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36-hour strike targets trucking companies at LA and Long Beach ports

Mario Hernandez is among the truck drivers at Green Fleet Systems to stage a 36-hour strike.  They began picketing Monday morning outside the company's Carson offices.
Mario Hernandez is among the truck drivers at Green Fleet Systems to stage a 36-hour strike. They began picketing Monday morning outside the company's Carson offices.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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Dozens of truck drivers for companies that move cargo in and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are walking picket lines on Monday, as part of a long-running campaign by the Teamsters Union to organize truck drivers at ports nationwide. 

At 5 a.m. on Monday, Truck Drivers at Green Fleet Systems in Carson began a 36-hour strike.  A few dozen people in fluorescent orange vests began picketing outside the company with printed signs reading: “Green Fleet Systems:  Stop this War on Workers!”

Green Fleet is a 20-year-old company that specializes in drayage – moving cargo containers from ports to warehouses, rail and distribution centers.  The company employs between 80 and 90 truck drivers and some of them want to join Teamsters Local 848.  Exactly how many is still unclear

“We decided to join the union a year ago because we want some respect, dignity and to have a voice on our job and to have decent wages for our families,” said 42 year-old Mario Hernandez, who’s worked at Green Fleet Systems for four years.

“If you make just a little mistake, they yell at you and you just feel so intimidated that sometimes you don’t even know what to do.” 

Green Fleet drivers staged a similar strike in late August, and Hernandez says the strikes are about unfair labor practices. He said the company has retaliated against drivers like him who want to join the union.

“In my case, they have for example, cut my hours of work and not for the people who aren’t supporting the union” he said.

In a statement, Green Fleet Systems accused the strike’s organizers of “intimidation tactics” of their own. 

“It is not a coincidence that that in the 20 years and thousands of hours trying to organize Port truck drivers, only one company has decided to sign a contract with these groups,” the statement reads.   “We pay very competitive wages and benefits,” the statement continues.  “Because of this, and because of our demonstrated safety record, the overwhelming majority of our drivers vehemently and passionately have voiced their opposition to the current strike and organization effort.”

Hernandez believes supporters of the union effort are in the majority, but many of his co-workers are keeping quiet and not participating in the srike.

“I speak to them and they say, ‘I wish I could be there but I’m afraid of losing my job,'”  Hernandez said. 

Some 'Independent Contractors' believe they are actually employees.  

The striking drivers at Green Fleet Systems and those who planned to strike at American Logistics International are directly employed by their companies,  but the drivers planning to picket at Pac9 Transportation are classified as independent contractors.  They dispute that status, and organizers of their labor action say more than 50 Pac9 drivers have filed claims alleging in excess of $7 million in stolen wages with the California Labor Commissioner. 

 "They're told where to go, what to do, where to pick up a load, where to drop it off," says Nick Weiner, the national campaign director for the Teamsters effort to organize the port truck drivers.

He says thousands of drivers are misclassified as independent contractors. So they don't get hourly wages or benefits. But he says they do get hit with extra expenses the companies pass onto drivers.

 "The deductions from their paychecks are for the lease payments for the trucks, for the fuel, for the insurance. And that's how the employers have been able to shift the cost of operating the trucking company onto the back of their drivers." Weiner said. 

Pac9 driver Byron Monzon Franco told KPCC that being classified as an independent contractor costs him dearly.  "If I make 2000 dollars a week, I spend 1500 in everything, payment for the truck, insurance, everything, and I take  500 dollars to my house, so this is not honest for us,"  Franco said.

Labor history expert  Peter Dreier, chair of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College says of the 12,000 truck drivers who serve the ports of LA and Long Beach, most are independent contractors, and current law doesn't allow them to join unions.  But the push to change their status is drawing attention across the country. " This is part of a growing resurgence of the labor movement ," said Dreier. 

The companies - all with offices in Carson -  have denied the allegations of union representatives and strikers. Company officials have previously stated that truckers at the ports of LA and Long Beach are among the highest paid in the U.S.  They also accuse the Teamsters union of targeting drivers in order to bolster its dwindling ranks and they estimated only 15 drivers took part in a previous labor action in August.