Special to Communities by Gus Wright
LOS ANGELES, November 19, 2013 – Transportation workers in the busiest container port in the country, the Port of Los Angeles, went on strike yesterday. Truckers working for Green Fleet, American Logistics International, and Pacific 9 Transportation walked off the job in an attempt to raise awareness of exploitation within the trucking industry.
These companies, among others, are responsible for supplying Wal-Mart, Costco, and Forever 21. By raising flags among corporate giants, trucker strikes can put pressure on trucking companies that need to protect their lucrative contracts.
The dispute that the strikers have with the trucking companies converges on an accumulation of loopholes that have allowed those companies to pay their drivers far less than minimum wage while also depriving them of employee benefits.
There is growing awareness and outrage nationwide against labor abuses by trucking companies, which have lost over 500 court cases and been forced to pay millions for illegally deducted wages since drivers started their string of lawsuits this summer.
There are a number of abuses that truckers currently face in their industry.
Truckers are paid by the mile. In a port serviced by unionized laborers with a nice, hourly wage, this means long hours of sitting around for drivers who are required to stay put even though they are not being paid at all.
Compounding this problem is the illegal practice of misclassifying truckers as independent contractors rather than employees. This not only allows trucking companies to avoid providing any benefits, but also gives them opportunity to deduct the cost of everything the worker needs to perform his job from his paycheck.
Normally, an independent contractor would simply add such charges to his bill and raise the total price for his services. The trucking industry doesn’t work this way, however. Truck drivers get the wage one would expect a regular employee to get, and then watch as huge portions of it are deducted from the total to pay for truck rental, gas, maintenance, insurance, and parking fees, leaving them with almost nothing to take home.
Paula Winicki with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy’s Clean and Safe Ports Project showed how one trucker’s fairly respectable weekly earnings of $975 came out to a whopping $12.90 after deductions.
If that sounds illegal, that’s because it is.
Even if this trucker only worked 40 hours per week—they usually work more—that comes out to a wage of 32 cents per hour. It isn’t usually this extreme, or truck drivers would all have starved. But it does commonly put the net hourly wage well under the federal minimum for “independent” drivers.
Truckers started suing over the practice this year, and companies are losing millions in those court cases. Having to reimburse 500 truckers to the tune of tens of millions just this year, sounds like a big victory for the truck drivers. But according to the American Trucking Association, there are 3.5 million truckers working in the U.S., making that victory very small in comparison to the scale of the problem.
The Vice President of Teamsters International captured the essence of the situation aptly when he compared the practice to sharecropping.
Aside from an increased awareness of these systemic problems, trucking companies are expecting to face a shortage of truckers exceeding 111,000 drivers as fewer workers enter the profession and more leave to find more gainful employment.
The Federal Department of Labor confirmed to journalists at The Nation that misclassification exists in significant numbers and that workers in the industry are finding themselves without basic federally guaranteed protections.
Perhaps as both individuals and the government become more aware of this problem, and as drivers become scarcer, truckers can once again be optimistic that corrections to this imbalance are imminent as realities on the ground bring the situation toward a positive resolution.
Gus Wright works with Trucker Classifieds. He has been active in the trucking community for over a decade, and is hopeful for its future.