The One Job We Cannot Do Without

JUST SAYIN’-Food from the supermarket.  Letters from your mailbox.  On-line orders delivered to your door.  Prescriptions at the pharmacy.  Clothes at the mall.  Fuel at the gas station or airport.  Of course the list goes on, but what do all these have in common?  Cargo that arrives via truck. 

Perhaps we take those drivers and what they do for granted.  How often do we consider that our fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy, and meat were all delivered by truck? 

In a recent article, I spoke of the dangers of long-distance truck routes that don’t allow for sufficient rest and rejuvenation. Even earlier I wrote about pollution issues around truck terminals. 

Now I am addressing one more very significant point:  How we treat truck drivers at the busiest ports in America—the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.  Cargoes are delivered and picked up hundreds of times daily, significantly advancing our international market partnerships which result in major contributions to our local and national economies—yet with little or no thought given to the drivers who make all this profitability possible.  It should be obvious that there would be no commerce if not for the hard work, dedication, and diligence of the drivers behind the wheel. 

Once upon a time, truck drivers could make a comfortable living—supporting family and experiencing the American Dream.  In general, this is no longer the case.  Because of the recent downturn in the economy (though we are certainly in a recovery mode now), many trucking companies have gone out of business.  Very few remaining companies are unionized—the result of which produces a significant impact on the average driver whose work is exhausting and grueling, fraught with danger and hazard. 

The so-called independent contractors are fed up!  One is quoted as saying:  “This is dangerous work that we do … We deserve to have respect on the job as well as fair benefits and a pension.  This is a fight against exploitation.”  They want affordable healthcare and a pension upon which they can depend (with the ability to retire at an early enough age so that they can enjoy the fruit of their labor for at least a few years).  

Studies have shown that the average truck driver passes away within 3-5 years of retirement, certainly in part because of the tremendous physical and mental strain they are under throughout their trucking career, let alone the long-term, often deplorable conditions to which drivers are exposed.  This is why we need unions—to obtain and protect their rights! 

So what is the principal issue here and what are independent contractors 

In recent weeks and months, there have been periodic Teamster strikes across the nation that are addressing concerns similar to what our people here are doing right now at our two major ports.  In January, the job action by the port drivers produced a union contract at the Toll Group.   Clearly then, strikes and picket lines and boycotts can produce positive change!  

Between late last Sunday through Tuesday of this week (24 hours a day in 4-hour shifts), drivers picketed Green Fleet Systems.  Its offenses are, at minimum, three-fold:  avoidance of paying its fair share of taxes, shifting to these drivers its own business expenses, failing to pay for overtime hours. 

Green Fleet has deliberately misclassified this group of drivers as independent contractors, an action which places an unfair burden upon the driver, not the corporate owner.  Employees who are direct hires of these firms earn, on average, 22% more than “independent contractors.”  The latter drivers, however, have to buy or lease their own trucks, maintain them, pay for gasoline at today’s considerably higher prices; furthermore, they are not entitled to sick leave, vacation pay, or overtime (usually working 60 hours a week) but earning less than the poverty wage. 

Additionally, these independent drivers are not reimbursed for the many hours wasted waiting in long lines before they even enter the gates at the ports.  [I remember seeing outside of Cairo the mile-long logjams produced by the hundreds of truckers trying to get into the delivery sites.  I would like to think that America can do better!]  

The Harbor Commission is beginning to address another complication--the turn times. This is the amount of time expended once the driver passes through the port gate and when he or she leaves.  Excessive wait time means fewer deliveries and lower productivity—certainly affecting the pay of these drivers let alone the bottom line of the companies and cost to the customer at the other end.  It should be clear that greater port efficiencies must be addressed and remediated (actions, I believe, that the authorities are attempting to tackle). 

Recent Court rulings have held that these laborers are not independent drivers at all but are in fact employees of the companies and hence deserve the benefits to which other company employees are entitled and receive.  

Other infractions of which Green Fleet and others are guilty include retaliation, harassment, and intimidation of those drivers who are attempting to form a union.  Some companies, such as the Carson-based Pacific 9 Transportation, have been known to threaten employees with closing the doors on the business altogether (hence laying off everyone) if the effort toward unionization were pursued (Pac 9 eventually agreed to respond to the suggestions advanced by the NLRB to resolve the unionizing effort). 

Green Fleet, on the other hand, is not responding to or acting upon the mandate of those rulings.  Thus, the strike action.  I am dismayed that the news media as a whole have not picked up on this contest of wills, but at least some of us are attempting to enlighten the readership about what is transpiring and why. 

Vice President Biden’s former Chief Economic Advisor, Jared Bernstein, put it well when he wrote the following:  

“Mislabeling workers as independent businesses deprives them of bedrock labor protections such as the rights to minimum wage, overtime pay, and a safe and healthful workplace.  Workers who are  illegally called independents are cheated of such rudimentary workplace benefits as unemployment compensation when they are laid off, workers’ compensation when they are injured, and the right to join together to bargain for better ways and working conditions.”

 

His words encapsulate the entire issue.  We need to support these drivers in their efforts.  After all (paraphrasing the old adage), who will be for me if I am not first for others, and when will this advocacy take place?  In the end, what would life be without the drivers who deliver the goods?!

 

Just sayin’.

 

(Rosemary Jenkins is a Democratic activist and chair of the Northeast Valley Green Alliance. Jenkins has written Leticia in Her Wedding Dress and Other Poems, A Quick-and-Easy Reference to Correct Grammar and Composition and Vignettes for Understanding Literary and Related Concepts.  She also writes for CityWatch.)

-cw

 

 

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 12 Issue 36

Pub: May 2, 2014