Teamsters union officials are hailing a National Labor Relations Board district office’s ruling as a breakthrough in their effort to prove port drayage drivers should be classified as company employees.
“The 30-year debate is over; port drivers are employees,” said Frederick Potter, director of the union’s port division, after the NLRB’s Los Angeles district office ruled that Carson, Calif.-based Pacific 9 Transportation violated drivers’ right to unionize.
Attorneys for trucking companies say the Teamsters’ victory dance is premature. They say the facts in each case are different, and they note the NLRB settlement stated that it “does not settle any other case(s) or matters.”
There’s little question, however, that port trucking will continue to be roiled by controversy over alleged misclassification of owner-operators, who comprise the majority of port container haulers.
The Teamsters contend most port owner-operators are under control of companies and should be classified as employees eligible to unionize. Independent contractors can’t bargain collective without running afoul of antitrust laws.
The NLRB’s Los Angeles district ruled that Pac 9’s approximately 150 owner-operators should be considered employees, and that there was evidence Pac 9 violated the National Labor Relations Act.
Pac 9 conceded neither of those points, but agreed to post a notice notifying drivers of their rights to join a union and to not be questioned or threatened about union activity.
The Teamsters have been trying for more than a decade to organize port drivers. The union has mounted a high-powered public relations campaign describing port owner-operator drivers as “sharecroppers” working in “sweatshops on wheels.”
The union is lobbying in several states for legislation to create a presumption that port drivers are employees. It also has helped drivers file hundreds of state and federal complaints and lawsuits accusing motor carriers of misclassifying workers to avoid taxes and wage-and-hour laws.
The California Division of Labor Standards has awarded more than $3.5 million in back pay in rulings covering 30 of more than 400 wage-and-hour claims in the Los Angeles area.
The Teamsters have joined forces with environmental groups to push for clean-air programs requiring port truckers to replace older trucks.
Though the environmental benefits are undeniable, clean-trucks programs have an economic side effect. Many owner-operators have struggled to pay the higher capital and operating costs of new trucks.
Jim Stewart, a Savannah, Ga.-area owner-operator, said the Teamsters’ efforts have a common theme of eliminating owner-operators and turning drivers into company employees.
Many owner-operators interviewed by the JOC in the Port of New York and New Jersey say they want to retain their current status. They say they could make a good living if container terminals operated smoothly enough to allow them to make multiple turns in a day.
Stewart spent several years as a Teamsters organizer, and tried about a decade ago to set up a hiring-hall system for port owner-operators. He split with the union after it focused its efforts on forcing the industry to shift toward reliance on company drivers.
The Teamsters’ current strategy of pursuing company-by-company misclassification rulings will fail, Stewart predicted, because it “will take forever” and represents a misreading of driver sentiment.
“There are thousands of us — I’d say at least 80 percent, probably more — who like being independent and running our own trucks and don’t want to become company employees,” Stewart said. “They’re trying to get rid of us.”