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Los Angeles/Long Beach port truck drivers launch strike with no planned end

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Truck drivers for three companies that move cargo in and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach launched a strike early Monday morning, with the support of organizers of the Teamsters union the drivers are hoping to join.

The strike involves 120 drivers for three transport firms including Total Transportation Services Inc., Green Fleet Systems and Pacific 9. The drivers have staged strikes and labor actions in the past year, but this is the first time they've walked off the job with no plans to return.

The drivers say the companies have become increasingly hostile to their efforts to organize and form a union. The companies, say the striking drivers, have retaliated by intimidating and even firing some drivers, as well as countersuing drivers who filed complaints. 

"Companies don't really like it when you fight for your rights," said 45-year-old Byron Contreras of Lakewood, who has worked for almost three years as a driver for Green Fleet Systems.  "We'll be out here as long as it takes," he told KPCC during a phone interview outside the LBCT Terminal at the Port of Long Beach. 

"They have also retaliated against us by giving us unsafe trucks to work with," Contreras told reporters later in the day.  "When they break down, they send us home, leaving us with less work, making it hard to survive.  That's not right."

Contreras is directly employed by Green Fleet Systems, but many of the striking drivers are independent contractors — a classification they have disputed.  This classification, say the drivers, gives them fewer protections in the workplace and undermines their rights to organize. 

Their cause has gathered momentum recently as the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement issued an administrative ruling in their favor.  

Green Fleet issued a statement on the strike through Harbor Trucking Association spokesman Alex Cherin, blaming outside interest groups for the strike.

"Time and time again every segment of the industry has rejected the efforts of these groups and their agenda," the statement said. "The fact is that an overwhelming majority of contractors and drivers affiliated with Green Fleet don't want these groups involved in their work."

The companies have maintained that independent contractor status offers drivers flexibility and the opportunity to own their own small businesses. 

The truck drivers strike starts as the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association continue to negotiate a new labor contract that would cover about 10,000 dockworkers at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. The old contract expired on June 30, but both sides vowed to remain at the bargaining table until an agreement is reached.

What remains to be seen is whether the striking truck drivers will draw support from the dockworkers at this sensitive moment in labor relations at the ports. Trucking industry veteran Greg Stefflre doesn't believe ILWU members will feel compelled to honor the picket lines.

"The ILWU and the Teamsters don't get along" said Stefflre, the CEO of Fontana-based Rail Delivery Services.  "The ILWU has jurisdiction there [at the Ports], and the Teamsters would like jurisdiction there, so there's a natural antipathy between the two that I think bodes against them [ILWU members] doing a 'sympathy' shut-down."

Stefflre added that the strikers don’t have the numbers to cause a significant disruption at the Ports of LA and Long Beach.

"If my guess is correct, you have a daily population of 4,000 to 5,000 trucks going in and out," Stefflre told KPCC. "These companies that are in this being struck: at best, they have 350 or 400 drivers. "

This story has been updated.