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News :: Labor : Organizing
For 8 days in May, Truckers closed the Port of Oakland
by Daniel Borgström
Address: Oakland, California
14 May 2004
For eight days in May, the Port of Oakland was virtually shut down by truckers striking for better conditions. The same port had been closed down by antiwar protesters just three weeks before, so a small contingent of us from Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) joined them as a community support group and reported their struggle on Indymedia.
The strike actually began in central and also in southern California as a one-day protest, but on reaching Oakland it lasted from April 30th to May 7th. Movement of cargo was reduced to 25 percent of normal and on some days to only 10 percent.
Several hundred of the striking drivers occupied the gate area of the APL terminal along Middle Harbor Road. They'd moved in and made themselves to home. Some were also spending the nights there. Most of these truckers were immigrants, coming from all over the world, some from the Punjab, others from Haiti, and a good many from the various countries of Latin America. Nevertheless, these diverse ethnic groups had gotten together for this action.
Four of their number were selected to represent the group in negotiations with the trucking companies and port officials. These four were called "interpreters," and their function was to negotiate, but they couldn't make or sign agreements that were binding on the rest of the group.
"It's chaos," an unhappy port executive complained to the Oakland Tribune, "They have no leader."
Actually, everybody was a leader. It was one of those extremely democratic situations that we read about, but rarely witness in reality. Our group from Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) talked with the strikers and reported their struggle on Indymedia. We were deeply impressed with the solidarity of the truckers.
We also found that nearly all of them were against the war. At least one of them, probably several, had joined us in our second annual demonstration at these same docks on April 7th. APL was one of the terminals we'd shut down that day, but in our case, only for a shift. These folks did it for over a week.
Often the drivers would gather into relatively small discussion groups. "El dolor de ellos es el dolor de nosotros," I heard one speaker addressing a group of 15 or 20 persons. He was talking about the solidarity between the various ethnic groups that made up the strike, and the meaning of his words was: "We all share the same pain and suffering."
Across the street were three or four police cars that had stationed themselves opposite the APL gate. Mostly they kept their distance, and they weren't wearing riot gear.
Whenever a scabbing trucker drove through, there'd arise chorusing shouts of "¡Culero¡" and "¡Judas!"
The strike was initiated by the recent jump in fuel costs. However, the drivers told me that there was a lot more to the problem that that. It was largely economic, but also a matter of dignity; the drivers said they were sometimes treated disrespectfully, and often made to wait at the loading areas for unreasonable lengths of time.
These drivers own or lease their rigs, also called "18 wheelers." So they're called "owner-operators," or "independent truckers," and it means that they have to pay their own expenses which include insurance, DMV registration and maintenance. Costs of all of these items have doubled or even tripled during the last decade, but pay rates have not increased.
The situation is complicated by the fact that there are as many as 60 different trucking companies that these drivers work for. While some of these trucking companies are bad guys, that's not true of all. Some of the company owners are in sympathy with the drivers and are willing to accept their demands.
One trucker, Willyz, told me he had been driving a rig for 12 years now. "Back then we made a good living," he told me, "Today, I might as well be working at Burger King."
Willyz's gross income is quite large, but after expenses, he earns about $7 or $8 an hour. It struck me as incredible, and I might've found that hard to believe, had I not read similar figures in several newspapers and websites. According to a report in the Long Beach Press Telegram, some truckers were making $60,000 a year -- but only taking home $10,000.
At the same time, Willyz told me that his situation was about average. Some were actually running in the red, while others were doing well, but were nevertheless out there on strike in solidarity with the rest.
I spoke with a striking driver, Francisco, who said his company treated him well and paid him adequately. However, he also said that if conditions continued to get worse, he could eventually find himself in the same predicament as the others.
These people need a union contract. That is something the port officials oppose, and warned them that to form a union would be in violation of anti-trust laws. The irony is that although the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890) was enacted in response to popular demand for a law to fight corporate monopolies such as Rockefeller's Standard Oil, the law was used as a weapon against labor unions. Eventually, the anti-trust act was amended to prevent it from being used against labor. However, it's now being used against these drivers on the technicality that they are legally classified as "independent contractors." That classification, according to port officials, makes the drivers subject to anti-trust laws.
The story of anti-trust laws is a classic example how essentially good laws can be twisted around and misused by a government that serves the corporate interests. It hardly needs to be pointed out that mega-corporations such as Bechtel, Halliburton or SSA Marine had no difficulty acquiring monopoly rights in Iraq. Nor was any government agency overly zealous about preventing Enron's monopolizing activities.
However, the trucking companies that employ these drivers have to compete with each other in cutthroat competition to get customers. That's the way the system works, and so it's a race to the bottom, with the drivers getting the worst of it. A solution might be to form an association and make an agreement to bring this cutthroat competition under some control, but, here again, these relatively small companies could be subjected to anti-trust laws which don't apply to mega-monopolies.
