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Los Angeles Port Truckers Mobilizing for May Day Shutdown

By Gideon Dev.

Truckers in the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach are mobilizing to repeat their performance of a year ago, when over 90% of the trucks were off the road. The shutdown last year was a show of solidarity with the immigrant rights movement and expression of shop floor anger over work conditions. It gave immediate creditability to the protests and boycott in Los Angeles and throughout the nation.

However, despite success in preventing the reactionary HR4437 from becoming law, the immigrant rights movement has left much wanting. After a rising tide of historic marches whose crest was May Day 2006, the single largest day of protest in US history, there has been a visible dearth of organization to press the concerns of immigrant workers. What momentum there was in spring was lost in summer, as the corporate elite and their partners in government responded with the passage of S2611 by the Democratic Party, as well as the bipartisan ‘Secure Fence Act of 2006’. Highly publicized ICE raids continue to be made—with the expressed purpose of trying to pressure the Congress to approve bracero guest worker programs! Conditions did not change with the marches, but have been getting worse since.

The Los Angeles General Membership Branch (LA GMB) of the IWW has called for a complete shutdown of port trucking as well as solidarity from all related industries this May 1st, 2007. As of the time of this writing, the response and feedback from troqueros has been positive. Nearly all truckers have been encouraged by the news of solidarity from the ILWU locals in San Francisco and Seattle, who resolved to not work on May Day. We in the LA GMB were particularly heartened that their resolutions highlighted both our own involvement in last year’s May Day shutdown, and the current efforts of the March 25th Coalition, of which we are members. It was at the latter’s National Conference for Immigrant Rights that the call was made for a second ‘Great American Boycott’ on May Day, and that the LA GMB committed itself to putting the question of a May Day shutdown to the port truckers directly. However, it has become clear that the impetus for action by the troqueros this year will not solely be supporting the immigrant rights movement, or even reclaiming May Day as the workers’ day, but the condition of being exploited workers who drive international trade.

Make no mistake, troqueros are exploited for their labor, and are atomized by the fiction of being "owner-operators" or "independent contractors". It is their labor, the hauling of freight to and from the ports and distributions centers that generates income for the trucking companies, and allows "just in time" distribution to be even possible. Yet it is the trucking companies who keep most of the monies paid by shippers to have that freight hauled. Instead of paying for each hour worked, carriers pay by the mile or by each trip. They don’t pay the drivers for all the time spent loading and unloading containers, waiting in ports or intermodal yards, or stuck in delays or in doing paperwork. They certainly don’t pay for the trucks, maintenance on the trucks, insurance, ever more costly diesel fuel…not to mention benefits such as healthcare, social security, workers comp, disability, unemployment insurance, etc. Meanwhile, troqueros haul 2-3 loads a day all week to make what amounts to poverty income, after they have paid all of the costs their employers shift onto them. Troqueros are indeed employees, as much of the trucking companies as of the Pacific Maritime Association, the coalition of shippers and terminal operators who control West Coast ports. Shielded by an elaborate veil of contractors and subcontractors, the PMA has long been able to claim that despite working directly in the port, and requiring some form of security permit to do so, troqueros are independent contractors who, under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, cannot press for their collective rights as workers. Yet the terminal operators do exercise sufficient control and direction over troqueros work to be considered joint-employers along with the trucking companies.

These are dynamics that port truckers face regionally and nationally, but they are particularly striking in Los Angeles. The majority of total imports to the United States come from Asia, and over 80 percent of all Asian cargo to the United States is unloaded in West Coast ports. A substantial portion of this traffic, at times as much as half, passes through the Port of LA/LB, hauled out by troqueros who industry-wide are held hostage by miserly recompense, shifted costs from the employer, the lack of benefits or basic social provisions, and often their own immigration status. They have no collective contract, unlike other workers in West Coast ports. Of the 25,000 odd longshoremen at west coast ports, 14,000 are ILWU—9,400 members and roughly 4,000 non-members who get to vote on the contract. That leaves 11,000 casuals, who have no say on anything, as well as everyone else who work inside the ports, which apart from a handful of Teamster drivers, are mostly the thousands of non-union troqueros—over 12,000 in Los Angeles alone. But there are a number of looming issues that raise not only the impetus for mass action, but the possibility of change throughout the industry: the TPS issue in the TWIC program, the environmental performance of the ports, and 2008 master contract negotiations.

