Workers Vanguard No. 1004

8 June 2012


Toll Group Port Truckers Win Union

Los Angeles

Braving anti-union intimidation, harassment and firings, port truckers who transport apparel for the Toll Group at the Port of Los Angeles voted 46 to 15 on April 11 to join the Teamsters union. The militancy and determination of the Toll Group drivers were key in this organizing victory. Their fight could inspire efforts to unionize by the overwhelmingly immigrant port truckers on the West Coast and nationwide who are a vital link in the vast cargo chain. This in turn would strengthen the fighting capacity of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), which are increasingly isolated bastions of union power amid a sea of unorganized workers at the ports.

The Toll Group organizing campaign started last summer at the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex, which employs some 10,000 truckers. The largely Latino immigrant Toll drivers—who are among the few port truckers considered direct employees rather than independent contractors—wanted to combat degrading and dangerous job conditions. Drivers routinely face retaliation for reporting any safety issues. The Toll bosses would not even allow truckers into company restrooms, instead forcing them to use filthy portable johns with no running water. As Toll driver Karael Vallecillo put it, “I didn’t come to this country to be treated like an animal just because of my background” (In These Times, 13 April).

Last fall, 26 Toll truckers were fired after wearing Teamsters T-shirts on the job to protest the lack of sanitary facilities and signal their aim to organize a union, as some 200 unionists and supporters rallied outside. The company also attempted to intimidate workers by holding biweekly mandatory anti-union meetings. (Toll recently forced its truckers in Newark, New Jersey, to attend a similar meeting to forestall organizing there.)

In December, Toll driver Xiomara Perez and four other port truckers from both the West and East Coasts wrote a pro-union open letter to the Occupy movement describing conditions under which truckers toil:

“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 a 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.”

After a Teamsters-requested complaint was filed in January by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charging illegal retaliation and harassment against workers trying to unionize, the company ratcheted up its anti-union offensive. In March, just weeks before the union election, Toll fired Perez, a single mother of three and one of two women among the drivers, along with trucker Steven Chavez, who was also known to be pro-union. Perez was sacked for making a pit stop at a McDonald’s and Chavez for using his lunch break to renew a Department of Transportation certificate required for his job. “Toll is trying to fire its way out of having a worker’s union,” Chavez noted. To date, the two have not been reinstated. While the majority of the 26 fired in October are back at work, several others have also not yet gotten their jobs back. The Teamsters and other waterfront workers should rally to their defense, fighting to reinstate these drivers.

Headquartered in Australia, Toll is one of the world’s largest transport/logistics companies. In the months leading up to the union election, members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) from the Toll Group’s Australian workforce repeatedly visited L.A. in support of the unionization campaign. Numerous solidarity statements were also received from transport unions and officials worldwide, many a part of the International Transport Federation. The vice president of ILWU Local 13 in Los Angeles took part in an organizing rally. Such expressions of solidarity are a positive first step. But it will take a class-struggle fight, not just statements of solidarity, to unionize the port truckers nationwide.

In response to militant Teamsters strikes in the 1970s, Democratic president Jimmy Carter pushed through industry deregulation to drive down shipping and transportation costs and strangle union power. This allowed the bosses to replace Teamsters drivers with non-union drivers in the ports. Today, the vast majority of port truckers are deemed “owner operators,” forced to buy or lease their own trucks, to wait unpaid for a load and to pay all gas, maintenance, insurance and fines for overweight containers themselves. Many clear only around $20,000 a year. In February, hundreds of port truckers went on strike at the Port of Seattle in protest against just such oppressive working conditions, demanding their right to unionize.

The fate of the ILWU and the ILA is inextricably linked to the fight to organize port truckers as well as the many low-wage, non-union workers in the ever-growing chain of world trade, from the warehouses and intermodal facilities further inland to the mammoth cargo ships. The longshore unions will either take up the fight to extend union rights, wages, benefits and conditions to these workers or they will sooner or later face government-backed union-busting by the capitalist employers without any union allies on the docks.

No Reliance on the Capitalist State

Over 10 years ago, the Teamsters, ILWU and ILA announced an alliance to make the ports “100 percent union.” But far from engaging in the class battles necessary to make this a reality the union tops look to the “good graces” of the capitalist state. The legalistic strategy of the Teamsters bureaucracy is to appeal to state legislatures, the courts and the bosses’ Department of Labor to reclassify port truckers as employees so as to be able to organize them under NLRB rules. The Toll drivers fell into this category because a few years ago the company had switched from self-employed contract drivers when it bought new trucks under the terms of a Port of L.A. truck pollution cleanup program backed by the Teamsters. An appeals court overturned the port’s requirement that companies buy their own trucks and rehire contractors as employees, relieving other trucking outfits of the need to comply. The Teamsters were left with Toll as an organizing beachhead.

