Exploited Workers in America

  • 06/14/2018
  • Paul Rosenberg

Sanders speaks at a town hall in Carson

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

n June 2, Sen. Bernie Sanders came to the Harbor Area to hear first-hand about the struggle for justice by port truckers and warehouse workers. His expression of support brought broader attention to the cause.

“These are some of the most exploited workers in America,” said Sanders, in his opening remarks. “The story of what these truck drivers are going through has got to be told from one end of this country to the other. You know, we ended slavery 150 years ago; it’s time we ended it at the ports right now.”

Sanders spoke before hearing from a panel of port drivers and warehouse workers, in a “Stop Wage Theft on Wheels” Town Hall sponsored by Justice for Port Truck Drivers at Shipper Transport Express, in Carson. Several Teamsters officials also spoke, most prominently International Vice President Fred Potter, who is also director of the Teamsters Port Division.

“The Teamsters’ obligation is to represent its members, but we also work to help the oppressed and to organize unorganized workers,” Potter said. “Without collective bargaining, workers are at the mercy of corporate greed, abuse, and wage theft…. Our mission is to get these workers with tools to fight for justice.”

“All of you know that in this country justice in the fight for real change has never come easy,” Sanders said. “You know that back in the 30s, and the 20s and before that, workers put their lives on the line — they went to jail, and sometimes they died — standing up for workers’ rights and justice. And, you also know that real change in this country never takes place from the top on down; it’s always from the grassroots level on up. I want to thank all of you and congratulate all of you for standing together, for dignity, for justice and for workers’ rights.”

Sanders acknowledged he was unfamiliar with the plight of port truckers until this past November, when several of them visited his office.

“We had workers coming in, talking about working 18 hours a day in the richest country in the history of the world,” Sanders said. “Working people should not have to work 18 hours a day. I heard from workers – hard to believe – who would work for two weeks and their take-home pay was zero. In America, workers should not be working for zero pay.”

Sanders touched on the specific struggles of misclassified port drivers, but also stressed the interconnected nature of their struggle in the larger labor movement.

“What we all understand is that when you exploit one worker, when you create a race to the bottom, you are exploiting every worker in America,” he said. “If the work is underpaid here, then why is the employer on the other side of town going to pay workers a decent wage?

“I know it takes courage to stand up to power … and they know that many people here have been intimidated and threatened with the loss of jobs. But at the end of the day, if we make sure that we don’t allow [Donald] Trump and his friends to divide us up by the color of our skins, by the country we are born in, by our religion, when we stand together, there are hell of a lot more of us than there are of them.”

“Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” the crowd chanted in response.

“Our job is to continue the eternal fight, the moral fight for justice, for workers rights and for an economy that works for all of us,” he said.

The drivers who spoke in the following session exposed a broad range of problems.

Gustavo Villa is a misclassified trucker, working for Cal Cartage Express, hauling borax ore from the Rio Tinto mine 165 miles northeast of the ports.

”Misclassification denies workers compensation, and unemployment benefits, it denies us Social Security, Medicare and the right to earn the minimum wage … and denies us the right to form a union,” Villa said. “Trucking companies also cheated us out of our pay; we get paid each container, we move, not by the hour, so if we get stuck in traffic, for hours at the port, we get paid the same, then the companies deducted business costs from our paychecks, that means we have to pay all the track clocks will, insurance, maintenance, new tires, cost thousands of dollars, at the end of the week, we have little left to take home after the companies have taken all of their business expenses. We must work many hours to make enough money to cover the cost of the trucks and still make enough to keep a roof of the benefits to our families.”

Luis Zelaya has worked for K&R Transportation for 18 years misclassified as an independent contractor. Twenty-four years ago, he and his wife fled civil war in Honduras, immigrating under the “Temporary Protected Status” program (aka “TPS”), which the Trump administration recently said it was cancelling.

