Teamster Target

Teamster Target

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

Last month''s congestion at Port Newark Container Terminal seemed an ideal opportunity for the Teamsters union to promote its national campaign to organize harbor truckers. When the Teamsters launched their organizing drive three years ago, their representatives showed up at every rally where owner-operators protested poor working conditions. This time, though, the union was quiet.

Shipping lines and terminal operators consider the Teamsters'' recent low profile in the nation''s harbors to be a good omen. The shipping industry doesn''t want to deal with powerful longshore unions on the water side of its operations and a powerful trucking union on the land side.

But anyone who thinks the Teamsters'' commitment to organizing harbor drivers has diminished is mistaken, said Ron Carver, assistant director of the Teamsters'' port division. "Some things we''re doing publicly, some things we''re not," Carver said.

The union sends representatives to community meetings called to discuss traffic congestion or pollution at West Coast ports, but it hasn''t held organizing rallies lately. One reason may be that delays at marine terminals, a frequent complaint of drivers in the past, have diminished as an issue, particularly on the West Coast.

West Coast terminal operators are installing cameras and optical character readers at their gates, and have established appointment systems for trucks. Long lines at terminals, which prevented drivers from being paid for more than one trip a day, have disappeared on the West Coast.

"Logic suggests the more productive the work environment, the less susceptible the drivers are to unionization," said Greg Stefflre, president of Imagine Transport Group. Once heavily congested marine terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach have operated smoothly since last summer. "They''re almost as good as going into a rail terminal," Stefflre said.

But Carver said the Teamsters never relied on port congestion as their main strategy for organizing harbor drivers. Instead, the Teamsters are promoting systemic change in the port trucking system. They hope to help raise drayage rates to compensatory levels so that trucking companies can afford to operate their own equipment and hire drivers as direct employees.

When employers are making money, they are more likely to treat their drivers better, the Teamsters reason. Also, an industry that employs its own workers instead of hiring owner-operators presents union organizers with one less legal obstacle.

Drayage companies contend that owner-operators are independent contractors who under federal labor law are ineligible for unionization. The Teamsters disagree, and point to National Labor Relations Board rulings that owner-operators may be considered employees if they work under a company''s direction.

In late January, for example, the NLRB''s regional director in Winston-Salem, N.C., ruled that Bill Campbell, an owner-operator for ATS Intermodal, qualified as an employee under labor law. Campbell, who had been denied work because of his off-duty picketing during last year''s strike by port captains against Evergreen America, was declared eligible for back pay. The Teamsters pursued his case before the NLRB.

Carver said that although the Teamsters welcome victories in cases such as Campbell''s, their strategy is to pursue a broad, national campaign instead of "being tied up in court cases with 10,000 different companies."

The Teamsters believe their best hope of organizing harbor drivers is to persuade efficient, union-friendly motor carriers to enter harbor drayage and hire the drivers as direct employees.

The problem is that under the current rate structure for port drayage, unionized companies cannot compete. West Coast harbor trucking companies estimate that the cost of operating their own trucks with employee drivers would be $75 an hour, compared with $45 to $50 an hour for owner-operators.

The Teamsters say they want trucking companies to prosper. Their philosophy is that the more money trucking companies make, the more money they will have to share with their drivers. "We have a history of advocating for our employers," Carver said.

Recent Teamster union efforts have therefore been geared toward improving the rate structure in the harbor. The safety and environmental legislation that the Teamsters are supporting would eventually weed out many of the small, poorly capitalized trucking companies that operate old equipment. These companies undercut rates by paying lower wages to drivers who operate older, unsafe, pollution-spewing trucks.

The Teamsters have worked with trucking interests to pass a California law that fines terminals $250 for each truck required to wait for more than a half hour and on a lawsuit that delayed implementation of the cross-border provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Nationally, the union has joined the American Trucking Associations in promoting legislation to tighten inspections of intermodal chassis.

"The business plan of the Teamsters is reasonable - get the rates up in the harbor," said Stephanie Williams, senior vice president of the California Trucking Association, which includes union and nonunion companies. "We''re on the same path right now," she said.

The Teamsters'' argument - one to which many shippers and ocean carriers have yet to subscribe - is that the entire intermodal community would benefit from a professional harbor trucking industry where the motor carriers own the trucks and employ unionized drivers who provide safe, reliable service.

"Smart business people don''t see a contradiction between profitability and a union work force," Carver said. He cited UPS, a profitable company that has employed Teamsters for decades.

Michael Belzer, associate professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who specializes in the trucking industry, said well-capitalized motor carriers with employee drivers tend to be more efficient than companies that contract with owner-operators. The stronger companies have more control over dispatching and operate newer, more fuel-efficient and safer trucks, he said.

Harbor drayage is "a hyper-competitive environment" - the most competitive sector of the trucking industry, Belzer said. Shippers seeking the lowest possible rates pressure shipping lines to lower the delivered cost of freight. The lines then play the fragmented harbor trucking companies against each other, and trucking companies respond by holding down payments to drivers.

Belzer said low wages in harbor trucking have driven professional drivers out of the industry and imposed a burden on shippers and consignees that, while difficult to quantify, affects the efficiency of goods movement. "There''s no question," he said, "that the underlying problem is that there has not been enough money to go around."