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Protesting low wages, bad conditions

Seattle port truckers on strike

Published Feb 11, 2012 10:05 AM

Striking against poverty pay and sweatshop conditions, Seattle port truck drivers in the Seattle Truck Drivers Association went on strike against the wealthy port transportation industry on Jan. 30. The drivers, mostly of African origins, then drove 60 miles to the state Capitol building in Olympia, Wash., where they testified against unsafe trucking conditions at a legislative committee.

Their cause is the same as port truckers across the country — getting rid of the brutal conditions of poverty pay, unsafe equipment, and a lack of respect and human rights which goes with working in an anti-union industry. Drivers told Workers World that the strike, now a week old, has grown from 120 workers to 500 or 600. What started at four or five companies now affects a dozen, they said.

“It's time for a change,” driver Calvin Borders told a rally of truck drivers on Feb. 6. “If equipment is damaged, the drivers should not be held responsible for it. We are going to fight until we get our demands met.” The workers drive beat-up and poorly maintained trucks, which the companies provide. The truckers frequently get tickets for illegal equipment or for being overloaded, conditions the bosses force on them. An overweight citation from the cops costs $716, which could come with a company suspension, workers said.

The truck drivers pick up their trucks and get paid by the same company. But most port drivers are falsely classified as “independent contractors” to try to make them ineligible to join unions. This also shifts the burden of the trucks’ expenses from the companies onto the shoulders of the workers, the so-called “independent contractors.” The workers operate under a bosses’ contract instead of a workers’ or labor contract.

Michael, a driver, said: “We have to pay for insurance, fuel, dispatch fees, $161-a-month tonnage fees and repairs. We work for below-the-minimum wage and we have families to feed and mortgages to pay. The biggest issue is the conditions.”

Big companies forcing their workers to be independent contractors is rampant in the transportation industry and runs across all industries. Millions of long haul and local delivery truck drivers along with taxicab drivers are forced to work long hours as independent contractors or in similar leasing agreements. Construction workers and many others are forced to labor under these oppressive conditions. Port truck drivers are certainly among the most exploited of these. The drivers have received racist harassment from Seattle and Port cops.

Goldman Sachs, which now owns half of SSA Marine, is invested in the port transport business because of the big profits to be made. SSA Marine operates two big terminals in Seattle and four in Long Beach, Calif. Goldman Sachs/SSA owns Shippers Transport Express and this Wall Street combination has been involved in disguising employees as independent contractors. The truck drivers are up against Wall Street titans and their anti-worker schemes.

At the waterfront rally on Feb. 6, the truck drivers and their supporters talked about staging more solidarity demonstrations. Jeff Johnson of the Washington State Labor Council told the drivers, “Representing the 425,000 unionists of Washington state, we stand with you because you have stood up for yourselves and against the big companies.” Representatives of UNITE-HERE, the United Food and Commercial Workers, Teamsters and other unions and community organizations pledged support. Puget Sound Stage and Seattle Solidarity said they would hold food and pledge drives.