The Ripple Effect

“This will be the first time these drivers are allowed to bargain for those things that most workers in America have always been allowed to bargain for, including health insurance, pensions, and sustainable wages,” said Ron Carver, deputy director of Teamsters’ port division. The Teamsters launched an effort in Miami last week to organize South Florida truck drivers in an attempt to change the way truckers get work at local ports and railyards. A new job placement center, called a hiring hall, is the first in a national effort by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to unionize what it claims is the last unrepresented sector in the $ 80 billion container shipping industry.

Mr. Carver said that registration will give truck drivers collective bargaining power and protection under the National Labor Relations Act. As independent contractors who operate their own rigs, the truckers currently don’t enjoy those protections, he said.

At a February 21st press conference, Miami City Commission Chairman Tomas Regalado, who headed a blue-ribbon panel set up to address the ongoing grievances of owner-operators working Miami’s port, said that the panel’s findings were being released “because we want to apply maximum pressure on the county, the port and the terminal operators to correct the problems we have found before this coming summer.” The commission noted the truckers’ low compensation and recommended that all parties in the shipping industry consider reclassifying owner-operators as employees instead of contractors, which should allow collective bargaining for higher pay and better benefits. As alternatives, the Commission said the Port Authority could demand that carriers using the port operate with owner-operator “employees”, or the port could provide a hiring hall to “level the playing field”. While the Commission has no legal ability to enforce its recommendations, it made clear its intention to monitor the situation “to ensure that they don’t continue to make these immigrant drivers scapegoats of a broken system.”

The opening of the hiring hall, as prescribed by the Commission, followed an era of labor troubles. The Port of Miami all but shut down for two weeks in June 2004 when truckers went on strike to protest low wages, rising fuel costs and long waits at the port, among other issues. A subsequent good faith agreement with the port granted truckers the right to organize and seek better working conditions, but circumstances since then have given rise to further grievances, and the current tensions.

It’s a “catch-22″ situation. South Florida container trucking companies, which hire the roughly 1,700 independent drivers hauling from Port Everglades, the Port of Miami-Dade, and local railyards, are skeptical that union representative are in a position to gather the support necessary to influence hiring decisions. Teamsters require members to work only for union companies, so if hundreds of truckers join the union, container shipping companies will find it difficult to find truckers to haul their loads. “Nobody at this point is interested in participating with the Teamsters,” said Ms. Torres, president of InterFlorida Container Transport. Ms. Torres added that she fired a number of contractors because they planned to register at the hiring hall. “I told them, ‘You can’t work here anymore’”, the short-sighted Ms. Torres said.

She and the other South Florida container trucking companies have shown an arrogant disdain for the recommendations put forth by Miami’s blue ribbon commission as well as for the support provided to the truckers by the Teamsters. The trucking companies may not have been paying too much attention to what the Teamsters union has accomplished in the last century. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has been around for more than a hundred years, and with a membership of almost 1.5 million, and the persistence of “Lola”, it is generally known that whatever the Teamsters want, the Teamsters get. The new placement job center suggested by the commission is just the beginning. Next, the union will be registering drivers who officially quit their jobs by cancelling their independent contractor leases and signing on as “employee-owner-operators” with the union. The union will also register companies interested in hiring the new employee owner-operators, and according to Ron Carver, some container trucking companies, although reluctant to sign up prior to driver registration, have privately acknowledged the benefits that hiring halls would bring to the industry and to the local shipping community. With all or most of the owner-operators joining the Teamsters’ fold, and being prevented as members from working for non-union companies, these container trucking companies will have no other option but to sign up.

The progression of events in British Columbia have made this a sure bet, and the successful outcome of the Vancouver protest has not been lost on U.S. owner-operators. After repeated attempts to get the attention of port and government officials, approximately 1,000 drivers of the Vancouver Container Truckers’ Association decided to park their rigs, cancel their insurance coverages and walk away. Most of the truckers were independent contractors with no union affiliation, so the strike was not considered to be a labor dispute, but rather a business to business quarrel. Because the drivers were independent contractors and not government employees or union members, the federal and British Columbia governments cited their limited authority to intervene and could therefore take no part in the dispute. Port officials also claimed to be restrained by laws governing their operations, but after some episodes of violence, a court issued injunction, and financial losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the federal government, after a 5-week stare-down, blinked first. It did, in fact, intervene by imposing a 90-day licensing scheme and setting up a task force to review the causes of what Industry Minister David Emerson called a “sordid chapter” in the port’s history. The licensing scheme forced the trucking companies to sign an agreement to access the containers, essentially agreeing to boost truckers’ rates and pay a fuel charge. The strikers won.

The “ripple effect” is already evident:
• First it was Miami again.
• Then New Brunswick.
• Then Toronto.
• … and if FEMA had not issued a desperate call for truckers to haul emergency provisions to areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, more drastic protests would be taking place.

Now here’s the irony. As soon as Katrina barreled through the Gulf States, FEMA issued that desperate call for assistance to the most important segment of the supply chain … the truck drivers. The ones being scorned by port officials. Did FEMA place any value at all upon the services of those port directors whose recent pay raises, by the way, actually exceeded the annual compensation of many of those lowly truckers? Of course not. They can’t even handle their own problems.