Picketers form the Port Truckers Strike press conference in October. Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
Port Trucker Says They’re Not About to Stop
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
From Oct. 26 through 30, port truckers engaged in their eighth unfair labor practices strike in the past two years. But on the last day, José Portillo, who works for Intermodal Bridge Transport, told the Los Angeles City Council, “If it takes 1,000 strikes, that’s what we’re going to do, because we’ve got to change this industry and we’ve got to stop wage theft.”
Portillo was testifying for a resolution of support, co-authored by Councilman Joe Buscaino, which was subsequently passed 11-0.
That same day, 14 new drivers filed “wage and hour” claims valued at $3.5 million with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, and an additional 19 DLSE claims were in the process of being completed and filed, according to a Teamster press release—a clear signal that the strike’s end did not signal any letup in the struggle. So far, 705 claims have been filed, with 155 orders, decisions or awards. These totaled $12 million in back wages and penalties, with estimated liability for the remaining claims totaling more than $60 million.
It was the first strike joined by drivers from Gold Point Transportation. It expanded to include warehouse workers from Cal Cartage, who suffer from similar sorts of unfair labor practices. Drivers from Pacific 9 Transportation remain out on strike.
“It’s pretty incredible that these drivers have struck eight times in the last two years, and that the Pac 9 drivers remain on strike and it’s become very clear that this isn’t going away anytime soon,” Teamsters spokeswoman Barbara Maynard said. “José Portillo said ‘I will strike 1,000 times if that’s what it takes.’ That takes incredible bravery and strength to say that…. So the LA City Council heard that, loud and clear. They were very, very supportive and pledged to help, and meetings are being set up, and those things are moving forward.”
Other drivers spoke out forcefully as well, before the council voted.
“There have been weeks when I worked and made $2,200 gross and, after all the deductions, all I made to take home was $200 for the week,” said Humberto Canales, a striking XPO driver. “We’ve got to stop what’s going on.”
His testimony was supported by payment records from different companies submitted to the council, showing that such treatment is common. One weekly statement showed a net loss of $617.06 for a week in July 2014.
“They are stealing money from us,” said Isabel Samayola, another IBT striker. “We really, really need your help.”
“I would like to thank the city council for [its] support,” Pac 9 striker Amador Rojas said. “This gives us strength to continue fighting so we get a better future.”
“Thank you for helping expose the abuse that these workers have to endure each and every day in the Port of LA,” Teamsters Vice President Ron Herrera said.
“The workers [who] came before us today are responsible for moving our goods,” Buscaino said, urging support for the resolution. “They make up the economic engine that has made our port complex what it is.”
The resolution stated that the council, “reiterates its support for all the workers at the Port of Los Angeles, and calls on all companies who conduct business at the Port of Los Angeles to comply with federal and state employment and labor laws and provide them with the same wage and benefits protections afforded to all employees in our city.”
The resolution was co-authored by Councilman Bob Blumenfield and Council President Herb Wesson, with Councilwoman Nury Martinez seconding. But two other council members delivered perhaps the most moving council testimony of the day.
“I rise as the son of a Teamster and as the brother of a Teamster,” said Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, triggering a round of spontaneous applause. “I want to reiterate my support. This is a basic request that all companies at the Port of Los Angeles comply with state and federal labor laws. It’s that simple. Our workers, our men and women in the Teamsters, and our workers at the Port of Los Angeles deserve that basic right, and their families need these benefits that they fight so hard for every day and that they work for every day. I personally know what that is like, growing up, as I said, as the son of a Teamster, so I urge a unanimous ‘aye’ vote on this important resolution. Let’s support our workers at the port.”
Councilman Paul Koretz recalled perhaps the earliest hearing on the issue, which he convened a decade ago as chairman of the Labor and Employment Committee in the state Assembly. Among those in attendance was Rep. Janice Hahn, then a member of the LA City Council.
“We were talking about wage theft, and we were talking about misclassification; we were talking about working conditions,” Koretz recalled. “The amazing thing is that this is still an issue, and we still haven’t found a way to resolve it…. I want to let you know that I, for one, am 100 percent behind you, as I always have been and I will be until we find a way to get this done. I believe I am speaking for most, if not all, of my colleagues in saying that as well. We are behind you. We want to get the word out. And we want to solve this problem.”
And the message is getting through to the industry as well.
“We’re hearing rumblings out there on the grapevine that people recognize clearly that change is coming—and, by ‘people,’ I mean the industry recognizes changes coming,” spokeswoman Barbara Maynard said. “It’s very, very clear that the fight really is on, and it’s not just on at of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, but it’s on across America. These strikes are not going to stop. The number of wage and hour claims filed with the California division of labor standards enforcement is growing every single week.”
And it’s not just a matter of port truckers and warehouse workers, she said.
“On Tuesday [Nov. 10], there’s a national day of action for low-wage workers, there’s going to be activities in cities across America including here in Los Angeles, port truck drivers are participating with that, and as a part of that, they are filing claims on Tuesday at the Long Beach office of the DLS. They will also be out protesting with other low-wage workers demanding change.”
Maynard cited a wide range of deceptive labor practices in different industries that are increasingly recognized as illegal—misclassification of independent contractors, using staffing agencies to employ workers as “permatemps” with low wages, no benefits or worker protections, or using franchising, as with McDonald’s, to avoid dealing with workers altogether.
“What we’re finally starting to see,” Maynard said, is “workers across America have peeled the curtain back on the root causes of income inequality and the party’s on. The party’s on not just at their individual workplace, in the industries that they work in, but it’s also on because these workers are really demanding that the presidential candidates take ownership and demand change and offer solutions when they get elected to the White House.
“We’ve certainly seen that with the popularity of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy taking on some of these really big issues, that otherwise would have been the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the room that nobody mentioned,” Maynard said.
Locally, new action by Los Angeles County is expected soon. “On Nov. 17, the County of Los Angeles, the Board of Supervisors is going to have a hearing on wage theft, and port drivers will be central to that hearing, and to that discussion, and the ultimate policies that come out of it,” Maynard said. “There are many port trucking companies that are in the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles and those companies are misclassifying workers and stealing the workers wages. Having the County of Los Angeles weighing in on this is very, very important.”
In July, the supervisors—approving a measure drafted by Supervisor Hilda Solis, former Secretary of Labor in Obama’s first term—requested two reports dealing with the issue of wage theft to inform their actions.
The first report, was to be “an analysis of the county’s legal authority to regulate wage theft… and its authority to enforce municipal, state, and federal wage theft laws,” while the second called for a “recommendation for the most effective and efficient model by which the county can enforce wage theft regulations.”
“It’s important to provide enforcement tools against those [who] would take advantage of our employees,” said Solis, shortly before the vote.
“Wage theft is 20 percent higher in Los Angeles County than the national average,” Victor Narro, a project director of UCLA Davis Center, told the supervisors.
Port truckers, forced to shoulder the burden of paying for the ports’ clean truck revolution are even more hard-hit than most of Los Angeles’ wage theft victims and are clearly looking forward to the county taking action.