Remember that?

Back in February of 2000, at a seminar sponsored by the Transportation Research Board, Michael B. Belzer of the University of Michigan’s Institute of Labor Relations, citing the unfavorable working conditions of harbor truck drivers, admonished authorities with these words: “Low wages, long hours, piece work and unsafe working conditions. You have working conditions that I believe can be characterized as sweatshops … If the problem is not resolved soon, you won’t have to worry about gridlock because there won’t be any trucks on the road … I cannot comprehend why people don’t respond to this as a national crisis”. Remember that? We reminded you of his concern in two or three of our earlier commentaries

Ron Carver of the Teamsters’ Port Division also addressed this situation not too long ago and referred to owner-operated trucks as “rolling sweatshops”. Remember that? And Chuck Mack, Director of the Teamsters’ Port Division put a number on the crisis: “Conditions are so bad that the turnover rate among these port drivers exceeds 150% per year as they cycle in and out of the industry … It’s perplexing why no one is stepping up to the plate.” Remember that?

Under present conditions no one is able to step up to the plate because the port truck drivers had three strikes against them. Each port truck driver is considered a separate business unless employed by a major trucking company. Unlike employed drivers, these independents own their own rigs, pay their own insurance and fuel costs and work out their own deals for the right to haul cargo to and from port terminals. Federal anti-trust law, therefore, prevents them from organizing in order to create rate structures or demand health benefits and holiday pay. The dramatic increase in the cost of fuel, however, is bringing things to a head. In the past few months, the media has been regularly covering shutdowns and wildcat strikes in Southern California, Oakland, Miami, Vancouver BC, New Brunswick, Toronto, and even in Puerto Rico, but in each case a temporary settlement was reached even though the conditions which brought about the disputes remained unchanged. These “unchanged” conditions are familiar to all; growing highway congestion, delays caused by inefficient terminal operations, reduced numbers of daily trips, increases in fuel costs, and all of these burdens added to the same inflationary costs that affect the rest of us. The media also reveals the pay increases that are regularly given to port officials, in spite of the fact that these highly-paid individuals have failed to solve the problems that are threatening this nation with economic gridlock. Is it any wonder then that port drivers are leaving the industry?

Senator Joe Dunn in California sees this as a last of the ninth crisis and he’s stepping up to the plate. He’s introduced a bill that would allow independent owner-operator truckers to unionize. “The truckers who service the ports have no rights”, his spokesman said. “This bill is seeking to alleviate that situation … and allow truckers to band together and negotiate some kind of compromise.” Senator Dunn has 20/20 vision. So does Mr. J. Russell Bruner, President and CEO of Maersk, Inc. who quite bluntly said earlier this year, “It all begins and ends with the trucker … Truckers have to be paid more and terminals have to operate more efficiently.” Remember that?