New Teamsters Port Strategy on Display at LA-Long Beach
A picket line established by independent truck drivers briefly shut down a container terminal at the Port of Long Beach today, but the impact was confined to one facility and was unlikely to result in terminal closures elsewhere in the harbor.
In the longer term, however, the Teamsters-inspired action foreshadows the latest strategy by the union to organize harbor truck drivers across the country. The Teamsters intend to use a complex but effective tool known as driver misclassification to assist the union in organizing harbor truckers.
The vast majority of truck drivers at U.S. container ports are owner-operators who contract with trucking companies to haul containers to and from the ports. Since they are independent contractors, federal law bars them from joining unions.
The Teamsters’ strategy is to document provisions in the drivers’ contracts that demonstrate the trucking companies are exerting enough control over the daily work of the drivers to constitute an employer-employee relationship.
Once that control is established, drivers can claim compensation for back pay, and the legal door is open for the Teamsters to attempt to unionize the drivers under their new classification as employee drivers.
The incident today at Long Beach Container Terminal was especially troublesome for cargo owners because the International Longshore and Warehouse Union was drawn into the fray. This is a contract negotiation year for the ILWU, with the current contract set to expire on July 1.
The Teamsters targeted four trucking companies they are attempting to organize in Southern California. They set up a picket line at Long Beach Container Terminal, where trucks from some of the companies were calling.
According to Rich Dines, vice president of the Long Beach Harbor Commission, who is also a longshoreman, the ILWU contract states that longshoremen can not cross a picket line until an arbitrator is brought in to determine whether it is a “bona fide,” or legitimate, picket.
In this case, the picket line was established at the beginning of the first shift today, the area arbitrator was called in, he determined rather quickly that this was not a bona fide picket, and he told the longshoremen to report to their jobs. The dockworkers followed the instructions of the arbitrator.
Dines, speaking as a harbor commissioner, said the longshoremen had no choice but to follow the terms of their contract and to honor the picket. When the arbitrator ruled that it was not a bona fide picket, the longshoremen immediately reported to work as instructed, as they should have done, Dines said.
The incident demonstrates that the ILWU did not support the Teamsters. In fact, the longshoremen were not paid for the time they could not work, Dines said.
Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators and shipping lines in negotiating and administering the waterfront contract with the ILWU, said the arbitrator’s ruling will apply not only to Long Beach Container Terminal, but to any other terminal in Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor that the Teamsters might target.
The Teamsters have called for a 48-hour strike in Los Angeles-Long Beach to highlight what they believe are abuses in the relationship between harbor trucking companies and the owner-operator drivers that contract with those companies. Teamsters spokeswoman Barbara Maynard said other terminals would be picketed during the 48-hour protest.
The Teamsters said that in California alone more than 500 cases of wage theft have been filed based on driver misclassification, and so far drivers have won 32 decisions against 13 trucking companies and have been awarded $3.8 million in compensation for lost wages and for penalties.
Such decisions occur in a variety of venues, such as the National Labor Relations Board and the California Department of Industrial Relations. These cases also attract the attention of state and federal government taxation bodies, including the Internal Revenue Service, because of possible tax avoidance.
The Teamsters at mid-day sponsored a rally that attracted dozens of drivers in Southern California. A similar rally was held in Savannah, Georgia. This demonstrates that drivers nationwide are energized by decisions and awards made because of driver misclassification, Maynard said.
As in Southern California, the strikes and protests may take place at marine terminals, at the receiving warehouses of BCOs or at the yards operated by trucking companies, Maynard said.
It is also apparent that the Teamsters are using the ILWU contract negotiations on the West Coast to draw added attention to the misclassification issue. Fred Potter, the national director of the Teamsters Port Division, told the Orange County Register in advance of today’s picket in Long Beach that he would be “shocked if we didn’t get the support of the ILWU or any other union affected by the picket.”
This assertion did not sit well with the ILWU. The ILWU headquarters in San Francisco declined comment today, but dockworker sources said this is an especially sensitive contract year and the ILWU does not want to confuse BCOs, ports and shipping industry companies into believing that the ILWU supports the actions of the Teamsters at West Coast ports.