Port truckers and union representatives hoping to unionize container haulers at the nation's ports were dealt a setback by a Los Angeles ruling.
A three-judge panel sided with trucking companies in finding that truck drivers who haul containers from Los Angeles harbor are independent contractors, not employees.
The ruling resulted from a class-action lawsuit filed by Los Angeles attorney Fred Kumetz on behalf of hundreds of drivers, most of them Latin American immigrants. The suit alleged that three major trucking companies improperly classified the drivers as independent contractors so they didn't have to pay benefits, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Many drivers at U.S. ports, despite the fact that they own their trucks, say they should be classified as drivers because the trucking companies they work for treat them as employees, not independent businesspeople, in every aspect except for pay and benefits. Because of long turnaround times at the ports, drivers say it is becoming impossible to make a decent living on the flat rate per container pay.
"Drivers serving U.S. ports have not had a pay raise in the last 20 years," says Robert Bates, president of the Charleston chapter of the Southeast-based United Container Movers Assn.
In December, after meeting with the UCMA and other port trucker organizations, the Teamsters union committed to adding these drivers to the union. The Los Angeles ruling, however, makes it more difficult, because federal law prohibits independent contractors from forming or joining unions.
The attorney for the trucking companies named in the suit told the LA Times that the ruling "has monumental significance for any city that has a port. It would not be economically feasible to treat these people as drivers. The cost of goods would just go skyrocketing."
The Los Angeles port truckers aren't the only ones interested in organizing. In addition to the Southeastern port truckers represented by UCMA, port drivers in Texas, Baltimore and Washington state are also trying to get union representation. The Baltimore and Washington truckers staged labor protests last year.
Not all port truckers want to be reclassified as employees. One driver, Luis Montoya, reportedly testified at the Los Angeles hearing that he preferred being an owner-operator because he could make more money that way.