Monday, July 14, 2014

LA truckers get the same fate as BART workers

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

Being a truck driver* in the US used to be a job worth having. I remember as a kid back in England my mum and dad talking about it and how just being able to drive a truck could provide a family with a decent living and a home and all one paycheck. 

How things have changed.  We have seen numerous stoppages, strikes and attempts by truckers to halt the downward spiral of pay and conditions that the big trucking company bosses have imposed on them over the years.  Trucking is an exhausting and stressful business taking its toll on drivers mentally and physically. It is not good for family life and personal relations that’s for sure.

The big companies using the lure of being your own boss, being an independent businessperson basically, have severed their relationship with truck drivers as employees relieving the bosses of obligations as employers. By the time they’ve sat at hubs for hours on end, truck drivers take home pay might be nothing more, sometimes less, than minimum wage.

Last Monday, truckers at the Port of Long Beach and Los Angeles picketed numerous trucking companies to protest working conditions, pay and benefits. In addition to the labor action, the workers have filed lawsuits and complaints with state and federal labor agencies in an attempt to get their status changed.  By classifying the truckers as contractors rather than employees the bosses say they can’t unionize and the status affects their wages and benefits.

120 drivers went out and this took place as the dockworkers contract expired.  Here was yet another opportunity to take on the port and transportation bosses. West Coast ports are a major entry point for hundreds of billion of imports, mostly from Pacific Rim trade.  On Tuesday, the day after the truckers struck, almost 1000 dockworkers, members of the ILWU walked off the job in solidarity. The bosses fear the potential power of a united workers’ movement and got one of their judges to file a ruling declaring the action unlawful demanding the dockworkers returned to work and they did.

The action lasted all last week until Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles “brokered a deal” with the Teamster leadership and agreed to a “cooling off period”. "The city will facilitate a dialogue among the parties in the weeks ahead," , the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Garcetti as saying.

“Following the city’s meetings with both sides, the Teamsters have agreed to pull down their pickets and enter a cooling off period to allow the Harbor Commission time to investigate the serious allegations regarding worker safety, poor working conditions and unfair labor practices,” Garcetti’s statement said. “Business at the port is back to normal and the city will facilitate a dialog among the parties in the weeks ahead.”

The cause of our declining living standards and failed strikes is here for all to see. We saw it hear recently in Northern California when local transit workers struck BART, the light rail system.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage and strength to go on strike especially in the present climate when the bosses feel so confident and are beefing up security, the police and all government agencies in order to impose their austerity agenda on US workers and the middle class.  Just when the time calls for heating up the class conflict that has broken in to the open as workers are forced to take action, the union hierarchy, the employers and their political representatives like Garcetti impose a “cooling off period”.

The bosses afraid of our potential power.  That is why they subtly and not so subtly introduce racist, sexist and other divide and rule tactics in to our ranks This is why they blame immigrants, terrorists foreigners and, yes, public sector workers and recipients of services for the crisis of capitalism.

When 1000 dockworkers left their posts in solidarity Tuesday the bosses had to nip it in the bud.  “Without the longshore workers, the terminals can’t operate,” Port of Longbeach spokesperson Lee Petersen said.  He is right.  This is why we built Unions. The ability to stop business as usual, to stop the 1% getting their profits, that’s how we came this far.  It is not the disruption to the consumer that the bosses’ care about despite this being their media face.  If the consumer or the average person being inconvenienced mattered to them they wouldn’t be shutting off people’s water in Detroit and jailing those that protest it. There would be no homeless, no lack of transportation, no 20,000 people or so a year dying through lack of access to good health care and no bankruptcy caused by health care debt. There would be jobs.

The strategy that had the potential to make gains for us all, a united movement, direct action, which is what a strike is, and relying on our own strength, has been replaced by an investigation by the LA Harbor Commissioners investigating the workers’ ”allegations of poor working conditions and unfair labor practices.”

