Workers Vanguard No. 1038
24 January 2014
Break Bosses Owner-Operator Scam!
For a Class-Struggle Fight to Organize Port Truckers!
With the latest round of “clean air” regulations at the Port of Oakland threatening their very livelihoods, hundreds of truck drivers at the port went on strike three times in the months before the New Year. Just a few years ago, the port truckers had to shell out thousands of dollars to retrofit their trucks to comply with environmental standards. Now they faced a January 1 deadline requiring the replacement of all trucks whose model year was older than 2007, a cruel Catch-22 for truckers who do not even make enough to maintain their current rigs. Demanding subsidies to help cover these costs as well as compensation for increased hours of unpaid waiting time, they formed the Port of Oakland Truckers Association. Setting up picket lines, the truckers braved an army of cops mobilized to prevent them from stopping the flow of cargo in and out of waterfront terminals. In the end, they did not prevail. Up to 800 truckers who couldn’t afford new rigs can no longer work at the port.
In November, drivers who work for Green Fleet Systems and American Logistics International, which service the Los Angeles/Long Beach ports, carried out a three-day strike to protest company retaliation against their efforts to unionize. Unlike the port truckers in Oakland and the bulk of the 100,000 others in the U.S., who are classified as owner-operators and barred from unionizing under antitrust laws, the striking L.A. drivers are part of the small fraction of port truckers employed directly by the trucking companies. Although making marginally more in wages than what many owner-operators earn, these overwhelmingly unorganized “employee” truckers are subject to similar long hours and grueling work conditions.
The harsh reality of the job today is the product of the deregulation of the trucking industry. Beginning in the late 1970s and codified in the 1980 Motor Carrier Act enacted under the Democratic Party administration of Jimmy Carter with the strong backing of liberal Senator Ted Kennedy, the push to deregulate trucking was one of the opening shots of the union-busting onslaught that has swept this country ever since. The resulting proliferation of owner-operators was a harbinger of the flood of non-union contracts and casual labor in the U.S. as well as in Europe and beyond.
Union power in port trucking, which had been organized by the Teamsters in the U.S., was strangled. Companies sold their trucks to their previously unionized drivers and then contracted with the new “owner-operators” on a per load basis. Through this swindle, the trucking companies dumped most costs onto the drivers. As owner-operators, port truckers were made responsible for maintaining their rigs and for fuel, licenses and tolls, as well as for loans taken out to purchase or lease their trucks. They also were no longer covered by workmen’s compensation, social security or unemployment insurance and had no paid sick leave or vacation time, much less health or pension benefits.
The purpose was not just to give a huge boost to profits, particularly of the top shippers as well as the cargo and stevedoring companies. It also was to foster ambitions within a layer of what was then a majority white workforce that as independent contractors they could not only be “their own boss” but potentially open their own trucking business. Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the port truckers were the legal equivalent of small businessmen. As such, they were made subject to antitrust laws that blocked their unionizing.
New trucking companies began to spring up at the ports, with each trying to undercut the other in a race to capture business. Rates for individual drivers tumbled as costs rose. Today, there are some 5,000 port trucking firms, most of them small-time local operations, with the dominant companies varying by port. It is a cutthroat, cockroach capitalist industry. Benefiting from this patchwork system are the giant retailers and manufacturers. Their shipping rates already plummeting due to containerization, these companies backed the deregulation of the trucking industry to obtain further rate cuts.
As Rutgers University Labor Studies professor David Bensman vividly documents in Port Trucking Down the Low Road: A Sad Story of Deregulation (2009): “Drivers who couldn’t make a living as owner operators fled the industry, creating chronic shortages.... Port trucking had changed from a good union job to an industry of last resort—a place shunned by workers with alternatives.” Those without alternatives were largely desperate immigrants, many of them refugees from the brutal depredations of the U.S. and other imperialist powers.
But unlike most options open to immigrants, such as precarious and starvation-wage jobs in the textile industry and agribusiness, port trucking seemingly offered a foot in the door of the “American Dream” through petty entrepreneurship. This has overwhelmingly proved a cruel and cynical hoax. Paid by the load, not the hour, port truckers are under constant pressure to speed up, working at least 10-12 hour days, with long, unpaid waiting time. Their estimated median earnings are a miserable $28,000 a year.
