How Organizing for a Union Changed My Life

(Editor's note: Orlando Ayala has been a truck driver at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach for 10 years. He recently sat down and talked to LAANE Deputy Director Patricia Castellanos about the successful effort to improve conditions at Toll, the global logistics company where he works. Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the election in which Toll workers chose to be represented by a union – the first such election in three decades.)

I was recently accused of thinking with my heart and not with my head, of letting my passions and outrage get the best of me and guide my actions. At the time, this wasn’t a compliment. But these traits have served me well. If not for them, I may not have crossed multiple borders seeking a better life in the U.S., or been driven to action by the outrage I felt at seeing injustices suffered by the thousands of port truck drivers at the largest port in the country.

Doing away with those injustices — starting at my company, Toll — was something that I and dozens of my co-workers embarked on two years ago. We weren’t foolish enough to think that it was going to be easy, but we decided to organize and fight for improved working conditions, better wages and union recognition anyway. It turned out to be the fight of our lives but we stuck together and now we are proud members of Teamsters Local 848. We are the first U.S. truck drivers in 30 years to win union representation through an election.

I was fortunate enough to be part of the team that negotiated our first contract. Here’s what we won:

A raise and benefits: A better wage is not the only reason we decided to organize. But I can’t lie to you – it is something that has made a real difference for me and my family. Now I earn six dollars more per hour than I was making without a contract. I worry less about whether I can be a good provider for my family. Reducing my out-of-pocket medical expenses is also a huge relief – I went from paying close to $109 a week for my healthcare premium to $40 a week. And it became easier for me and my family to take care of medical needs we’ve been putting off. In fact, since winning our contract, I celebrated by taking all three of my girls to get braces! We also won a pension – something that many of us never had imagined having. Now we have the hope that there is something good waiting for us after a long road and many years working as a truck driver.

Peace of mind: I’ve been driving at the ports for more than 10 years and I’ve never had a minute of peace on the job. The entire time – whether as an “independent contractor” or as an employee driver – I’ve always felt an immense pressure on the job. It’s always been a race – to get the container to the warehouse, to get empties to the port. I drove fast and drove long (sometimes up to 16 hours straight), always feeling like any wrong move, any small mistake could end my job (or even my career). It’s a horrible feeling to have day in and day out. Now that cloud has lifted. There are safeguards in place so that my employer can’t fire me for simple mistakes. I feel like I can be a true professional driver – abiding by traffic laws, driving safely – without being penalized.

Respect: There are some things we won that are worth even more than money. Being treated with respect is one of those. I never believed that simply because I’m an immigrant and don’t have much of a formal education I should be treated with less respect than anyone else. I’ve worked hard and have created great wealth for this country and my bosses, as have many immigrant workers in this country, and I deserve to be respected. When I joined with my co-workers, we gained a level of respect that none of us could ever have won fighting alone.

I was very proud to sit at the negotiating table across from high-level officials from Toll, representing the rest of my co-workers and our interests. It didn’t matter that I don’t speak English or have a degree — I still felt confident and made sure that our demands were heard.

We accomplished something great at Toll. But our work is not done. We can’t be the only port truck drivers with a success story to tell. I hope that our story provides hope and courage to other drivers, and inspires them to organize. It’s not an easy path and there are risks. But we proved that if you are committed and unite with your co-workers, you can achieve great things – respect, a voice, economic security – for you and your family.


This article originally appeared on The Frying Pan.