Nobody denies that the truckers are in a bind. Even the Port of Oakland officials expressed sympathy for the plight of these truckers and attempted to broker an agreement to end the strike. "We're the only port that's trying to help you," the port's Executive Director Yoshitani told the drivers. Nevertheless, despite their apparent helpfulness, the port officials continued to oppose the drivers' right to form a union or bargain collectively.
On Thursday, May 6th, the port officials scheduled a meeting for the drivers and companies. The meeting was held at 530 Water Street, in the Port of Oakland office building in Jack London Square. I assumed the meeting was open to the public, so I signed the register, took a name badge, and walked in. Others who were also reporting for Indymedia were going to attend but they didn't show up, and I wondered where they were. Afterwards, I learned they weren't allowed in. As far as I can tell, no reporters from the commercial media were there either.
According to that morning's Oakland Tribune (5/6/04), the port officials said the meeting "will bring together truckers, shipping company executives and truck company owners." So about a hundred drivers attended, expecting to meet face to face with the companies.
Strangely, however, it turned out that the port had set up two separate meetings, one for the trucking company owners on the 7th floor, and another for the drivers on the 2nd floor. I went to the drivers' meeting. The session began when an elderly gentleman introduced himself as Mr. Gay Joseph, who worked under Mr. Jerry Bridges, the Port's maritime director.
A driver spoke up and expressed surprise that there were two separate meetings. "I thought we'd be meeting with the companies," he said.
Mr. Joseph replied that would be in violation of the anti-trust laws. "We can't put owner-operators in the same room with the trucking companies," he explained.
That explanation may have sounded dubious to many of the drivers, but nobody apparently had the legal background to refute it. But this seems to illustrate the need to have trained legal personnel present at meetings such as this one.
"You've made your point," Joseph went on to tell the drivers. "We understand your problem. Believe me, we understand."
Joseph paused for a moment, then continued. "Today there were three ships that didn't even come into the bay. Those ships went somewhere else. To another port. That's 1,400 containers. 1,400 jobs -- lost. Those jobs are gone and won't come back." He paused again. "Another one or two ships are due tomorrow."
A driver told him they couldn't live on what they were currently getting. "The rates were set 10 years ago," he said. "Insurance rates have increased. Maintenance rates have increased. Fuel rates have increased. We need a cost of living adjustment."
"The port or city council cannot change the rate," said Joseph. "We can provide influence. We can talk to the companies."
"We need a single rate," a driver told him.
"A single rate is against the law," said Mr. Joseph. "It would violate the anti-trust laws."
"We need to know what the shipping companies pay the brokers," a driver told him. I assumed that by "brokers" he meant the trucking companies.
"Those are private companies," said Joseph. "It's not public information. We don't have the authority to demand that information. What we do have is influence. Port of Oakland has influence. We can make them understand. We can tell them that you need to make a living"
The driver sitting next to me smiled and shook his head skeptically. "Do you really think the port couldn't do something if they really wanted to?" he asked me. I told him I honestly didn't know, but I could see that in situations like this, the drivers could certainly use the help of experienced labor negotiators who would know how these things worked.
The port's Executive Director Yoshitani put in a brief appearance. "I know the problem," he said. "It has existed for many years. The rising fuel prices, that's only the straw that broke the camel's back," he said, and outlined the problems, showing that he had a good knowledge of the situation faced by the truckers, and assured them that the port was trying to help.
"The worst thing you can do is to shut the port down," Yoshitani said. "That's not in anybody's best interest. Please be patient. Jerry Bridges will be down to talk with you, he understands these issues better than I do."
Mr. Yoshitani handed the meeting back to Mr. Joseph, who resumed his talk, saying, "Jobs go away, ships go away. … We are going to try to help as much as we can. We hear you, we really do."
"The fuel prices …" Another driver told him.
"We're going to use our influence to get the companies to come to the table, said Mr. Joseph. "To tell them they need to come to the table."
"If you can't answer the questions," said a driver, "We don't need to talk with you."
Another driver, one who'd been silent till then, said, "We cannot ask questions because we are asking the wrong source."
Someone else cut in and said, "Four guys upstairs are negotiating, the four representatives. … Everyone should wait for them to return."
Then Jerry Bridges, the Port's maritime director, showed up, and I heard one of the drivers remark to the others around him, "Esto es el mero mero." -- meaning that this was the guy who could make decisions and answer questions.
Jerry Bridges began by telling a bit about himself. "I have been with the port since Sept 4, 2001. … I came from the terminals, I'm one of those bad guys." He paused to hear a few chuckles. Then he said, "I respect you."
