Teamsters ramp up drayage, warehouse worker organizing effort in LA-Long Beach

From Journal of Commerce, October 27, 2015.
By Bill Mongelluzzo, Senior Editor.
The Teamsters union Tuesday stepped up its organizing efforts in Southern California, targeting another drayage company in Los Angeles-Long Beach, and announcing a partnership with a warehouse worker advocacy organization.

The latter signals a move by the Teamsters to organize what could potentially be thousands of workers in the warehouse and distribution industry. Although the potential unionization of warehouse workers would undoubtedly take years to accomplish, the partnership that was announced Tuesday between the Teamsters and the advocacy group Warehouse Workers Resource Center could bring significant changes to employment dynamics in the staffing agency-reliant warehouse distribution industry.

Striking truck drivers picketed at several container terminals at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach Tuesday, going after truckers from two drayage companies that have been targeted by the Teamsters in recent years, XPO Logistics and Pac 9 Transportation. XPO Logistics last year completed the acquisition of Pacer International, which had been a target of the Teamsters-affiliated group Justice for Port Truck Drivers.

Spokesmen for the ports said the demonstrators who set up pickets at several marine terminals had no impact on cargo handling at the largest U.S. port complex, and limited impact on truck movements into and out of the marine terminals.

The Teamsters union in recent years has been attempting to organize drivers at a number of container ports across the country, oftentimes basing their efforts on the assertion that the owner-operator drivers are being misclassified as independent contractors when they should be classified as employees of the trucking companies.

Although this was the eighth time in the past two years that some drivers at Pac 9 and XPO Logisticsdemonstrated over issues including wage theft and alleged misclassification of the drivers as independent contractors, the Teamsters union emphasized that Tuesday’s events were significant because Teamsters’ President Jim Hoffa and Vice President Fred Potter participated in the demonstrations.

Hoffa told the striking drivers in Los Angeles-Long Beach: “The misclassification of workers, and the devastating wage theft, ends here.” Hoffa met with drivers and workers in the warehouse industry in Southern California and heard their stories concerning alleged exploitation and inhumane working conditions, and their desire to improve conditions throughout the industry.

“I told them, you have the support of the 1.4 million Teamster members. We will bring justice to port truck drivers and warehouse workers nationwide,” Hoffa said.

The Teamsters on Tuesday also announced that a number of drivers at a third harbor trucking company, Intermodal Bridge Transport, presented to the company a petition demanding that they be recognized as direct employees and that they have the right to affiliate with a union, said union spokeswoman Barbara Maynard.

In all three efforts involving drayage companies, the drivers claim they are being misclassified as independent contractors, and are therefore being denied fair wages and benefits. In some instances, the drivers say they filed claims against the companies with the California Labor Commissioner’s Division of Labor Standards, and the drivers charged that they have been experiencing retaliation from the companies as a result.

The Harbor Trucking Association of Southern California said that by taking its organizing efforts and demonstrations to the harbor, the Teamsters union is contributing to the already difficult port congestion problemthat has plagued Los Angeles-Long Beach since the summer of 2014.

Weston LaBar, executive director, said the association is neutral as to whether its member companies decide to operate with employee drivers that are union members, or owner-operators who by law can not be organized. However, trucking companies dispute the charges made by the Teamsters that drayage drivers are underpaid and that most of them want to become members of a union. He cited a study released earlier this month by Southern California economist John Husing that concluded earnings for many drivers are higher, in some case much higher, than for employee drivers in California.

HTA is also drafting a letter that ask both ports to consistently assign harbor police to those marine terminals that are chosen by the Teamsters for picketing. The demonstrators generally target trucks driven by the drayage companies they charge are misclassifying workers.

LaBar said recent experience shows that when police are present, the picketing drivers are confined to designated areas where they do not interfere with truck movements into and out of the terminals. However, when police are not present, the demonstrators often block all trucks from accessing the marine terminals, even the majority of trucking companies the Teamsters are not targeting.

Spokesmen for both ports said it is port policy to assign police to terminals for which they have information indicating picketing will take place. Los Angeles spokesman Phillip Sanfield said port managers will nevertheless take the HTA letter seriously and will determine if more can be done to ensure that trucks move safely and efficiently into and out of the terminals.

The announcement Tuesday by the Teamsters union that it is forming a partnership with the Warehouse Worker Resource Center of Ontario, California, is significant because tens of thousands of workers are employed at warehouses and distribution facilities across the country, at seaports as well as inland locations. Most of those workers are not members of unions, especially those workers who are supplied to the warehouses by staffing agencies or other providers of temporary workers.

Warehouse Worker Resource Center is not a union, but rather is a non-profit organization that advocates for better treatment of workers who in large part are paid minimum wages, often without benefits. Sheheryar Kaoosji, spokesman for the organization, said bills approved by the California Legislature, as well as a recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, will make it easier to show that workers provided by staffing agencies should have the same rights, wages and benefits enjoyed by employees.

The immediate goal of the center is to advocate for the rights of those workers, Kaoosji said. For example, the group is supporting workers at the Cal Cartage warehouse in Los Angeles that are provided by staffing agencies and are therefore earning at or slightly above minimum wage. Those workers should be paid in line with the Los Angeles living wage ordinance, which is about $16 per hour if only wages are paid, or about $13 per hour if benefits are provided.

Given the rapidly-evolving regulatory and legislative environment that makes it easier to join unions, at least in California, if warehouse workers should choose to be organized, the Teamsters “do really well,” in that endeavor, Kaoosji said.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bill.mongelluzzo@ihs.com and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo.

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