Low-Paid Truckers Get Longshore Support in Strikes at Pacific Northwest Ports

Owner-operator truck drivers at Pacific Northwest ports--many of them Indian, Russian, and African immigrants--staged work stoppages in July and August with long-term implications for drivers throughout North America. Drivers in Vancouver, British Columbia won hourly pay rates, replacing per-trip rates. Seattle and Tacoma drivers are continuing the pressure for similar changes and may strike again in late September.

Twenty years of deregulation of the trucking industry had led to a proliferation of small trucking companies increasingly reliant on owner-operators--drivers who own their own rigs and are treated as independent contractors. In reality, each driver generally works for a single employer and is paid piecework--by the load rather than by the hour. At ports, they line up at the docks, sometimes waiting hours for cargo at their own expense.

In the Seattle-Tacoma area the per-load pay averages out to $8.51 an hour with no benefits. Owner-operators report truck payments averaging $1,082 a month. Lacking health insurance and living on poverty-level income, they frequently have no choice but to sacrifice safety for food, postponing necessary repairs and endangering themselves and other port workers.

Drivers in Vancouver struck on July 22. Organizing to challenge the unpaid waits had began in February, according to Teamsters Local 31 President Garnet Zimmerman. Vancouver drivers, about half of whom are members of Local 31, were paid about $160 ($100 U.S.) for a trip that might take several hours.

Drivers withheld services at the Port of Vancouver for a solid month, as thousands of containers piled up at the docks. Although the pile-up eventually cut into longshore work, labor remained united. "We lost some work hours," explained Tom Dufresne, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union-Canada, "but when you stick together with people in solidarity, sometimes you have to give up a few dollars."

After a month on the streets, Vancouver drivers won the right to hourly pay. They approved the agreement on August 22 by an 88 percent majority. Most of the 50 trucking companies involved have signed an agreement to pay drivers $46 an hour ($31 U.S.), increasing to $48 in nine months and $50 nine months after that. Now that long lines will cost employers money, the trucking companies have also come up with procedures to reduce congestion and increase efficiency. These include an appointment system at terminals and a port-sponsored secured yard to store containers that can't be immediately delivered.

IMPACT TO THE SOUTH

Even before the settlement, the Vancouver drivers had an impact to the south. On August 14 a dozen Canadian drivers met with Seattle and Tacoma owner-operators involved in an organizing drive with Teamsters Local 174. Owner-operators in the U.S., unlike their Canadian counterparts, face legal obstacles to organizing because they are viewed as independent contractors, rather than employees.

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Two days later, over 100 drivers voted to shut down Seattle and Tacoma port trucking, both to support the Vancouver drivers and to demand union recognition. Of an estimated 800 owner-operators, about 200 took part the first day, but within a few days a strong majority had parked their rigs. The truckers received strong support from other waterfront unions, including ILWU longshoremen; rail workers in the United Transportation Union and the Transportation Communications Union; maritime workers from Inlandboatmen's Union, Sailor's Union of the Pacific, Marine Engineers Beneficial Association; and other unions. The drivers' walkout caused near-paralysis at several terminals as containers piled up, and periodic short-term shutdowns both on the docks and in rail yards.

"The support that we got from longshore, from the rail unions, and from the IBU was very important to us," stressed Web Beste, co-chair of the drivers' organizing committee. "They helped us learn the meaning of solidarity. It was not only their direct support, like honoring picket lines in the first couple of days, but also the little things, like bringing us food and coffee on the line."

On August 31 the drivers suspended the walkout for 30 days, with hopes that the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma can follow the lead of the Vancouver in promoting a fair system of compensation for owner-operators.

"We gained a lot," said Local 174 Organizing Director Rob Hickey. "The owner-operators took the leadership role in building their union campaign, and gained a real sense of their power. We proved to the power brokers--shipping companies, railroads, terminal operators, the ports, and the trucking companies--that they have to deal with our problems."

"Most drivers won raises, some as much as 20 percent," added Local 174 Secretary-Treasurer Bob Hasegawa. "And all of them won respect."

The Seattle-Tacoma waterfront labor coalition of longshore, rail, maritime, and truckers' unions is now meeting weekly to coordinate labor power in support of the owner-operators. Plans call for increased community involvement, with the help of Jobs with Justice, as well as stepped-up political pressure through the larger labor movement. Most importantly, the unions are working together to educate and mobilize the rank and file on the waterfront.

"We didn't realize all the legal barriers to other unions supporting our actions," noted Harry Lucia, a leader of the owner-operator campaign. "We've got to work more closely with the ILWU and rail unions, especially, to plan future activity, to make it as effective as possible."

But the powerful Puget Sound waterfront unions are determined that there will be justice. "Among workers, the weakest link is the most important," said ILWU Local 19 President Larry Hansen. "We're working together to make that link strong. Our community must unify to end their downward wage spiral and stop the slavery."