Estimates are that as many as a third of port troqueros have a TPS, or Temporary Protected Status permit, a temporary card that is renewed for 6, 12, or 18 month periods. These are soon to be replaced by DHS with TWIC, or Transportation Worker Identification Credential. This card will be required for all workers to enter the ports, and will be valid for 5 years. TPS drivers will be initially denied a TWIC card and will have to engage in a waiver process which must include a letter from an employer. What company (or port authority) is going to sign an affidavit saying that it is indeed the employer, given all the responsibilities such an admission would entail? Yet the only options for current TPS recipients are for the trucking companies to accept the employment status of the drivers, or to have some form of national amnesty passed, such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Almost all of the 10,000 trucks working the Port of LA/LB will not be able to meet the stringent emissions requirements set by the ARB by the year 2012. Trucks will have to be replaced if mitigation is to be taken seriously. Collectives of workers at key companies are already aware that the Port of Long Beach intends on buying 500 trucks immediately. The fear spreading in the harbor is that the terminals will get the new clean trucks and that the business unions in the harbor—the ILWU and the Teamsters—will raid on the troqueros jurisdiction by forging a deal with the terminals to get those trucks. At a January 30th California Air Resources Board public meeting, which the LA GMB publicized and got over 150 truckers to attend, the consensus among the workers was that cleaner trucks were of course a good idea—everyone wants their children to breathe clean air—just so long as the costs weren’t dumped on the drivers. Workers gave angry testimony about onerous leasing arrangements, the many failures of the Gateway program, control the trucks and work by the motor carriers. No one asked about what the replacement trucks were or how much they would cost, how one might apply for one, sources of financing, environmental tax credits, and so on. With the truckers actually participating in a discussion about decisions that affected them, the meeting turned from industry and employer strategies for mitigating their public responsibilities to a forum on what the workers care about: wages and labor rights. More than a few truckers were quite vocal on they need to take action themselves to prevent yet another process of being forced to work more with less security.

Both of these issues are made possible by the fact that troqueros do not have anything like an industry wide contract. In the spring and summer of 2008 master contracts will expire throughout the transportation, warehousing, and distribution industries. As Chris Kutalik has noted, this is a rare and strategic opportunity for mass concerted action. This includes the troqueros, whose have had IRS and workers’ comp rulings certifying their employment status, who have not had the amnesty of 1986 upheld, and who continue to be a mass of fragmented, exploitable, and expendable labor. Imagine what could be achieved if troqueros industry-wide, along with the hundreds of thousands of other workers who control the flow of goods—from the docks and airports to the truck barns and railways to the warehouses and packages centers—organized to use their leverage in a concerted nationwide effort. Perhaps these workers would no longer be divided into small and easily controlled groups who cannot see their shared and interdependent interests as workers. Perhaps their militancy and democracy could be preserved by winning full labor rights without having to give up their real power by signing a no-strike clause. Perhaps labor might even be able to organize down the supply chain all the way to Wal Mart, McDonalds, even Starbucks.

These are not vain hopes, but it is clear that momentum for them will come not from the leadership of the business unions, but from below—from ordinary workers. For the past 25 years, the troqueros have been self-organizing, forming individual collectives of workers at the major trucking companies serving the Port of LA/LB. These circles have not just been for networking or information, but for action and solidarity. Whether the aim is for changes to working conditions or increases in pay, the method of pressing those aims is to first call for a meeting amongst those who will be affected—the drivers involved—and then selecting an ad hoc delegation to meet with the company and to negotiate a solution. If a solution cannot be negotiated, then the workers shut down to get what they need. Simple. The troqueros have needed no one to teach them this, for it is well understood that through collective action they can achieve what they cannot individually.

However, there are often situations that cannot be alleviated at the company level, and action is needed at an entire terminal, or even port-wide. Different groups and collectives network and take the initiative, shutting down specific terminals or the entire harbor. Such an action was the Dec. 7 shutdown of the BNSF railway organized by the LA GMB, one of the busiest intermodal facilities in North America, over unfair punishment without recourse or appeal. The shutdown was a success, the workers got reinstated, and the ticketing policy of the company was reevaluated. However, it should be noted that without any lasting organization to constantly ensure that workers are being treated fairly, things have quietly gone back to pre-strike conditions at the BNSF facility. Troqueros understand the power they have: if they shut down, international commerce shuts down, and the entire supply chain of neoliberal globalization grinds to a halt. May Day 2007 will be an expression of that power, but more must be done.

The old trade union bureaucracy is fast becoming insignificant in the new labor movement. Power is coming and being exercised from below, where workers are relying on self-learning and direct action beyond the limits imposed by "their" unions. The word is out in these loose-knit collectives and the greater troquero population in the harbor that "el movimento" is back, and people beginning to see the IWW at the forefront of port actions. As we see it, the most pressing current task is to build a movement with lasting institutions and infrastructure. That is, to build structures that preserve rather that co-opt the grassroots democracy and militancy troqueros have long had, with the ultimate goal of winning full labor rights.