal support for the three truckers, and put political pressure on the port and City of Oakland resulting in withdrawal of the suit. 

In Miami, Maersk and the Port of Miami filed a lawsuit against the truckers once the workers were driving their rigs again. Maersk lawyers argued that workers had “held meetings and communicated with each other” and “passed out flyers,” thus violating anti-trust laws. They demanded immediate action from the courts because the truckers were “small and independent businesses without substantial financial resources to pay damages...even if their tractors and other assets were seized.” The suit is still pending, but the parties have gone into mediation to  resolve it. 

Last fall the union asked Cornell University professor Lance Campa to document the abuses in a report on human rights violations by Maersk. Campa’s investigation found that, despite anti-trust law, workers “had rights under international human rights law of association, of self-organization, of free expression and other means to try to achieve their goals.” Maersk, he concluded, was violating accepted international human rights standards. 

Some observers call Maersk a company with a split personality, since not all its workforce suffer the same conditions or labor under the same anti-labor policies. About 100 drivers in Oakland and 50-60 in Seattle work directly for the company, under a Teamster Union contract the company inherited when it bought SeaLand’s trucking operation. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union negotiates with Maersk as part of multi-employer group, the Pacific Maritime Association. In Denmark, as well as Europe generally, the company enjoys a benevolent reputation. There, unions have established rights and conditions for port drivers far in excess of those in the U.S., Central America, or other parts of the world. But according to one union observer, “The company may have good relations with organized workers, but it wants to keep its non-union workers non-union.” 

Helping the port drivers organize marks a change in the approach towards organizing in the Teamsters, especially in an international context. Over the last few years, the union concentrated on trying to prevent the entrance of Mexican truckers into the U.S., fearing that employers would pit them against more highly-paid U.S. drivers. In Mexico this was often viewed as a campaign against the truckers themselves. By contrast, Soto’s efforts in El Salvador were intended to help a similar group to organize in cooperation with U.S. workers in the same industry, even working for the same employer.  

“We’ve recognized with these multinational corporations that we cannot deal with them effectively even nationally,” Mack explains. “We have to develop a program that is international. We’re not on the verge of organizing drivers in El Salvador, Central America, or other parts of the world. But we’re attempting to work with workers in those countries, to share information, provide help, and get their ideas and perspectives. How do we deal with these multibillion-dollar, multinational corporations? How do we end the exploitation of these drivers? It’s a worldwide problem.” 

Soto’s job was helping a group of workers with no rights against a company with a long track record of opposing any of their efforts to organize. Bob Lanshay calls him “a great guy, someone who didn’t have any enemies.”  

Well, not exactly. Someone was threatened enough to murder him.