California Truckers Strike for Worker Rights

by Peter Dreier

Truckers Go To Court Over LA Port's Clean Trucks Program

More than 40 percent of the goods that come into the United States from overseas come through the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. That fact alone gives thousands of truck drivers who haul those goods from the ports to warehouses considerable leverage with big companies (like Walmart, Cosco, and Home Depot) whose goods are mostly made in Asia as well as with the shipping companies, the municipal Harbor Commission which oversees the port, and the trucking companies who employ the drivers.

If the truckers shut down the port, they can disrupt a huge part of the U.S. economy that depends on global trade. That’s particularly true during this time of year, when more cargo arrives at the ports in anticipation of the gift-buying holidays.

The trucking companies routinely put profits over people. For example, the Harbor Trucking Association (HTA), which represent the companies, is asking the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to relax the safety rules that dictate the amount of sleep truckers must have. The HTA wants to lift the requirements so that employers can extend drivers’ hours to accommodate the increased shipping loads prior to the holidays.

No worker wants to go on strike, but several major trucking companies at these L.A. and Long Beach ports have made working conditions so miserable that many drivers believe they have no choice. So the drivers will be out of their trucks and onto the picket lines this week.

In July, drivers went on strike to protest the companies’ chronic unfair labor practices. After five days of picketing that dramatically impacted port operations and garnered international media attention, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti brokered a “cooling off” period that included an agreement by three trucking firms — Total Transportation Services (TTSI), Pacific 9 Transportation (Pac 9), and Green Fleet Systems — to accept all drivers back to work without retaliation. But the trucking companies went back on their pledge to Garcetti. They continued retaliating against drivers who have complained about unfair conditions and who want a stronger voice in their workplaces. They even fired several of the most outspoken truckers.

So now the drivers are ready to go back on the picket lines and to shift their protests from the offices of the trucking companies to the dockside terminals where longshore workers move containers from ships to trucks. Their actions could be compounded if, the dock workers also withhold their labor. About 20,000 longshoreman at 29 West Coast ports, who have been working without a union contract since July 1, are poised to go on strike in a dispute with the shipping companies.

The drivers claim that the trucking companies have been misclassifying them as “independent contractors” in order to make it impossible, under federal labor laws, to unionize. The companies routinely deduct huge amounts from drivers’ paychecks for fuel, parking, insurance and other expenses, a practice that the drivers say is wage theft. After drivers pay for the cost of renting and maintaining their trucks, their pay is often below the minimum wage.

“The companies treat us like regular employees but compensate us like independent contractors,” drivers said in a joint statement.

Several times in the past year the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) sided with the drivers, finding that they are actually employees rather than independent contractors because the trucking companies establish all the conditions of their work. Since February 2013, DLSE has ruled against one of the firms, TTSI, in 17 cases awarding the drivers over $1.2 million in the form of unpaid wages and reimbursements for expenses paid by workers. DLSE admonished the trucking firms to stop retaliating against drivers who raise these issues, but the retaliations have continued.

Last summer, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a consolidated complaint alleging that GFS has committed more than 50 egregious labor law violations. And last month, a Federal Judge issued an injunction against Green Fleet Systems (GFS), ordered the company to immediately re-hire two drivers who were fired illegally, and stop other illegal labor activities or face contempt of court. The court found that in January 2014 that GFS misclassified drivers Mateo Mares and Amilcar Cardona as independent contractors and then fired them for openly supporting GFS’ drivers’ efforts to unionize with the Teamsters and for refusing to withdraw their wage and hour claims for illegal deductions.

“This is a great victory not just for me and Mateo,” said Amilcar Cardona. “It is a great victory for all drivers serving the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and across the country. The majority of U.S. port drivers are misclassified as “independent contractors” and with this decision, we are beginning to see that the law is on our side and that we all have rights as employees to form our union.”

But despite these rulings by the DLSE, the NLRB, and a federal court, the trucking companies have continued to break the law and try to intimidate the drivers, leading to the latest showdown on the docks.

The drivers have appealed to the Harbor Commission, a municipal agency that oversees port operations, to take steps to reign in the rogue companies. If the dockers walk off their jobs in solidarity with the truckers, port activity would come to a halt, but the truckers alone have sufficient clout to have a significant economic impact if they strike.

According to Harbor Commissioner Patricia Castellanos, “these trucking companies’ behavior is outrageous. After all these deductions, some drivers are barely getting paid anything.”

Castellanos expressed sympathy for the drivers’ plight and their decision to resume their strike.

“It is very clear that the actions that their employers are taking is what’s causing them to take even further action,” she said.

Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame(Nation Books, 2012)

This article is reposted from the blog of the Huffington Post.

Obama Acts to Deny Federal Contracts to Labor Law Violators

by Mike Hall

Obama signing contractorsPresident Barack Obama on Thursday signed an executive order that will make it harder for companies with a history of labor law violations such as wage and hour and workplace safety to win federal contracts. Said Obama:

We expect our tax dollars to be spent wisely on these contracts. Our tax dollars shouldn’t go to companies that violate workplace laws, they shouldn’t go to companies that violate workers’ rights.

