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Occupy the Ports: Standing Up for the 82 Percent of Truck Drivers Who Are Misclassified

Today is Occupy the Ports, an Occupy Wall Street action that takes aim at the illegal and unfair conditions many workers have to experience when working at our nation’s ports. Dock workers, particularly truck drivers, are an integral part of our economy and yet they have seen their jobs, perks and wages take them from the heart of the American middle class to the borderline of poverty. According to AlterNet:

These drivers (around 110,000 of them in the United States) are responsible for moving approximately 20 million containers a year from the ports to railway yards and warehouses. Drivers operating large trucks are expected to safely haul loads up to 80,000 pounds. It’s a job for professionals, only these professionals are earning poverty wages, sometimes even less than you’d make flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant. Once a middle-class profession, the port trucking (or drayage) industry has now been dubbed “sweatshops on wheels.”

The nature of their exploitation and how it affects both the American economy and the profits of the 1% have made for an instant relationship between truck drivers and occupiers. Occupy the Ports found it’s beginning in Oakland during the November 2nd general strike when many occupiers took to the Port of Oakland, closing it down for several hours in the evening. According to Occupy Portland organizer Kari Koch, “their action is aimed at disrupting business as usual for “Wall Street on the waterfront.”

In particular, they are targeting EGT (Export Grain Terminal) and Goldman Sachs. EGT is part of a multinational conglomerate, and the company is engaged a labor struggle with the International Warehouse and Longshore Union in Longview, Wash., and Goldman Sachs, much maligned for its shady business dealings, which were part of the economic collapse, owns half of SSA Marine, which operates four terminals at the Port of Long Beach and also owns the trucking company Shippers Transport Express.

“We will be creating a community picket in front of the port, and we expect to have a work stoppage, and we expect the workers to not cross the picket line,” said Koch. “We are disrupting it for one day, but it is also a symbolic action to show that the workers are actually the ones with the power in this country.” Actions are planned at major West Coast ports such as Oakland, Portland, Long Beach, San Diego, Seattle, and others, but solidarity actions are springing up as well in Albuquerque, Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City, and even in Japan, where Doro Chiba railway workers plan to strike at a trading partner of EGT.

If work is shut down at the ports, “It’s one more day that Goldman Sachs and Wall Street firms are unable to create profit,” said Koch.

Many drivers are aligning themselves with the occupiers even though their misclassification as independent contractors will cause them to lose money on the day of Occupy the Ports. As we wrote last week, misclassification is a silent killer in the U.S., robbing workers of healthcare, governments of tax revenue, and businesses who operate fairly of a chance at competitiveness. This is especially true in trucking. More from Alternet:

“U.S. ports have thus become economic engines for the elite; the 1 percent these trade hubs serve are free to rip the shirts off the backs of the 99 percent, who turn their profits.”

That’s how port truck driver Leonardo Mejia from Los Angeles sees it, too. Drivers, he says, “are part of the 99 percent.” Mejia drives for Shippers Transport Express in Los Angeles and says that he’s excited about the action, even if work stops at the nation’s largest port complex. It means that he and most of his fellow drivers (not just the 1 percent) will also not be making any money that day. Mejia is part of the 82 percent of port truck drivers in the United States that are classified as independent contractors and not employees.

Many workers on the ports, especially the drivers, are making just enough to get by with no safety net. This leaves them vulnerable and open to be exploited, a position that corporations like Goldman Sachs are comfortable with. Once thought of as something that would open the trucking profession to everyone, deregulation has led to exploitation. David Bensman of Rutgers University sums the issue up in Port Trucking Down the Low Road: A Sad Story of Deregulation:

It is ironic that port trucking has become the poster child for destructive deregulation, because the passage of the bill that deregulated the trucking industry, The Motor Carrier Act of 1980, was hailed by liberals and the business community alike as a triumph of policy reform. Senator [Ted] Kennedy and Ralph Nader led the reformers who charged that trucking regulation meant high rates for consumers, and monopoly profits for businesses. Large shippers lobbied Congress for an end to the rate setting and route planning which limited competition and drove up the cost of freight transport. Civil Rights organizations argued that deregulation would lower barriers that impeded African-Americans from gaining a just share of decent trucking jobs. Despite these high hopes, deregulation has wrecked the drayage industry.

“Before 1980, trucking companies had to get a license from the Interstate Commerce Commission to haul freight to and from the ports. The ICC limited the number of trucks to assure stability; the resulting rate structure was sufficient for companies to earn stable profits while providing workers with decent wages with benefits. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters organized and bargained for most of the port truckers, who received wage and benefit packages comparable to those of autoworkers, steelworkers, and over-the-road drivers.”

After deregulation, union companies were forced out of the market, and new companies found a way to squeeze even greater profit at the expense of workers. They sold their trucks back to drivers, Bensman explains, and then made them “independent contractors,” meaning that the drivers would not make an hourly wage but instead would be paid per load, and companies would no longer be responsible for costs such as health care, social security, worker’s compensation, pensions, and payroll taxes.

It should be noted that not everyone in labor is in agreement about the appropriateness of today’s port action.


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