But the fight is far from over. The Toll truckers, members of Teamsters Local 848, are now engaged in contract negotiations with the company. Most employers whose workers have just voted in a union try to draw out negotiations indefinitely and avoid signing a first contract at all. The Toll truckers and their counterparts who work as contractors at other companies could take a page from the five-week strike in 2005 in Vancouver by 1,200 mostly immigrant non-union drivers. The hemorrhaging of profits as containers piled up on the docks prompted the Canadian government to lift the antitrust laws used by shipping companies there as in the U.S. to prevent driver organizing. The strike opened the door to a port-wide contract.

Standing in the way of hardball class struggle is a union leadership that breeds illusions in the supposed “neutrality” of the state. But the purpose of the Department of Labor and its NLRB is to entangle the working class in protracted legal proceedings in order to maintain labor “peace,” i.e., prevent strikes or settle them quickly. These are strikebreaking agencies even if they occasionally rule against the bosses. In Australia, this role is currently filled by the federal government’s “workplace relations tribunal,” which recently banned industrial action by TWU members at Qantas Airlines. Such government entities are set up to keep the unions under the thumb of the capitalist state—at its core, the courts, police, prisons and military—which exists to maintain the rule of the capitalist exploiters.

Last year, the Teamsters and the Australian TWU launched “The Grim Truth at Toll Group” Web site. A posting on it claims that the organizing of the Toll truckers occurred “despite their foreign employer’s vicious and expensive year-long campaign to intimidate workplace leaders and suppress their free choice.” Actually, the actions of the Toll Group are standard fare for capitalists everywhere attempting to stop unionization, regardless of national origins. In the U.S., employers fire workers in a quarter of all organizing campaigns and employ mandatory one-on-one anti-union meetings in two-thirds of unionization drives. Such tactics are formally illegal. But again demonstrating whose interests the capitalist state and agencies represent, the bosses almost always get away with it or receive a slap on the wrist from the NLRB.

Treacherously, the ILWU, ILA and Teamsters leaderships have offered themselves up as “national security” police auxiliaries at the ports. The ILWU fingered the largely immigrant port truckers as a potential “security” threat at the time that the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act, part of the government’s “war on terror” crackdown on the docks, was drafted. For his part, Teamsters president James Hoffa has organized chauvinist, racist demonstrations against “unsafe” Mexican truckers.

Such protectionist poison spread by the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy cripples the ability of the unions to struggle, subordinating workers to the national interests of U.S. imperialist rule. Crucial to organizing the over 100,000 port truckers nationwide is the fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, as the trucking companies prey on the desperation of foreign-born workers to enforce poverty wages and wretched working conditions. Much of this workforce comes from countries with strong traditions of labor militancy and anti-capitalist struggle and could help reinvigorate the working class here. Joint struggle would go a long way toward breaking down national prejudices.

The unions were built through hard class struggle—mass picket lines that shut down production and repulsed attacks by scab-herding cops, secondary strikes by other unions and the mobilization of the unemployed for strike support. Longshore and other transport workers in the global cargo chain, which increasingly relies on just-in-time delivery, have immense potential social power. Every link in this chain could be a chokepoint, giving the workers real leverage in taking on the employers. But that requires some basic labor solidarity, from respecting the elementary principle that “picket lines mean don’t cross” to refusing to handle scab goods.

Labor will succeed in fighting for its own interests only insofar as it is organized independently from all the bosses’ parties. The endorsement by the Teamsters and other unions of Barack Obama in the 2012 elections is an expression of the labor misleaders’ subservience to the class rule of the bourgeoisie. The Democratic Party is no less a party of the class enemy than the Republicans, as Obama’s tenure as president amply proves. He has deported more immigrants than Bush ever did and not hesitated in savaging the unions, with the complicity of the venal labor bureaucracy. In his capacity as imperialist Commander-in-Chief, Obama has waged bloody imperialist war on working and oppressed people internationally—from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya.

And while Democratic L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa piously called for “justice” for the Toll truckers, he has run point for the capitalists in their attacks on unionized L.A. teachers and city workers. Enough! As we wrote in “For a Class-Struggle Fight to Organize Port Truckers!” (WV No. 916, 8 June 2008):

“For the unions, the only significant racially integrated organizations in the U.S., to become battalions of struggle against this racist capitalist order requires a political fight to oust the chauvinist misleaders of the labor movement and replace them with a class-struggle leadership. This is integrally linked to the forging of a multiracial revolutionary workers party to lead the battle for the eradication of this increasingly depraved system of exploitation and racist reaction through a victorious socialist revolution.”