From raising wages to workplace protections, said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, “President Obama is showing strong leadership where it’s needed most.”
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Healthcare workers in California are about to make history

By Richard Negri

cal_safe_standardThe Cal/OSHA Standards Board will vote to likely accept SEIU’s workplace violence prevention petition at its June 19 meeting in Sacramento, taking the next step in getting us to a much needed and long overdue regulation for healthcare workers in California around the issue of workplace violence.

SEIU Local 121RN and SEIU Nurse Alliance of California have been actively moving the California Safe Care Standard campaign forward since January 2013 and submitted our petition to the Cal/OSHA Standards Board earlier this year.

Violence doesn’t happen because workers fail to do their jobs or because people act out. People get hurt because safeguards haven’t been put into place by management to prevent violence from occurring in the first place. Continue reading

Mistakes of West, Texas Repeated In West Virginia

By Mike Elk

Mike Elk

Mike Elk

WASHINGTON, D.C.—“This is an issue of proportionality,” says Dr. Gerald Poje, a former member of the federal U.S. Chemical Safety Board, as he watches me get patted down by a security guard on my way into a session of President Obama’s chemical safety task force on Tuesday.

“How are we proportioning our larger social resources for security and safety?” asks Poje while I put back on my belt. “We come into a government building just for a public hearing, and we have half a dozen people at the front gate doing checking. Then you look at what’s missing in our high-hazard chemical infrastructure.”

Poje is referring to the failures of regulators to take sufficient steps to prevent the West Virginia chemical spill, which cut off the drinking water supply for more than 300,000 people for the better part of the past week. Continue reading

Paltry Fines and Repeat Offenders: The Story of OSHA’s Life

by Chaz Bolte

Man-on-ScaffoldFollowing a disastrous explosion at the West, Texas fertilizer plant earlier this year, national attention shifted briefly to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), its underfunding, and the way in which it is handcuffed when overseeing workplace safety. As Think Progress noted this fall (when the investigation into the West tragedy was halted by the government shutdown), “The actual plant is facing $118,300 in federal fines for two dozen serious safety violations, including the lack of an emergency response plan, despite costing more than a dozen lives and $100 million in property damage.”The 24-hour news cycle, even among labor’s most loyal, has found new daily drama to latch on to leaving OSHA to return to its sad version of what workers — and many businesses — would consider oversight. Even a quick search of recent injury- and fatality-related fines shows how dire the situation remains and how little impact the current system of regulation and punishment has on workplace safety. Three examples are below. Continue reading

Vigil for Georgia Worker Victimized by Management Neglect

Ballon Release at Vigil

Ballon Release at Vigil

THE UNTIMELY DEATH OF TERESA WEAVER PICKARD

                                                                                          by Scott Smith

(Editor’s Note: Teresa Weaver Pickard worked at the Sewon America factory in LaGrange, Georgia, which supplies parts to the Kia auto plant there. On May 29, Mrs. Pickard complained to management of difficulty breathing due to extreme heat where she worked — reportedly 102 degrees — and was told to wait in the break room, which also lacked air conditioning. She waited for three hours before an ambulance was called, according to another worker (the company’s account is different). She died in the ambulance. The following speech was delivered at a vigil in Atlanta, Georgia on June 26, called by the Georgia Student Justice Alliance, Atlanta Jobs with Justice, Georgia AFL-CIO, NAACP and other groups.)

 I did not know Mrs. Pickard. I never had the pleasure of meeting her. But Mrs. Pickard was a hard-working member of my community, and what happened to her could have happened any number of others.
 
I have close friends who have worked at Sewon America, and I’ve heard about the horrendous working conditions there, from former and current employees. I’ve heard about the extreme heat inside the plant. I’ve heard that management doesn’t turn on the air conditioning unless visitors are passing through. I’ve heard that it got so hot in the break room that the candy in the vending machines melted. I’ve heard that workers can’t have their own bottles of water, and that the water stations are often out of water or cups.
 
I’ve also heard about the company’s reluctance to call 911 in emergency situations. I’ve heard from a mother who had to go pick up her son and take him to the hospital when he had an asthma attack. I’ve heard from a former worker who found herself on her front porch after having a seizure at work. I’ve heard from employees who were asked to find somebody else to pick them up instead of calling an ambulance.
 
I’ve heard, and I’ve come to understand, that at Sewon America, the company’s bottom line is more important than the safety and the lives of the people who work there. David Macaray, a former steelworker and union rep in Pittsburgh who’s now a playwright in Los Angeles, predicted this attitude in an article he wrote two years ago:
 
“Without having the unions to use as leverage… Without the resistance of organized labor, the law of supply-and-demand will spur an inexorable race to the bottom.  And instead of Alabama [and Georgia] becoming the New Detroit (as the glossy brochures advertise), [this area] will, in time, resemble the New Bangladesh.”
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Help End Walmart & Gap Deathtraps: June 29 Day of Action

International Labor Rights Forum

gapdeathtrapprotestOn Saturday, June 29th, students, consumers, workers, and community members will come together in cities across the world to demand that Gap and Walmart put an end to deathtrap factories in their supply chains.

Real action from Gap and Walmart on fire and building safety is long overdue. In April, over 1,100 garment workers perished in the the Rana Plaza collapse, marking the deadliest industrial disaster in a manufacturing facility in recorded history. Since 2005, more than 1,800 garment workers have died in preventable factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh alone.

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