“My wife and I have three children [who] were born here in the U.S. and are still living at home,” Zelaya said. “Right now, we are worried about the future and keeping our families together. We want to give our kids the American dream, but we can’t, because we cannot afford it, because port trick companies continue to steal our wages.

“I have to pay the lease on my truck and pay for my fuel, and also pay for other expenses.  I have to always be ready to work, in case the company is dispatching me to pick up a container at the port. So, I work about 14 hours a day to make enough money just to cover the costs. That means [that] I won’t be bringing home $500 to $600 a week. It is impossible to survive on this poverty wages.

“We live an hour-and-a-half away in Lancaster, because the rents are too high near the ports. Because I work such long hours and the cost of gas is so high, I sleep in my truck to save money so I can pay my bills. So, that means I only get to see my family during the weekends.

“I am not alone. There are a lot of drivers who are in the same situation as I am.”

“The stories that you have just heard are not stories that should be told here in the United States of America,” Sanders said, after Zelaya finished. “Working people should not have to sleep in their trucks, fathers of three should be able to spend time with their kids, not just on weekends. People should not be asked to work 14 hours a day. If you work 14 hours a day, you should be making a hell of a lot more money than you’re making today!”

His voice rose in anger and indignation.

“The stories … [we are] hearing today are about some of the most exploited workers in this country, people who are being taken advantage of every single day,” Sanders said.

Next to speak was Javier Maldonado, a misclassified port driver with XPO Logistics in San Diego.

“[XPO Logistics] has 900,000 drivers and warehouse workers worldwide,” he explained.

In Europe, many of their drivers aren’t just workers, they are unionized and well-paid.

“[Here, however,] they do not pay us for the hours we wait at the port; we do not have health insurance; we don’t have any unemployment benefits;  we don’t have any vacation; and sometimes they pay us every other week,” he said.

Maldonado and others have sued for their rights.

“They continue to fight us in court,” he said. “I’ve gone on strike five times over the past four years, because it is the only way that we can demand XPO to respect us and give us better working conditions.”

Afterwards, Sanders underscored the stark difference between XPO truckers here and in Europe, where they’re protected by strong unions.

“At the end of the day, no one worker alone can get justice,” Sanders said. “People need to come together, we need to sit down and negotiate contracts and that’s what a union is about.”

Two other speakers added more variety. Jeremy Holke works at the California Cartage warehouse, but is employed through a temp agency — even though he’s worked there for 13 years.

“When I show up to work, I wait in line, like cattle, with my fellow temps to get picked for a job assignment,” Holke said. “Sometimes I have to wait a couple of hours before I get picked up for a job. I don’t get paid for that time. If I don’t get picked, I get sent home without pay. I have to go through this routine every morning.”

It’s the exact same kind of cattle-call system that longshore workers were subjected to, prior to the 1934 strike, more than 80 years ago.

But Julio Garcia had a more positive story to tell. After years being misclassified working for XPO Logistics, he now works at Pacific 9 Transport, which recently became the seventh company represented by the Teamsters at the local ports. Even those who own their own trucks are treated employees.

“This is how it works, Pac 9 pays me by the hour, plus an incentive for every container I deliver, and they take nothing out of my paycheck,” Garcia said, to the applause of the crowd. “Then they give me a second check for my truck expenses. The company pays for my fuel insurance and my reimbursement, so right now I do not have the stress of worrying about having to pay my truck expenses out of my wages…. Pac 9 also agreed to labor peace with the Teamsters, which means we can organize without being harassed or intimidated. The company recognizes us as members of Teamsters local 848 and we look forward to signing our first union contract.”

“What Julio just told us was there is no reason why these jobs have to be low-wage exploited jobs,” Sanders said, in response. “If you stand together, if you have a union, if are treated as workers, and not as independent contractors, there is absolutely no reason why people cannot earn good living wages doing this work. So, I want to congratulate Julio, and all of the workers who have begun the process to successfully organize. They’ve made the start, our job is to continue that work.”

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