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Strike at the Seattle Port: Truckers Buck an Unfair System

Amy Traub

Here’s how it’s supposed to work at the nation’s ports these days: the predominantly immigrant workers who drive short-haul trucks as “independent contractors” work in a desperate race to the bottom of pay, safety, and working conditions. Although trucking companies control things like the rate of pay and the times and conditions when truckers may work, their drivers are classified as “self-employed” so they don’t band together to demand better pay or safer working conditions, and they certainly don’t go on strike.

Except when they do.

Trucks hauling cargo from the Port of Seattle

The Port of Seattle has been shut down for more than a week. And it is the so-called independent contractor drivers who have stood together to stop the flow of goods. In doing so, the drivers are taking a powerful stand against the deregulated model of port trucking that takes a toll, not only on their own livelihoods and safety but on the environment and public as well.  

On January 30, some Seattle port truckers missed a day’s pay to go to the state capitol and testify on legislation that would enhance safety on the job  and end their misclassification as independent contractors. When one trucking company retaliated against a driver, an Ethiopian immigrant known as Yared, for speaking out, other drivers stopped their vehicles in solidarity. Eleven days later, the stoppage continues to spread.

As Professor David Bensman noted in a Demos study of the port trucking industry, misclassifying workers as independent contractors has numerous benefits for less-than-scrupulous employers: they can skip out on payroll taxes and workers’ compensation and forget about minimum wages and overtime pay. The companies that employ supposedly “independent” truck drivers can even disregard expenses associated with truck ownership and maintenance, putting the costs on the drivers who may net close to the minimum wage and passing on the savings to the multinational companies, like Wal-Mart and Target, that move their goods through the ports.  And, of course, if workers aren’t officially recognized as employees, they can’t legally form a union to bargain for better pay and conditions.

As we’ve seen over the past few days, though, blocking the right to unionize can’t guarantee labor peace forever. As a blogger for the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports notes:

During the Occupy Wall Street port shutdowns, activists and well-intentioned sympathizers debated whether the blockades would siphon wages from port workers – arguably one of the greatest symbols of the 99% — or if it would suck profits from the 1%, such as the Seattle-based global terminal operator, Goldman Sachs’ SSA Marine, and its West Coast trucking outfit, Shipper’s Transport Express. What their protest proves is that port drivers, as inside agitators, are very much willing to lose pay as a means to powerfully reveal the crushing economic forces that literally put their lives and livelihoods at risk. Even, and especially amidst a severe economic downturn. Their historical ability to self organize, unite, and seize opportunities to improve their working conditions is unfolding before our eyes.