- Paul Rosenberg
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
Twice this year the Los Angeles Harbor Commission has voted to give special treatment to corporate criminal Cal Cartage, only to have its decisions overridden by the City Council.
On Nov. 15, the company struck back, sending a contingent of workers to the Harbor Commission meeting to harangue Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino and the Teamsters, neither of which had anything to do with the company’s long history of lawless behavior, which the Harbor Commission has done nothing to curb.
On April 5, 2018, the LA Harbor Commission approved a one-year Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) Operating Agreement with the company. On May 8, the City Council unanimously vetoed it. On Sept. 20, the Harbor Commission granted Cal Cartage a new lease, which the City Council unanimously vetoed on Oct. 12, after which the port issued a 30-day notice to terminate possession.
Between the two actions, on Sept. 13, the United States Department of Labor announced that Cal Cartage must pay $3,573,074 to more than 1,416 employees for violating federal contract provisions of the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act by failing to pay prevailing wages, as well as health and welfare benefits.
The company has also been sanctioned by CalOSHA. Cal Cartage was purchased in October 2017, by international giant NFI, which has done nothing to substantially alter its business practices. But the Cal Cartage workers echoed the company line in ignoring the legal and labor-rights issues involved, and casting themselves as victims, setting upon Buscaino and the Teamsters without engaging in specifics.
“Traitor Joe is what I call him,” said Eric Hope, the first to testify. “It’s about the people; we are the people, he’s not listening to us.” Hope said the Teamsters are “ sabotaging the new owners. They’re not giving them a chance to fix this situation at hand; we just need them to renew the grant or the lease so that we can fix the problems that are going on.” But Hope gave no details about the charge of sabotage, the problems, or what the new owners might try to do to fix them.
“We want our voices to be heard; we want our vote counted,” said Brandon Atkins, a forklift operator.
“I’ve never been mistreated or discriminated,” said Tony Cervantes, a Cal Cartage employee for 29 years.
But a couple of dissident voices were heard, too.
“I feel like the company is manipulating these people to come out here and speak against what’s better for them,” said Duane Wilson, who maintained that the issue is labor peace an end to illegal harassment and intimidation. “Labor peace does not even equal union; they just want the company to stop breaking the law.
“Why are people pushing back against lawbreaking, and discrimination? And wage theft?”
At the close of comments, the commissioners expressed consternation, confusion, and helplessness.
“We all in the commission feel very sad about the current situation,” Commissioner Ed Renwick said, summing up the mood of all. “We completely support worker dignity and worker rights; we also completely support jobs and continuing to work.[ But]“we’re largely, at this point, out of the decision-making process.”
“I share in the dismay and disappointment and sadness of my fellow commissioners that we’re in this position,” said Commission President Jamie Lee, who then demonstrated how little she understood about her office, which she has held since April.
“You all seem to understand the issues very clearly of what is been going on here.All we can say is that we stand beside the decision we made to preserve over 700 jobs.”
But when the City Council vetoed the lease, it stated that it wants any new lease contract to require the retention of the current workers, in line with existing municipal law.
“The city has a worker retention ordinance,” Teamster spokesperson Barbara Maynard pointed out. “If the company is required to leave the property, then those jobs have to be [kept] available, given to whoever comes into the property next.
What’s more, Cal Cartage had a “really, really, sweetheart deal being on the property —it’s part of how Bob Curry was able to grow that company, because he was paying practically nothing to be there,” Maynard explained.
So the new lease agreement gave the port a golden opportunity to redress years of company wrongdoing– an opportunity they simply ignored.
“There’s minimum wage violations, there’s misclassification, there’s Cal OSHA issues, and not only that, the City Attorney is suing the company,” Maynard said. “Why would you just go ahead and grant the lease to a company without using that as leverage to resolve the ongoing property problems on the property?”
Maynard said NFI could have taken steps to redress Cal Cartage’s lawless record when he took over last year. But instead it has chosen to double down, she said.
“When NFI came in, they did something that we haven’t seen in these fights that have been going on forever –– they hired a big lobbyist” John Ek, who in turn hired a well-connected PR person.
“Basically they’re bullies,” Maynard said. “What they’re doing is they’re paying workers to put on these red vests, and go to meetings and bully the workers who are standing up. So it’s classic union-busting, classic anti-union behavior. You really can’t call it much else.”
Maynard said she had overheard conversations in which workers said they’d been paid to show up at the Harbor Commission meeting. That’s on top of the fact that workers have to line up for work everyday, just like longshore workers had to before the 1934 strike. They have no assurance of steady work whatsoever, so it’s hard to say ‘no’ to anything the bosses might ask for– which goes to the heart of the labor-law violations that have been found in the past.
Due to its size, and favored warehouse position, the Teamsters think NFI is central to the struggle for workers’ rights.
“The minute that they are ultimately required to follow the law, the rest of the industry will start to move,” Maynard said.
“It’s very very difficult to compete against NFI when they’ve got a sweetheart lease, on basically property owned by the city, and nobody’s holding them accountable,” she explained. “The best ways to stop the striking is to require the company to follow the law, and also require labor peace on city property.”