By Rosemary Jenkins, November 14, 2014
JUST SAYIN’-Wage suppression, wage theft, unpaid sick leave—the three prongs of the devil’s trident. The devil, you ask? Under-regulated big businesses thumbing their noses at the very workers who make their enormous profits possible.
The desperate working conditions of truck drivers (who work out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach) have been an ongoing concern.
A number of organizations (like the LA County Federation of Labor, LAANE, La Causa, and others) are grappling with these challenges on behalf of these previously voiceless workers and are diligently trying to convince our City lawmakers that these injustices can no longer be tolerated. At minimum, the effort is to accomplish the following:
1) Eliminate the misclassification of drayage workers
2) Raise the minimum wage as quickly as possible to at least $15 an hour
3) Allow unionization among workers who desire it
4) Prevent wage theft
5) Mandate 5 paid sick days per year
6) Provide driver safety and well-being
These drivers load a broad variety of goods which are brought in by ships from around the world. The cargo is taken to warehouses which dot our landscape and are then reloaded for distribution to the stores from which we buy our consumables. The business paradigm is to minimize cost by keeping driver pay at the lowest possible level (but not a living wage) for those on whom we depend to maintain our respective standards of living.
To make matters worse, on the heels of the recent port demonstration on November 7, 2014, the Los Angeles and Long Beach Trucking Association is in the process of asking for an exemption from the federally mandated 34 consecutive-hour rest period for drivers.
The rationale is to keep the yards open seven days a week (Sundays are now closed) in order to move cargo whose deliveries have been delayed due to heavy congestion on the yards. Customers have complained vociferously about the unreliable arrival times of the goods they need to conduct business. Hence, the requested exception.
There is an obvious conundrum here for both owners and workers, but granting the request would also create a slippery slope. My husband, being a truck driver by profession, has shared with me many horror stories of drivers who have fallen asleep on the road—teamsters (not to be confused with unionized Teamsters with shop steward representatives) who have caused accidents, often deadly, not from actual negligence but as a consequence of sleep deprivation.
Yes, many drivers are eager for the overtime to help pay the bills, but the laws are in place for the health and safety of those very drivers whose well-being affects the rest of us as well. The reality is, Allow this first step now and open the door to an even shorter rest period the next time.
How about this easy solution? Hire more truck drivers and provide more chassis to haul the cargo containers! A win-win for everyone!
Companies, like Green Fleet (the “poster child of wage theft”), Pace Carter, Inc., Pacific 9 Transportation, and Total Transportation Services, are among the worst perpetrators of worksite intimidation and retaliation!
What are many of the grievances that have been reported over time?
- Unspeakable ill-treatment for those workers who question policy or file grievances
- Misclassifying drivers (to put it kindly) as independent contractors which “can save a company about $4000 a year per infraction” but can cost the workers thousands of dollars during the same period
- Wage theft is an overwhelming reality, not only for these truck drivers but for workers in other establishments, such as in big box retail stores (like Walmart), tip staff in many restaurants, and sub-contractors at many hair salons.
- What of the lack of paid sick leave? It seems to me that it is unconscionable to “make” ill employees work (or lose their pay) when they ought to be home, taking care of themselves instead of transmitting their illnesses to those with whom they come into contact at work.
- Many employees (in order to keep their jobs) are literally forced to work off the clock and, thus must work hours for which they are not paid at all. Others are taxed unfairly through a disingenuous accounting system. Often tip equivalency is stolen by management when figuring out pay warrants.
Drivers, like Mateo Mares and Amicar Cardona who had the audacity to stand up to their bosses about their ill-treatment and untenable working conditions, were fired for their efforts. In fact, “one anti-union Green Fleet driver who has been acting as an agent of the company made death threats against pro-union drivers and helped management retaliate against them.”
This kind of behavior is not atypical of what transpires at many other companies, such as El Super (where I have personally observed intimidating behavior during a recent demonstration at one of the markets—right in full view of management, participants, and even the police).
Matters had gotten so bad at the docks that a Federal court had to be brought in to decide on how to handle the many grievances. Its ruling in favor of the plaintiff workers was soon upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Thus came the appreciative response: “The invisible class of contract workers that keeps the American retail economy running smoothly has won a significant courtroom victory in their long-running campaign to end a systematic violation of their labor rights.”
As Julie Gutman Dickinson, a Teamster attorney in this matter, indicated unequivocally that “misclassified independent contractors are, in fact, employees that are entitled to choose union representation and cannot be fired for their union activities or for filing claims for wage theft.” Thus, the Ninth Circuit ruling.
One set of grievances that had been filed against Green Fleet reflects a broader, systemic breach of established labor laws. These complaints have included the following:
- Some employees were encouraged to harass and intimidate union sympathizers in the hope that a fight would break out, thus “justifying” employment termination for the victim. The “scabs” would often take pictures of workers, who were promoting union contracts, to justify firing the activist employees.
- Often management would attempt to trick employees into signing anti-union petitions (whose wording was kept out of sight). We have seen this same behavior at El Super.
In the meantime, because of the court ruling, complainants Mares and Almicar (in just the last few days) have been returned to work in good standing. Green Fleet has been ordered to cease and desist all unlawful labor practices or suffer consequential legal repercussions.
The impact of the court ruling will be considerable: A result of one portion of the decision will mandate compensating all complainants in this suit with the back wages (plus penalties) which they are owed—an amount which could come close to a million dollars. The question remains, Will Green Fleet and similar companies comply or risk further consequences? What will their bean counters recommend?
It should be obvious, then, that we must continue to draw attention to the crimes against the working poor—the results of which dramatically affect all of us! Expect further mobilization to get drayage owners to comply: Beginning on November 13, 2014, and continuing for a week, there will be around-the-clock picketing (in 8-hour shifts) to put an end to wage theft and other indefensible violations.
I certainly encourage participation in the picketing by all who are in a position to commit their time. In the meantime, it is not too late: word-of-mouth is a great way to spread the word.
According to Teamster boss, James P. Hoffa, “Justice for port drivers means justice for all American workers!” Thus, these rulings should be interpreted as supporting a new-and-improved version of the “trickle down” theory: Justice for the “least” of us will bring justice for all of us!
ent, participants, and even the police).