Fed up with chronic delays at container terminals, some truck drivers at the Port of New York and New Jersey are beginning to talk openly about parking their rigs and refusing assignments to the piers.
“I would protest and strike if I have to,” said Juan Gavilan, an owner-operator since 2005. “We’ve got to make a stand. If it hurts us, it’s going to hurt them, too. They say we can’t afford to stop work, but we’re not making any money anyway.”
Others have expressed similar sentiments in interviews with the JOC and in postings on Facebook’s Port Driver page, an online bulletin board where drivers share traffic updates, photos of truck queues, and complaints about conditions at New York-New Jersey terminals.
Several owner-operators, however, said they doubt any widespread protest would succeed. Many financially strapped drivers would be unwilling to forgo pay that they need to repay truck loans and cover living expenses. Concerted action by owner-operators, who are independent contractors, would face legal issues under antitrust laws.
But the fact that drivers are openly discussing some kind of action is a clear sign of their frustration and anger at the long truck queues and slow turn times that have plagued New York-New Jersey terminals for months.
Computer problems last summer at Maher Terminals, which handles 40 percent of port traffic, caused delays that rippled throughout the port and combined with longshore labor shortages and construction to produce weeks of gridlock.
Since then, drivers have endured unpredictable congestion at one or more of the port’s five major container terminals almost every day. Delays spiked this month when cold weather disrupted terminals that were clogged after the holidays.
Delays are costly to owner-operators, who are paid by the trip. “I haven’t had a decent check since October,” said owner-operator Daniel Rivera. “I know a lot of guys who have just decided to hang it up. They’ve given up on the container-hauling business.”
Edisson Villacis, an owner-operator who launched the Port Driver page on Facebook in 2011, has been urging drivers to keep their anger in check and avoid a fruitless protest.
Villacis has been an owner-operator for 14 years. “I participated in all of the demonstrations in the past, and they always ended with the same fiasco,” he said.
But Villacis said drivers feel frustrated and ignored. He urged the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to assure drivers that officials recognize drivers’ problems and are seeking solutions. “It’s a fire waiting to start. Why not stop the fire before it starts?” he said.
Villacis said social media offer a vehicle for improved communication between drivers and terminals. “Every driver has a smartphone,” he said. “Even the ones who are broke.”
In December the port authority organized a broad-based industry task force to recommend improvements at terminals. The task force is scheduled to hear working committees’ reports in February, and to issue recommendations in June.
Several drivers said terminals could improve operations immediately through such steps as improving traffic flow and cracking down on rude treatment by International Longshoremen’s Association personnel. “Some of them are good guys, but some of them make an extra effort to be jerks,” said Pat Waits, an owner-operator who said he’s selling his truck and leaving the business.
Gridlock at New York-New Jersey terminals has coincided with changes in federal hours-of-service regulations that limit drivers’ time behind the wheel. Drivers say this often makes it impossible to pick up an import load, make an out-of-town delivery and return home without an overnight stop. Slow turn times also have affected drivers’ ability to make multiple local port moves in a day.
Unrest among port drivers attracted attention from the Teamsters union several years ago, but union organizing efforts have gained little support among independent drivers. An estimated 70 to 80 percent of New York-New Jersey port drivers are owner-operators,whose ability to organize is restricted by antitrust laws.
The Teamsters’ current strategy is to promote state legislation to reclassify owner-operators as company employees, and to mount company-by-company challenges of motor carriers’ classification of owner-operators.
Drivers interviewed by the JOC said they prefer to remain owner-operators. They said they enjoy the freedom to set their own schedules and to operate their own business, even though it hasn’t been lucrative lately.
“I love to do what I do,” said Gavilan, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic 23 years ago. “I got into this because I wanted to have my own business and support my family and live the American dream. There used to be money in this. There isn’t now.”