Jim Stewart, spokesman for the local container haulers group, declined to call the protest a shutdown. Instead, it's "informational picketing." However, he says, while these drivers are doing this informational picketing, "their ignition switches are in the off position, so they won't be hauling anything."
The rallies are to protest working conditions for truckers at the port, especially the long turnaround times between trips. Trucks are typically paid by the load, he says, and the local trucks have gone from making 8 to 12 loads a day down to 3 and 4 loads a day. "What that has caused, is the road trucks now have to come into the port and pick their own loads up instead of the city trucks picking their loads up and carrying them to the terminals, so now the road trucks are mixed in with everybody else at the port and its taking two and three hours to turn a box in and pick up a box and bring it out of the port."
Fuel surcharges are another bone of contention. Stewart says that while the steamship lines are paying a fuel surcharge, the trucking companies are either not passing it along to the truckers at all, or are keeping part of it for themselves. "That surcharge is for fuel, it's not for anything else, and it should be going to the truck driver who is paying for the fuel," he says.
Stewart estimates 200 to 300 truckers will participate in the rallies out of the 800-1,200 truckers who work the port. The action has support from the Teamsters union, which is trying to organize harbor truck drivers across the country. The union will have representatives at the demonstrations, which will continue on Friday and, if there is enough support, in into Labor Day Monday. The rallies also have support of various local unions, from carpenters to the tugboat union, Stewart says, and there will be representatives of these unions there as well.
This is not the first time Savannah port truckers have demonstrated. Earlier this year, truckers there took place in rallies organized by the Teamsters union. And three years ago, independent truckers staged a shutdown.
"Everything has remained the same, if not worse, than it was three years ago," Stewart says. "The lines have increased, the working conditions at the port are just as bad if not worse.
The Georgia Ports Authority, however, says it has taken steps to improve turnaround times. A $4 million truck improvement program has resulted in a new gate facility and more automated truck scales. A new high-speed computer software system and an interactive voice-response system are designed to handle trucker questions about container availability. The port authority set up a customer service group for truckers, added more cranes and hired more equipment operators.
But with the huge growth in container volume, Stewart says the port's investments have not been able to keep up.
In fact, says Ron Carver with the Teamsters union, the port director's boasts about what a great job they've been doing to improve conditions may itself have helped prompt the protest. "For this port director to be crowing about what a good job the port is doing respnding to the needs of the drivers is both insulting and provocative," he says. "Substantially there's been no real improvement."
The good news is, the truckers have made some progress toward becoming a recognized bargaining group. As independent truckers, they are legally not allowed to organize or to join a union. But that hasn't stopped more than 300 of the container haulers from signing Teamsters pledge cards, Stewart says. And several trucking companies are now willing to recognize the drivers as employees rather than independent contractors.
"They see the writing on the wall," Stewart says. "They've always thought this was a joke, but we have made so much noise with this, the trucking companies realized this was serious."