LA Port Workers Clinch Salary Hike and Benefits After Strike

Port Workers Clinch Higher Wages after Strike
Image by KABC Los Angeles News.

Los Angeles Port Strike Salary NegotiationsLOS ANGELES, Jan. 10, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — A set of truck drivers who haul shipments of imported merchandise from west coast ports to America’s brand name stores will raise in early 2013 at double the previous pay rate.

The extra $6+ change is part of a first-ever contract that shifts a bulk of their health care costs to their employer, grants overtime, paid sick leave and holidays, offers guaranteed hours and other terms for job security – plus a pension plan.

The landmark contract caps over two years of struggle for union recognition that workers took online, to the truck yard, and in the LA streets; they zig-zagged to other U.S. seaports to shore up support, and even continent-crossed to meet their Aussie union workmates who stood in solidarity at their joint employer’s doorstep.

“Justice…it’s sort of indescribable and overwhelming to finally have the American Dream at our reach,” said Jose Ortega Jr., a driver for global logistics giant Toll Group who served on his co-workers’ bargaining committee along with representatives from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters/Local 848 in Long Beach, Calif. The Australian corporation operates at  port complexes on both U.S. coasts and handles accounts for Guess?, Polo, Under Armour, and other sportswear lines sold at big box and department retailers like Walmart and JC Penney.

The victory is also being celebrated across the Pacific Ocean where the Melbourne-based Toll Group employs some 12,000 of Australian drivers united in the Transport Workers Union (TWU). The members view their U.S. counterparts as their “workmates” and have supported the port drivers from Day One to ensure that as Toll enters new global markets, the company replicates the constructive labor-management relations that made it so profitable Down Under.

U.S. port drivers are the most underpaid in the trucking industry: A typical professional earns $28,873 a year before taxes. Their net incomes often resemble that of part-time or seasonal workers though they clock an average of 59 hours a week. They possess specialized skills and licensing to safely command an 80,000 lb. container rig, but they fit the profile of America’s working poor. Food stamps, extended family, or church pantries are needed to get by; their children often lack regular pediatricians or only receive care at the public ER.

“It upends the common wisdom that a workforce that lacks rights on the job cannot build the strength to take on the Goliaths of the global economy. But these drivers, like the workers at the warehouses and Walmart and Wendy’s, cannot raise families on such low wages, so they are coming together to rewrite the playbook,” noted Dr. John Logan, the director of Labor and Employment Studies at the College of Business at San Francisco State University. “The faces of this new movement are ordinary parents and churchgoers and community members who value the influence of a local priest as much as the expertise pouring in from strong trade unions overseas. Not only do they have the guts to strike – they have the faith they can win.”

Their collective resolve paid off. Mr. Ortega, a single father who works the night shift, will see his new per-hour rate of $19.75 reflected on his next paycheck, along with any overtime that will now be paid at a time-and-a-half rate of $28.

“As a truck driver, I wanted the assurance that things would be okay for my daughter if I was injured, that I could take her to see the doctor if she got sick,” the 36-year-old explained. “When we started organizing ourselves, we weren’t asking for anything out of this world. Dignity. A fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work. Decent, sanitary facilities to make a pit stop, rest, eat…you know, to perform our jobs safely.

“But we knew winning respect would take a fight at every turn. So if we were afraid to lose our jobs, we asked our allies for help. When it was time to take action, we prayed for courage to speak out. And we always stuck together, and never gave up.”