This open letter was originally published on the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports website on December 12, 2011, the day of the port occupation on the West Coast.
We are the front-line workers who haul container rigs full of imported and exported goods to and from the docks and warehouses every day.
We have been elected by committees of our co-workers at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, New York and New Jersey to tell our collective story. We have accepted the honor to speak up for our brothers and sisters about our working conditions despite the risk of retaliation we face. One of us is a mother, the rest of us fathers. Between the five of us we have 11children and one more baby on the way. We have a combined 46 years of experience driving cargo from our shores for America’s stores.
We are inspired that a non-violent democratic movement that insists on basic economic fairness is capturing the hearts and minds of so many working people. Thank you “99 Percenters” for hearing our call for justice. We are humbled and overwhelmed by recent attention. Normally we are invisible.
Today’s demonstrations will impact us. While we cannot officially speak for every worker who shares our occupation, we can use this opportunity to reveal what it’s like to walk a day in our shoes for the 110,000 of us in America whose job it is to be a port truck driver. It may be tempting for media to ask questions about whether we support a shutdown, but there are no easy answers. Instead, we ask you, are you willing to listen and learn why a one-word response is impossible?
We love being behind the wheel. We are proud of the work we do to keep America’s economy moving. But we feel humiliated when we receive paychecks that suggest we work part time at a fast-food counter. Especially when we work an average of 60 or more hours a week, away from our families.
There is so much at stake in our industry. It is one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. We don’t think truck driving should be a dead-end road in America. It should be a good job with a middle-class paycheck like it used to be decades ago.
We desperately want to drive clean and safe vehicles. Rigs that do not fill our lungs with deadly toxins, or dirty the air in the communities we haul in.
Poverty and pollution are like a plague at the ports. Our economic conditions are what led to the environmental crisis.
You, the public, have paid a severe price along with us.
Why? Just like Wall Street doesn’t have to abide by rules, our industry isn’t bound to regulation. So the market is run by con artists. The companies we work for call us independent contractors, as if we were our own bosses, but they boss us around. We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels. We cannot negotiate our rates. (Usually we are not allowed to even see them.) We are paid by the load, not by the hour. So when we sit in those long lines at the terminals, or if we are stuck in traffic, we become volunteers who basically donate our time to the trucking and shipping companies. That’s the nice way to put it. We have all heard the words “modern-day slaves” at the lunch stops.
There are no restrooms for drivers. We keep empty bottles in our cabs. Plastic bags too. We feel like dogs. An Oakland driver was recently banned from the terminal because he was spied relieving himself behind a container. Neither the port, nor the terminal operators or anyone in the industry thinks it is their responsibility to provide humane and hygienic facilities for us. It is absolutely horrible for drivers who are women, who risk infection when they try to hold it until they can find a place to go.
The companies demand we cut corners to compete. It makes our roads less safe. When we try to blow the whistle about skipped inspections, faulty equipment, or falsified logs, then we are “starved out.” That means we are either fired outright, or more likely, we never get dispatched to haul a load again.
It may be difficult to comprehend the complex issues and nature of our employment. For us too. When businesses disguise workers like us as contractors, the Department of Labor calls it misclassification. We call it illegal. Those who profit from global trade and goods movement are getting away with it because everyone is doing it. One journalist took the time to talk to us this week and she explains it very well to outsiders. We hope you will read the enclosed article “How Goldman Sachs and Other Companies Exploit Port Truck Drivers.”
But the short answer to the question: Why are companies like SSA Marine, the Seattle-based global terminal operator that runs one of the West Coast’s major trucking carriers, Shippers’ Transport Express, doing this? Why would mega-rich Maersk, a huge Danish shipping and trucking conglomerate that wants to drill for more oil with Exxon Mobil in the Gulf Coast conduct business this way too?
To cheat on taxes, drive down business costs, and deny us the right to belong to a union, that’s why.
The typical arrangement works like this: Everything comes out of our pockets or is deducted from our paychecks. The truck or lease, fuel, insurance, registration, you name it. Our employers do not have to pay the costs of meeting emissions-compliant regulations; that is our financial burden to bear. Clean trucks cost about four to five times more than what we take home in a year. A few of us haul our company’s trucks for a tiny fraction of what the shippers pay per load instead of an hourly wage. They still call us independent owner-operators and give us a 1099 rather than a W-2.
We have never recovered from losing our basic rights as employees in America. Every year it literally goes from bad to worse to the unimaginable. We were ground zero for the government’s first major experiment into letting big business call the shots. Since it worked so well for the CEOs in transportation, why not the mortgage and banking industry too?
Even the few of us who are hired as legitimate employees are routinely denied our legal rights under this system. Just ask our co-workers who haul clothing brands like Guess?, Under Armour, and Ralph Lauren’s Polo. The carrier they work for in Los Angeles is called Toll Group and is headquartered in Australia. At the busiest time of the holiday shopping season, 26 drivers were axed after wearing Teamster T-shirts to work. They were protesting the lack of access to clean, indoor restrooms with running water. The company hired an anti-union consultant to intimidate the drivers. Down Under, the same company bargains with 12,000 of our counterparts in good faith.
Despite our great hardships, many of us cannot — or refuse to, as some of the most well-intentioned suggest — “just quit.” First, we want to work and do not have a safety net. Many of us are tied to one-sided leases. But more importantly, why should we have to leave? Truck driving is what we do, and we do it well.
We are the skilled, specially-licensed professionals who guarantee that Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart are all stocked with just-in-time delivery for consumers. Take a look at all the stuff in your house. The things you see advertised on TV. Chances are a port truck driver brought that special holiday gift to the store you bought it.
We would rather stick together and transform our industry from within. We deserve to be fairly rewarded and valued. That is why we have united to stage convoys, park our trucks, marched on the boss, and even shut down these ports.
It’s like our hero Dutch Prior, a Shipper’s/SSA Marine driver, told CBS Early Morning this month: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
The more underwater we are, the more our restlessness grows. We are being thoughtful about how best to organize ourselves and do what is needed to win dignity, respect, and justice.
Nowadays greedy corporations are treated as “people” while the politicians they bankroll cast union members who try to improve their workplaces as “thugs.”
But we believe in the power and potential behind a truly united 99%. We admire the strength and perseverance of the longshoremen. We are fighting like mad to overcome our exploitation, so please, stick by us long after December 12. Our friends in the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports created a pledge you can sign to support us here.
We drivers have a saying, “We may not have a union yet, but no one can stop us from acting like one.”
The brothers and sisters of the Teamsters have our backs. They help us make our voices heard. But we need your help too so we can achieve the day where we raise our fists and together declare: “No one could stop us from forming a union.”
SSA Marine/Shippers Transport Express
Port of Long Beach