Calif. Bill Redefines Drayage Drivers as Employees

Calif. Bill Redefines Drayage Drivers as Employees

Advocates of the unionization of harbor truck drivers opened a new line of attack with a bill in the California Legislature that would define drayage truck drivers as employees of the companies that arrange for their services.

John Perez, speaker of the California Assembly, and Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, chairman of the Labor and Employment Committee, introduced the bill, which must now proceed through the normal legislative process.

Labor advocates, led by the Teamsters Union, have lobbied at the local, state and federal levels for changes in laws that restrict the ability of unions to organize independent contractors.

By The Numbers: Containerized Ocean Trade - Southern California Ports

Most drayage companies at U.S. ports contract with owner-operators to haul containers. Federal anti-trust law prohibits unions from organizing independent contractors such as owner operators.

Labor advocates contend that harbor trucking companies exert sufficient control over the daily work routine of owner operators to constitute an employer-employee relationship, and therefore the drivers can be organized by unions.

At the same time, the Teamsters and their environmental allies have pursued a legislative approach to this issue. The Perez/Swanson bill, for example, "would deem drayage truck operators as employees of those persons who arrange for or engage their services."

The American Trucking Associations, which filed a lawsuit challenging the Port of Los Angeles clean-truck program as violating federal preemption law, is prepared to jump into the fray on this latest legislative effort, when the time is right.

"It's hard to view the bill as at that level yet," said Curtis Whalen, executive director of ATA's intermodal conference.

This legislation differs from previous efforts that have defined the employee-driver issue in environmental terms. The argument behind the environmental approach is that well-capitalized licensed motor carriers with employee drivers are best able to purchase and maintain costly new trucks that reduce pollution. "This bill is a straightforward approach," Whalen said.

Trucking industry executives charge that a unionized driver force would increase the cost of doing business at container ports. They also charge that federal preemption law prohibits state and local entities from regulating the rates, routes and services of motor carriers engaged in interstate commerce.

Alex Cherin, an attorney representing the Harbor Trucking Association of Southern California, said the industry is taking this bill seriously considering that Perez is the Speaker of the California Assembly and Swanson is chairman of the Labor and Employment Committee.

The Teamsters union charged that harbor trucking companies are using the independent contractor designation to force skilled workers into taking poverty-level wages.

"The Teamsters and our coalition are 100 percent in support of Speaker Perez and Assemblyman Swanson's efforts to stop these bad actors from labeling their drivers 'independent' to sneak out the back door," said Fred Potter, Teamsters vice president and port division director.

-- Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bmongelluzzo@joc.com.