High-Tech Transportation Workers


 

Sabrina Giles went to work seven years ago, keeping track of huge shipping containers
moving in and out of the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) yard in Point
Richmond, California. Over the years, she trained one worker after another in the
difficult art of tracking the million-dollar cargoes shipped by giant
corporations–C&H Sugar, United Parcel Service, even the U.S. Post Office.

But while others moved up to better jobs and higher pay, she stayed in one place,
watching her wages inch slowly from $8 to $9.50 an hour. The people she saw moving ahead
were mostly white, she says, usually friends or relatives of supervisors. To Giles, an
African American woman, "this yard was full of favoritism, racism, and sexism."

Lorena Sagastume, also employed for over seven years at the facility, started out in
the company office. "But then they told me that I had to go work outside in the yard,
that they didn’t want me talking to their customers because I spoke with an accent,"
she says.

Last fall, complaints like these led the yard’s workers to organize a union. And for
the first time since the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, the Bay Area’s longshore
union agreed to expand its ranks to welcome a new bargaining unit of people who don’t work
on the docks. "We’re trying to adjust to the new reality that if unions don’t
organize, we won’t survive," says Larry Thibeaux, past president of Longshore Local
10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

But instead of winning better conditions, today most of the Pt. Richmond facility’s 101
workers are sitting at home. They’ve come up against what seems to be a new unwritten
law–companies running the newest side of the shipping business are determined to do so
"union-free."

Railroads and shipping companies have only built terminals like the one in Pt. Richmond
in the last 15 years. Called intermodal yards, they’re the high-tech heart of the
transportation industry, and are located near the docks, where huge cranes load and unload
shipping containers from giant freighters. From the ship, containers are trucked to the
yards, where they’re put on trains moving out across the country.

Although dockworkers are organized, as are crews on the trains, unions are scarce in
vast hubs in between. These days, that’s where the jobs are. Although the Pt. Richmond
workers load and unload shipping containers from Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains, in a
yard owned by the company, they don’t actually work for the railroad. Instead, the BNSF
yard was operated by a contractor, Pacific Rail Services (PRS), which runs 29 other
terminals under similar arrangements.

When Giles, Sagastume, and their coworkers filed a petition for a union election,
Pacific Rail began saying the railroad would cancel its contract if the union won. Robert
Kirchgessner, area manager for PRS, wrote workers a memo on August 28, in which he said
that "a new contractor doesn’t have to hire any of the previous employees." He
then went on to cite recent examples of intermodal yards where hundreds of union workers
lost their jobs when the railroads brought in non-union contractors.

Ken Rader, a young white supervisor, recalls that Kirchgessner called him into his
office a week before the September 26 election. "He told me that if the union won, I
wouldn’t have a job," he says. "Bob told me he wanted me to convince people not
to vote for the union." PRS representatives refused to be interviewed.

A day before the election, Sagastume was fired. "They said my attendance was bad,
but it was no worse than many, and better than some," she says. "I think the
company used me to send a message." Anthony Gonzalez says that the mechanics who
repaired company equipment were told they would be deported if they supported the union.

Nevertheless, workers voted for the union, 47 to 30.

Afterwards, the company agreed to begin negotiations, and by January had settled a new
contract with Local 10. The union and the yard’s 101 workers thought their bitter
experiences were safely behind them. In fact, the worst was yet to come.

When Pacific Rail went to the railroad with the union agreement in hand, asking for
more money to pay wage increases, BNSF dumped them, and on March 10, the yard’s 101
workers were terminated permanently. PRS had lost the contract to run the yard. BNSF
spokesperson Jim Saborin called it "very much an economic decision. Their bid was way
out of line with the market, and what we’re paying at other facilities. Our concern is
operating the facilities at an economic rate–the best service at the best rate."

To replace PRS, BNSF brought in another company, Parsec, which operates 50 terminals
nationwide. Saborin says that Parsec was the second lowest bidder for the Pt. Richmond
contract.

Parsec then informed workers they could apply for their old jobs again, but as new
employees. Only 26 people were allowed to return. "They handpicked the docile
ones," Giles says. "I was replaced by a white woman who had only worked there a
year." Rader says he was offered a job too, but as a regular worker at $8.00/hour,
not his old $12.00/hour supervisor slot. According to Thibeaux, tractor driver wages have
been lowered from $14.40 to $8.50.