Far from “independent,” most owner-operators are beholden to the trucking companies. As detailed in The Big Rig: Poverty, Pollution, and the Misclassification of Truck Drivers at America’s Ports (2010), the trucking companies determine “how, when, where, and in what sequence drivers work” and “unilaterally control the rates that drivers are paid.” Lacking the funds to buy their trucks outright, many have to take out bank loans or make leasing arrangements with the trucking companies, a form of debt bondage that has only worsened with the implementation of clean-air regulations. Not satisfied with simply deducting payments from drivers’ paychecks, trucking companies at the L.A./Long Beach ports have devised terms that allow for repossession if the truckers can’t pick up and deliver a designated number of containers a week. As a representative of the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association described it, this “rent-to-own scheme” makes “the payday loan industry” look ethical by comparison.
The Owner-Operator Scheme
As a vital part of the port workforce and a key link in the vast global cargo chain, the truckers have tremendous potential social power that could be brought to bear in taking on the trucking, shipping and stevedoring companies. However, their classification as independent contractors is not simply a legal barrier to organizing their collective power in a union. It also poses the question of which class they identify with—the workers or the bosses. On this score, the port truckers are riven by conflicting interests and consciousness.
A handful of former truckers have established companies that own a small truck fleet as well as lease the trucks and services of individual owner-operators. Making profits through exploiting the labor of others, they are petty capitalists. So, too, are the owner-operators who still drive their trucks but also own one or two others for which they hire drivers. In contrast, those who drive company-owned trucks and work directly as employees—either paid by the load or by the hour—are workers with interests clearly counterposed to those of their bosses. However, such drivers are estimated to be slightly less than 18 percent of port truckers nationally.
Most port truckers own and drive their own trucks, leasing their services to the trucking companies. Their trucks are not simply expensive tools like those that other workers, particularly in the skilled trades, may have to buy. On the contrary, these rigs are a capital investment that many hoped to leverage into their becoming small-time bosses. The reality has overwhelmingly been far different, with the trucking companies driving these truckers to the wall. Their desperate scramble to survive has impelled several strikes, including struggles for unionization, particularly at the L.A./Long Beach ports in the late 1980s-early ’90s. Within the growing layer of drivers today enduring what amounts to debt servitude are those who see through the owner-operator scam.
The Teamsters have made some small but important inroads in organizing port truckers who are employees. In 2012, drivers for Toll Group at the L.A. port won the first union contract in port trucking since deregulation. Last summer, more than 100 drivers who work for Toll in servicing the Port of New York and New Jersey also voted to become Teamsters. Some Toll workers joined Green Fleet and American Logistics truckers on their picket lines in November. So, too, did owner-operators who work for Pacific-9 Transportation, demanding an end to the “independent contractor” charade. In 2012, port truckers in Seattle waged a two-week strike in order to be reclassified as workers. More recently, truckers at the Savannah port, many of whom are American blacks, have held meetings to protest their classification.
Breaking the chains that presently enslave the owner-operators to the trucking companies will take hard class struggle by the unions on the waterfront. Such a mobilization of union power in defense of port truckers would win vital allies for organized labor in the battle against Wal-Mart, Target and the other multibillion-dollar shippers as well as the stevedoring companies. Coupled with a fight for these drivers to be paid at full union-scale wages and benefits, the whole owner-operator scam could be shattered, breaking through the petty-bourgeois
consciousness it induces. Port truckers would come to view joining the ranks of organized labor as wage workers as a far better alternative to their present destitution.
In turn, the unions would be infused with immigrant workers, many of whom have experiences in class battles and other struggles in their countries of origin, which range from Mexico and Central America to the Horn of Africa, the Indian Punjab and beyond. As a Sikh port trucker remarked amid a two-week strike in Seattle in 2012: “We are not scared. We come from India, and we fought there against the British and kicked them out. We are fighting for the same thing here—integrity and simple respect.” If the unions in the U.S. rallied behind the port truckers, demanding full citizenship rights for all immigrants, it would forge a vital link of international working-class solidarity in the ever-expanding global cargo chain.
A Class-Struggle Policy
The idea of the unions waging such a campaign might seem far-fetched, particularly in a day and age where the wages, working conditions, benefits and very organizations of the working class have been ravaged. But such battles are what originally laid the basis for organizing the Teamsters as a bastion of labor power nationwide. The breakthrough came in 1934 in Minneapolis, a notoriously open shop city where the fight to organize truckers sparked citywide strikes. What made the difference was that these strikes were led by Trotskyist union militants, supporters of the Communist League of America. As James P. Cannon, the founding leader of American Trotskyism, put it: “Our people didn’t believe in anybody or anything but the policy of the class struggle and the ability of the workers to prevail by their mass strength and solidarity.”
