Despite the political setback last November, some of us still believe that the arc of justice for working people bends forward — however slowly.
But then we come across this deeply disturbing article by Brett Murphy of USA Today, based on a year-long investigation into the abuse of short-haul truckers who transport goods from the Port of Los Angeles to inland warehouses. The investigation, based on accounts from more than 300 mostly immigrant truck drivers, is enough to make even optimists wonder what direction the arc of the moral universe is actually bending, and how we redirect it — even in a progressive state like California.
Murphy starts with the story of Samuel Talavera Jr.
Most days, the trucker would drive more than 16 hours straight hauling LG dishwashers and Kumho tires to warehouses around Los Angeles, on their way to retail stores nationwide.
He rarely went home to his family. At night, he crawled into the back of his cab and slept in the company parking lot.
For all of that, he took home as little as 67 cents a week.
Then, in October 2013, the truck he leased from his employer, QTS, broke down.
When Talavera could not afford repairs, the company fired him and seized the truck — along with $78,000 he had paid towards owning it.
Talavera was a modern-day indentured servant.
We’re talking about a huge operation, delivering goods for companies like Wal-Mart, Amazon, Target, Hewlett-Packard, Home Depot, Hasbro, J.Crew, UPS, Goodyear, Costco, Ralph Lauren and more.
If you laid the containers end to end, they would wrap around the Earth more than twice.
Most car parts manufactured across the Pacific come through Southern California. Same with electronics from China, Thailand or Indonesia. If you’ve bought anything from Walmart, Amazon, JCPenney, or any other store at the mall, there’s a good chance it started its trip across the U.S. with the port truckers around Los Angeles.
The trucking companies’ employment model comes straight from the “company store” days of earlier this century:
Port trucking companies in southern California have spent the past decade forcing drivers to finance their own trucks by taking on debt they could not afford. Companies then used that debt as leverage to extract forced labor and trap drivers in jobs that left them destitute.
If a driver quits, the company seized his truck and kept everything he had paid towards owning it.
If drivers missed payments, or if they got sick or became too exhausted to go on, their companies fired them and kept everything. Then they turned around and leased the trucks to someone else.
Drivers who manage to hang on to their jobs sometimes end up owing money to their employers – essentially working for free.
They are classified as independent contractors, which means they don’t get benefits (like health care ), get charged for equipment and end up not even earning minimum wage or overtime. Although the courts have frequently ruled against their designation as independent contractors, the practice continues.
And it’s not just mistreatment of the drivers; their treatment also generates safety hazards — for the truckers and for the public:
Drivers at many companies say they had no choice but to break federal safety laws that limit truckers to 11 hours on the road each day. Drivers at Pacific 9 Transportation testified that their managers dispatched truckers up to 20 hours a day, then wouldn’t pay them until drivers falsified inspection reports that track hours. Hundreds of California port truckers have gotten into accidents, leading to more than 20 fatalities from 2013 to 2015, according to the USA TODAY Network’s analysis of federal crash and port trade data.
And, of course what we’re also seeing here is a manifestation of the “Fissured Workplace,” a phenomenon that former Obama Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil has written about, where companies at the top contract out major downstream parts of the business. (For more information, get a copy of The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It.)
In this case, we’re talking about truckers who haul goods from the Port of Los Angeles to the warehouses. But the retailers — the Wal-Marts, Amazons and Targets — take no responsibility for the treatment of the truckers:
California’s port truckers make it possible for the Wal-Marts and Amazons of the world to function. Even so, most of the two dozen retail companies contacted by the USA TODAY Network declined to comment, some saying they had never heard of the rash of labor violations at their primary ports of entry.
Only Goodyear said it took immediate action. Spokesperson Keith Price said in a statement that the tire giant dropped Pacific 9 in 2015, “within two weeks” of California labor commission decisions in favor of dozens of drivers.
The few others that issued statements said it was not their responsibility to police the shipping industry. Retailers don’t directly hire the truckers who move their goods at the pier. They generally hire large shipping or logistics firms that line up trucking companies through a maze of subcontractors.
It hasn’t always been this way. Before 2008, the short haul drivers owned their own trucks, usually dilapidated rigs on their last legs that were unable to do long-haul trucking. When the state of California acted to control the heavy pollution caused by the deadly diesel fumes from 16,000 outdated trucks, the shipping companies, instead of absorbing the cost for newer trucks, came up with the new system that pushed the cost onto individual drivers: Lease trucks to the workers, and pay them by the number and kinds of containers they move, not by the hour. Then 5-year lease-to-own contracts were forced on the workers, but they could be fired at any time for any reason — and lose all the money they had invested into the lease.
Some of the companies, like Target, are closely monitoring for abuse of workers in overseas factories that produce their goods, but when it comes to abuse of truckers at home, Target has ignored legal rulings against treatment of the drivers and “continued to allow companies found to have violated workers’ rights to move its goods.”
What the article does not discuss in depth is the Teamsters campaign, “Justice for Port Drivers,” to organize the drivers and stop the practice of designating the drivers as independent contractors.
California’s is continuing to tighten environmental standards, with the mayors of Long Beach and Los Angeles unveiling plans to transition to zero-emission trucks by 2035. The drivers, however, fear that the environmental improvements are coming at the expense of the drivers:
Truckers say they want clean air — but not at their expense.
“We are all for zero emissions, but if you are going to go do that you have to find a way so that workers don’t pay for it,” said Eric Tate, secretary-treasurer for Teamsters union Local 848.
Last week, the local announced about 100 truck drivers will go on strike this week. They’re protesting several companies — including California Cartage and XPO Logistics — that use contract workers rather than employ them as full-time, hourly workers.
The business model is common at the ports.
But Tate argues the arrangement unfairly burdens truckers, who often wind up renting or leasing trucks from the companies.
Those lease payments could climb if ambitious environmental standards are imposed on truckers by the ports.
Last week, the Teamsters announced that 100 truck drivers will go on strike this week to protest several companies — including California Cartage and XPO Logistics — that use contract workers rather than employ the drivers as full-time, hourly workers.
Last week’s announcement marked the effort’s 15th strike in the past four years. And since 2011, port truck drivers have filed at least 875 claims with the state Department of Labor Standards Enforcement, according to the union.
In 376 cases, drivers were found to be employees and owed about $40 million in stolen wages and penalties. More than 100 other cases are still pending, while hundreds more appear to be settled out of court or dealt with by a private arbitrator.
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti is supposedly committed “to making sure that our truckers are not burdened unfairly with the costs of meeting these goals,” but no one seems to be quite sure what the plan is to make that happen.
Or as some great writer might have written, the arc of justice bends on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.