Parsec, a $91 million operation, has a long history of battling militant unions like
the Teamsters. When it took over BNSF’s intermodal yard in Los Angeles, the world’s
largest, in 1995, the company fired all the yard’s 400 workers, who were all Teamster
members. Parsec spent $2.5 million hiring, training, and paying the travel and living
expenses of a whole new workforce.

Last year, BNSF gave Parsec the contract to operate its Seattle terminal, with no
bidding. Parsec again dumped the yard’s Teamster workers, and hired new employees at $8.50
an hour.

Parsec doesn’t fight all unions, however. In fact, it has a union of its own.

Bruce Jackson, a fired worker still in contact with some of those who were rehired,
says they were given a letter from Parsec president Otto M. Buddig, Jr., which required
them to join Local 707 of the Truck Drivers, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers Union.
That union is not affiliated to the AFL-CIO, and other unions call it a company union. The
letter is dated February 6, 1996. Parsec would not confirm whether the letter is routinely
handed out to all new employees, or at which facilities.

If Local 707 has a union agreement with Parsec which allows the company to pay wages of
$8.00 or $8.50/hour, it would clearly give the company an economic advantage over its
competitors. Such an agreement would also protect Parsec from the efforts of its
intermodal workers to organize with other unions to raise wages, while providing
substantial dues income to Local 707.

Buddig’s letter explains to workers that "we are responsible for collecting–on
the Union’s behalf–an initiation fee of $100 and dues of $26 per month." He then
explains to employees that "it is our policy to ‘loan’ the initiation fee to
you," and offers to deduct payments of $25/week until the loan is repaid.

Parsec is not the only contractor which eliminates militant unions from BNSF yards. The
railroad recently hired another contractor, In Terminal Services, to take over its
Birmingham yard, firing workers who had joined the Transportation Communications Union.
Saborin denies that BNSF is an anti-union company, and says that 60 percent of the
workforce in its intermodal yards belongs to unions. He couldn’t say, however, how much of
that 60 percent is represented by Local 707.

According to industry observers, all the railroad companies make a practice of
switching contractors in their intermodal yards to encourage bidding wars. Ray Famolathe,
who helped organize a union among workers at Southern Pacific’s huge Intermodal Container
Freight Systems yard in Los Angeles, lost his job when the railroad ended its contract
with In Terminal Services. Many ICTF workers then went to work for the same contractor in
the BNSF yard, under a Teamsters contract. When BNSF gave the contract to Parsec, they
lost their jobs again.

"There are hardly any union rail yards anymore," Famolathe says. "The
railroads change the contractors who run their yards every five to seven years as a matter
of course. This keeps them bidding against each other, and knocks the price down. When a
union gets eliminated in the process, it can’t strike because its members are employed by
the contractor, not the railroad."

ILWU organizing director Peter Olney notes that "if the railroad was the formal
employer of intermodal workers, they would fall under the Railway Labor Act, and become
part of a national bargaining unit, and probably members of the railroad unions. By
contracting out the work, the railroads keep this from happening. And by switching
contracts, they keep other unions from organizing them as well."

While a growing number of unions, like those for janitors and hospital workers, are
familiar with the kind of scorched-earth tactics which rocked the Point Richmond union
drive, Local 10 is just having its eyes opened, Thibeaux says. The union has taken the
first steps to get community support, going to the Richmond City Council and local
churches. "But our members really don’t understand how these people here lost their
jobs," he explains. It hasn’t been part of the longshore experience for decades.

"We have to learn from these problems, and support the workers here who have
risked their jobs for our union," he concludes. That learning process may have to be
quick. Next March or April, BNSF is opening a new, larger yard in the Port of Oakland. It
too may be operated by a contractor. If events follow the present pattern, any effort by
the workers there to join a union may become as much a war as the one underway in Pt.
Richmond.

"The union has to accept the challenge of organizing the intermodal yards,"
Olney says, "regardless of who the formal employer is. And to do that, we have to
take on the railroads–they’re the real power."