Prominent among these militants was Farrell Dobbs, who would go on to play a key role in the early drive to organize over-the-road truckers nationally. Dobbs documented these struggles in a series of books beginning with Teamster Rebellion. In an appendix to Teamster Politics, titled “How the Teamsters Union Organized Independent Truckers in the 1930s,” he wrote of the policies pursued to win owner-operators who were not employers to the union’s side. In Minneapolis, the union won the solidarity of many of these drivers by supporting their demands for higher rates from the trucking companies. In turn, many owner-operators provided the trucks that transported flying squads of picketers around the city to shut down scab operations and served on the front lines in pitched battles with the cops and other strikebreaking forces.
The union was victorious in Minneapolis despite the opposition of the Teamsters International union bureaucracy under Daniel Tobin. When the Trotskyists and other militants from Minneapolis launched a multistate drive to organize over-the-road truckers into the Teamsters, they had to confront the surge in owner-operators during the Great Depression. Unemployed drivers who could make the down payment were lured into investing in their own trucks as the ticket to getting paid to run supplies for government “make work” projects for the millions of others out of a job. Dobbs described the situation:
“Firms holding carrier rights issued by the government employed many of these independents, paying them flat rates by the mile, ton, or trip for rig and driver. It was truly a cut-throat setup. Diverse methods were used to heap inordinate trucking costs upon the owner-operators, thereby shaving down their earnings as drivers. At the same time, devious patterns were woven to confuse the true nature of the employer-worker relationship and turn the individuals involved in an antiunion direction.”
To win owner-operators to the union’s cause, Dobbs argued that the companies should be made to pay them union-scale wages and cover all the costs of operating their trucks. To cut against the small-business aspirations that went with owning a truck, union organizers were clear that their purpose was to make the companies bear the costs, not to help the drivers secure a profit. The aim was to put an end to the whole owner-operator scam by eliminating its advantage for the companies and fostering the understanding among these drivers that they would be better off as unionized wage workers.
This course was reversed when the Trotskyists were purged from the union leadership during World War II through the collusion of the Teamsters International bureaucrats and the Democratic Party administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The crackdown on the Trotskyists, which was criminally supported by the Stalinist Communist Party, foreshadowed the later purges of Communists and other militants who had led the battles that forged the CIO industrial unions in this country. In addition, in 1949-50 eleven unions associated with the CP were expelled from the CIO. Those purges helped consolidate a trade-union bureaucracy that renounced the very class-struggle means through which the unions were built.
In the 1930s, Trotskyists who were leaders of Teamsters organizing campaigns fought it out class against class, mobilizing workers and their allies in opposition to the bosses and their government. Today, the Teamsters tops are telling port truckers to seek redress through the very state agencies that exist to defend the employers’ interests. As part of an alliance with environmentalists, the union pushed for the Port of Los Angeles to add a provision to its 2008 clean truck plan that required trucking companies to provide low-emissions trucks and hire drivers as employees. Predictably, the capitalist courts shot down the provision after the American Trucking Associations challenged it.
Now the Teamsters bureaucrats are lobbying for a federal clean-ports bill, begging the Department of Labor to challenge the owner-operator classification and flooding the courts with lawsuits claiming back pay for truckers who have been misclassified. Port truckers should take whatever redress might trickle down from legal challenges and suits. But the entire history of the American labor movement shows that it took defiance of anti-labor laws and court decisions, not bowing before them, to make the unions what they were.
ILWU Local 10 Tops Issue Scabbing Orders
In 2001, the Teamsters, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) announced an alliance to make the ports “100 percent union.” More than a decade later, the longshore unions are virtually the last bastions of organized labor at the ports amid a sea of predominantly non-union workers, from port trucking to the warehouses, intermodal rail facilities and the mammoth cargo ships. As we wrote following port truckers’ strikes in Oakland in 2008: “The ILWU will either take up the fight to extend union rights and union-scale wages, benefits and conditions to these workers or it will sooner or later face government-backed union-busting by the capitalist employers without union allies on the docks” (WV No. 916, 6 June 2008).