"And we respect you," responded several of the drivers.
Mr. Bridges continued, "We've had ships bypass the port. The port cannot remain closed. We would like to see this strike stop," and explained that the companies told him they need time to talk with their customers, to work things out. They needed thirty days. He also mentioned meeting four times a year to talk about issues -- that proposal had been mentioned in the newspapers.
"We're all in this together," Jerry Bridges told the drivers.
He told them that each one of them was running a "business," that they should see themselves as businessmen and as members of the middle class.
"I've spent 18 years around the piers, seen plenty of guys getting rich," a driver told him. "We don’t trust the brokers, the dispatchers. We don't know how much they keep."
Another driver said, "It's more than just the money. It's the disrespectfulness. The two-hour waits. This has to be addressed because we're tired. We're running negative every week!"
"The fuel is not the big issue," said another driver. Other drivers also spoke:
"We were pushed to the wall."
"We woke up. If it goes to LA, the drivers there are going to wake up too."
Finally, at about 6:50 p.m., the four negotiators, "interpreters" as they were called, entered to give reports of their negotiations with the trucking companies. The first two spoke in Spanish. "There's very little the Port of Oakland can do," said the third, and the fourth said there'd been very little progress.
"We have to negotiate the best deal we can," Jerry Bridges told them. "The companies want to negotiate with you, they need time. Thirty days."
A driver told of threats from a company and asked what could be done, where the port stood on this. "If you have a green card, they're say they're going to deport you," he said.
"When an employer say's he's going to call the Federal Government, he's talking out of frustration," Bridges told him.
The four negotiators went back to try again, and Jerry Bridges announced that they'd be back in 30 minutes with some results.
One of the drivers stood up and addressed the other drivers around him. "Don't go back to work!" he said, "Don't go back!"
"The companies want 30 days to work things out?" exclaimed another driver. "We gave them 10 years!"
The meeting dissolved into a break. Some people went outside, and others went out into the halls and they gathered into groups to discuss the situation.
After the break, the four interpreters returned. This time they had a list of some 30 trucking companies that would comply with their most of the drivers' requests. I was surprised at this sudden breakthrough, and so were the drivers. They asked if this was really true, if they could go back to work the next day, if the drivers who'd been fired would be reinstated, and many other questions. They were assured that it was for real. It seemed obvious to me that the strike was over.
The next day I was astonished to hear that the strike was still on. I got to the docks at about 3:30 p.m. The drivers were angry, feeling that they had been tricked at the meeting of the previous evening.
What had happened was that when the drivers looked more closely at the list of employers that they'd been given, they found that these 30 firms employ a sum total of only about 200 drivers. They told me there are about 3,000 drivers, and so those 200 jobs would be no more than a drop in the bucket. The rest of the trucking companies were the ones who had the great majority of the job positions, and they were offering no substantial concessions.
One of the drivers showed me that list of trucking companies from the night before and went over it with me, and told me about each company. Only 3 or 4 of the companies on the list employed 30 to 50 drivers. Some of the companies on the list had gone bankrupt years ago. Others were companies that nobody had ever heard of and appeared to be non-existent. "This is a joke!" the driver told me, "They're just playing games with us!"
I'm not certain who produced the list, whether it was the port officials or the trucking companies. The drivers seemed to think it was the port officials.
Meanwhile, the Port of Oakland had issued an injunction against the strikers. Someone pointed to a bundle of papers lying out in the middle of the road. Nobody touched them. I was curious to know what the court order might say, but I thought it best not to go picking those things up.
The truckers were leaving the port, apparently going home for the weekend. Some said they'd be back to continue the strike on Monday. Nothing was very clear as to what would happen next.
The next morning, Saturday May 8th, I picked up the Oakland Tribune and read that port officials had gone to court and gotten an injunction after the drivers had "reneged" on their promise. "They promised [Thursday] night that they would go back to work," a port spokesman was quoted as saying. Reading that made me think again about the phony list of companies; I still don't know for certain who produced it, but it appears to me that the port officials were so desperate for the illusion of agreement that they resorted this ruse.
And so the Oakland Tribune dutifully reported that the truckers "reneged." There was no indication in the article that the Tribune reporter had been present at that meeting or had ever been out to the docks to talk with the truckers. Instead, he got his "facts" from port spokespersons and reported them uncritically.
I went back to the docks Monday morning. There were no strikers, and more surprisingly, no police either. Truck traffic was running, apparently as normal.
Indymedia reports & photos of the Truckers Strike
Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW)
The Tribune article of Sat. 5/8/04
A Brief History of The Sherman Anti-Trust Act
Articles on the truckers port strike from various sources
Antiwar actions in the Port of Oakland, April 7th of years 2003 & 2004
This work is in the public domain