Garcetti, a member of a political party owned and paid for by Wall Street and the corporations called the cooling off period on behalf of big business and in this particular instance the port bosses, the retailers and the union hierarchy agreed, relieved as they are from not having to lead anything other than a retreat.

The Harbor commission also serves the interests of the 1% not these workers.  It is a five-member board dominated at this point by the 1%’s political representatives from the Democratic Party, like Garcetti.  Perhaps the investment banker on there will be sympathetic.  It’s the same old story isn’t it?  What could have worked has been derailed and replaced by what won’t.  Up here in the BART strike it was the SEIU, ATU, and AFSCME leadership that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and the Teamsters emulate their success in LA.

Many union members and activist of various stripes blame the Union officials’ betrayals and class collaboration on corruption..  They are taking bribes, earning too much money etc.  While some of this may be true it is not the key issue. The main cause of their collaboration is that they do not have an alternative to capitalism; they worship the market and for them profits are sacrosanct. With this in mind they push the Team Concept, the view that bosses and workers have the same interests.  Only the capitalists can create jobs, can own the labor process and direct the productive work and society.

What we must drive home is that we are not weak. We lack the leadership, strategy and tactics to go forward. The bosses are afraid of our potential power that’s why they use the courts, racism, sexism and nationalism, to divide us. 

That’s the best lesson we can learn here, what didn’t work and what can.

* A good book about the rise of trucking power in the post war period is: Hoffa and the Teamster by James and James


Denis Drew said...

I am thinking that if the federal minimum wage is raised to $15, then, Chicago and a lot of places will have to add at least a dollar a mile to the taxi meter -- or they wont have any taxi drivers.

Same effect might apply at least partially for California truckers. :-)

Richard Mellor said...

Are you making the argument that it is not worth fighting for higher wages Denis? Or that wages and prices are organically linked and that the boss can raise prices at their discretion?

Plus, would we not demand to see the books as any response to the bosses saying they can't afford to pay.

Denis Drew said...

I am just making a sarcastic take about how ridiculously low wages are. I happen to be reading the James book, BTW.

Ultimately, the only way to restore the American labor market is with what Hoffa imposed with his National Master Freight Agreement -- IOW, centralized bargaining, legally mandated (like continental Europe, French Canada, etc.).

I am about to email around Chicago the same taxi driver/minimum wage thing.

First, I am going to point out that, unless you get trained as an x-ray tech or something pretty much the most you can hope to make in "regular jobs" (retail clerk, etc.) is about $400 a week -- impossible to live on -- and there is no economic reason for it. A $15 federal minimum wage would add 3.5% to prices -- which would not put 45% of the workforce out of work ($15 the 45 percentile wage).

Then, I am going to say that if you are going to get to $15, why wait for the cab drivers (30 years, three cities here) to make a less painful living -- why not add the dollar a mile now? Chicago meter 50 cents below 1981 adjusted for inflation. This is a test of whether our hearts are really in the right place -- cannot hurt the drivers to give them the dollar right now.

Another funny angle: Chicago medallion price now $360,000 -- 12X what it was 25 years ago adjusted for inflatiokn. These guys go through hell and high water to get to America then pay a third of a million dollars in desperation to stay out of the ($400) hell of the American labor market! :-)

Richard Mellor said...

You know, I thought you might have been been introducing a little sarcasm but, as they say, this medium can be deceiving. Are you a cab driver? I think we have communicated before and you're not but I'm getting old.

Denis Drew said...

There is much to be sarcastic about. I was a cab driver: 4 years Bronx car service or gypsy, 20 years in Chicago with a bit of limo, 4 years in San Francisco before my back gave out age 60. 70 now.

Chicago allowed one 30 cent increase in the mile rate over 16 years (81-90-97) at which 1990 midpoint Chicago began building trains to both airports, opened up unlimited limo plates, and (the coup de grace) free trolleys between all the hot spots downtown -- and adding 40% more cabs!

Somewhere in there I began to suspect that society was beneficially looking out for me.