It’s now sooner. Even in the face of its own impending battle with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) shipping bosses when the union contract expires this July, the leadership of Bay Area ILWU Local 10 stabbed the Oakland port truckers in the back. During the truckers’ strikes in August and October, many Local 10 longshoremen initially respected trucker picket lines. But the bureaucrats later told them to report to work. On the eve of their November strike, the Port of Oakland Truckers Association (POTA) sought to reverse this course, issuing a statement appealing for Local 10’s solidarity:
“Longshoremen and truckers are two links in the same chain. Together, we provide the labor that is necessary for international commerce to flow in and out of the Port of Oakland as truckers and longshoremen do at every port in the world. Shippers and terminal operators to retailers and manufacturers, every industry that relies on the port of Oakland to generate billions of dollars in profit, also relies on our labor. Each of our workforces, when united, hold tremendous power and leverage. Together in solidarity, we are unbeatable.”
As reported on Indybay (30 November 2013), a contingent from POTA attended the Local 10 union meeting in November asking for the support of longshoremen. After a contentious debate, the membership voted two-to-one to honor the truckers’ picket lines. These ILWU members understood that their union needs all the allies it can get.
But the membership’s decision was reversed by the local ILWU tops, who ordered longshoremen to go to work. Local 10 officials cited an arbitrator’s ruling that the truckers’ picket lines were not “bona fide” as well as the PMA’s threats of court injunctions and fines if the ILWU respected the picket lines. The port was turned into an armed police camp, with cops preventing the pickets from blocking longshore entrances to the terminals. Truckers expressed bitterness at the Local 10 leadership for repudiating the pledge of solidarity as picket signs reading “Thank You ILWU For Your Support” littered the ground. Nonetheless, many jobs were not filled when some longshoremen refused to follow their leadership’s scabbing directive.
Longshoremen would do well to remember that like the truckers today, they were once treated as contract labor, lining up for the “shape up” in which they were hired by the day by gang bosses based on favoritism and kickbacks. In 1934, their picket lines were also not considered “bona fide” by their then-union leaders in the ILA. But the 15,000 West Coast ILA members went on strike in defiance of their leadership and were soon joined by seamen. The Teamsters at the port honored the picket lines, ensuring that no cargo was moved. This solidarity was crucial to the eventual victory of this strike, out of which the ILWU would be forged as a powerful industrial union. The struggle united black workers and others of many ethnic backgrounds behind the union, in opposition to the employers’ efforts to wield racism and anti-immigrant chauvinism to keep the longshore workers divided and beholden to the gang bosses.
These days it is a common myth in the ILWU that the port truckers are the makers of their own fate because they “opted out” of the Teamsters in the late 1970s. But the vast majority of these drivers today were not even in this country at the time. Indeed, many port truckers have no idea that there ever was a union in port trucking, much less consider there to be a real prospect of organizing one. Why would they? The labor misleaders have waged little if any struggle in defense of their own members, to say nothing of the growing millions of unorganized workers. Their subservience to the employers only serves to reinforce the owner-operator scam, as many port truckers weigh the thousands of dollars they have been made to invest in their trucks against the benefits of unionization. Such calculations are amplified by the hostile, often anti-immigrant treatment the truckers experience from some longshoremen.
By ordering their members to cross the truckers’ pickets, the ILWU Local 10 tops have created potential enemies out of potential allies. As a self-serving alibi, the bureaucrats and others argue that the truckers are not only non-union but don’t want to be organized in one. If such is the case for some truckers, no small part of the responsibility can again be laid at the doorstep of the union misleaders. In 1996, 5,000 port truckers went out at the L.A./Long Beach ports demanding union recognition. They confronted the same shipping interests that the ILWU faces. But rather than mobilizing their power behind the truckers’ strike, the ILWU crossed their picket lines and continued to work. The strike was defeated, ushering in a wave of demoralization among the truckers.
The Road Forward for Labor
The 1934 Minneapolis strikes showed what a militant union could accomplish during a period of rising class and social discontent. It wasn’t simply a question of militancy but of the political program that guided the Trotskyists who led these battles. Their strategy was rooted in the understanding of the social power of the working class when mobilized in opposition to all the agencies and institutions of the capitalist ruling class. Today, the class struggles of the workers are at low ebb, a condition reinforced by decades of betrayals by the trade-union bureaucracy.
But the rulers, aided by their labor lieutenants, cannot extinguish the class struggle that is born of the irreconcilable conflict of interests between labor and its exploiters. The very conditions that grind down and demoralize workers today can and will propel them into battle, together with their allies, against their class enemy. Although avowed socialists today have virtually no significant base in the unions, radical leaders will arise once again, and they will be no less militant than the labor pioneers. For the workers to prevail against their exploiters, they must be armed with a Marxist political program that links labor’s fight to the building of a multiracial workers party capable of leading the struggle to do away with this entire system of wage slavery through socialist revolution.