A set of truck drivers who haul shipments of imported merchandise from our shores to America’s brand name stores will kick start 2013 with a raise that doubles their hourly pay. The extra $6+ change is part of a first-ever contract that shifts a bulk of their health care costs to their employer, grants overtime, paid sick leave and holidays, offers guaranteed hours and other terms for job security – not to mention a pension plan. The collective bargaining gains in an otherwise union-free private sector rival 21st century agreements in long-organized markets.
“Justice…it’s sort of indescribable and overwhelming to finally have the American Dream at our reach,” said Jose Ortega Jr., a driver for global logistics giant Toll Group who served on his co-workers’ bargaining committee along with representatives from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters/Local 848 in Long Beach, Calif. The Australian corporation operates at port complexes on both U.S. coasts and handles accounts for Guess?, Polo, Under Armour, and other sportswear lines sold at big box and department retailers like Walmart and JC Penney.
The Toll drivers’ efforts mirror the collective action that has recently erupted in retail and fast food chains. The landmark agreement culminates more than 24 months of worker struggle and employer resistance in which these truckers – aided by a community coalition, their children, and clergy – borrowed bullhorns, leafleted consumers, gathered signatures practiced their picket lines, staged noisy protests, crashed shareholder meetings in a dogged campaign to end the Third World-like working conditions they once routinely endured.
U.S. port drivers are the most underpaid in the trucking industry: A typical professional earns $28,873 a year before taxes. Their net incomes often resemble that of part-time or seasonal workers though they clock an average of 59 hours a week. They possess specialized skills and licensing to safely command an 80,000 lb. container rig, but they fit the profile of America’s working poor. Food stamps, extended family, or church pantries are needed to get by; their children often lack regular pediatricians or only receive care at the public ER. With American wages in free-fall due to the imbalance of power enjoyed by multinational corporations, the scope and significance of such a labor accord with a transportation titan that operates in some 55 countries is a jaw dropper alone. What observers further find remarkable: The 65 workers who secured these middle-class benefits with their $8 billion employer are blue-collar Latino-Americans who hold jobs within a deregulated, virtually union-free industry at the ports.
Dr. John Logan, the director of Labor and Employment Studies at the College of Business at San Francisco State University:
It upends the common wisdom that a workforce that lacks rights on the job cannot build the strength to take on the Goliaths of the global economy. But these drivers, like the workers at the warehouses and Walmart and Wendy’s, cannot raise families on such low wages, so they are coming together to rewrite the playbook. The faces of this new movement are ordinary parents and churchgoers and community members who value the influence of a local priest as much as the expertise pouring in from strong trade unions overseas. Not only do they have the guts to strike – they have the faith they can win.
Their collective resolve paid off. Mr. Ortega, a single father who works the night shift, will see his new per-hour rate of $19.75 reflected on his next paycheck, along with any overtime that will now be paid at a time-and-a-half rate of $28.
As a truck driver, I wanted the assurance that things would be okay for my daughter if I was injured, that I could take her to see the doctor if she got sick. When we started organizing ourselves, we weren’t asking for anything out of this world. Dignity. A fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work. Decent, sanitary facilities to make a pit stop, rest, eat…you know, to perform our jobs safely. But we knew winning respect would take a fight at every turn. So if we were afraid to lose our jobs, we asked our allies for help. When it was time to take action, we prayed for courage to speak out. And we always stuck together, and never gave up.
Elected leaders quickly praised the union contract as both a middle-class builder and noted its high-road business merits.
Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino, whose district includes the largest port in America:
We’re talking about the men and women who are the backbone of our regional and national economy, yet they have never shared in the prosperity of the corporations they make so profitable. The standards that Toll Group, its workers, and Teamsters Local 848 set make it possible to reward and attract responsible port businesses that want a level playing field to compete on innovation and quality, rather than who can pay Los Angeles’ vital workers the least.