America’s Ports: The Place Where Old Trucks Go To Die

Aynalem Moba doesn’t want to kill anyone. He doesn’t want to injure anyone. He certainly doesn’t want to poison anyone. No, he is not a draftee in a horrible war he doesn’t believe in. He is an American truck driver who drives loads at the Port of Seattle.

“Every day, I haul two or three loads that are overweight, possibly putting myself and others at risk. The truck could tip over. I’m afraid I might kill myself or someone else. Sometimes we’re carrying hazardous materials, and we don’t know it.”— Aynalem Moba, a 14-year port veteran.

Port of Seattle with trucks waiting for containers

Aynalem Moba is not the only one speaking out.  

“The shipping and rail lines force us to use faulty equipment. One time I got a load that was 4-5,000 pounds overweight, and it was on a chassis that was insufficient for carrying heavy loads. The company told me to take it anyway. I was really nervous about it. All that extra weight puts a lot of wear and tear on the truck. It blew my wheel seal…It cost me $450. My truck is my livelihood. If it doesn’t work, I don’t work.” —Calvin Borders, a 13-year driver.

Maybe you're thinking that the truckers are exaggerating the dangers. The Washington State Police don’t think so. They pulled 32% of the Port of Seattle rigs off the road for safety violations in 2010. After setting up a special unit to monitor unsafe trucks, they took 58% of the rigs off the road in 2011. The state police chief testified at the state legislature about dangerous trucks along with drivers who also testified. 

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology don’t think the dangers are exaggerated either. They estimate that 70%-85% of the airborne carcinogens in the Seattle area come from diesel soot. Diesel soot is linked to lung cancer, leukemia, nasal and liver cancers. Many of the port trucks were constructed before 1997 and emit 10 times the amount of diesel emissions that modern trucks do.

The truck fleet at the Port of Seattle is ancient and road weary. Breakdowns are frequent, which explains why the port is called “The Place Where Old Trucks Go To Die”. And of course, dying trucks can result in dead people. There are other American ports where conditions are comparable.

Maybe you are asking yourself, “Aren’t there laws against this? Why doesn’t their union do something about it?” Well thanks to trucking deregulation, the decline of the once mighty teamsters union, and a clever scheme by the transportation bosses called “independent contracting”, it’s amazing what the port bosses and the companies they serve can get away with.

The trucking industry was deregulated in 1980 under the Carter administration with support by both liberals and conservatives. Deregulation (called the Federal Motor Carrier Act of 1980) promised a free market utopia of lower rates, more competition leading to innovation and a decent living for workers in the transportation industry. While deregulation did lower rates, it also led to monopolization by a few large firms, serious highway safety problems, increased pollution and  a drastic reduction in the living standards of American truckers.

In the 1960’s drivers covered by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters(IBT) Master Freight Agreement were the monarchs of the road. But the seemingly invincible union was rotting from within. It was dominated by organized crime, financially corrupt and governed by violent intimidation. Jimmy Hoffa Sr., its charismatic leader, went to prison in 1967 and was assassinated in 1975 after his release, even as the federal government continued an anti-corruption investigation that it had begun in the 1950’s.

A rank and file group called Teamsters for a Democratic Union arose demanding that the union kick out the mob and institute democratic reforms. Because of its efforts and federal intervention, the union is reasonably clean today; but thousands of union teamsters have lost their jobs because deregulation drove scores of companies into bankruptcy.  Non-union labor spread throughout the industry forcing wages down even for the remaining union drivers. Like most drivers these days, the port truckers are not members of the teamsters union.

Deregulation also allowed trucking companies to operate trucks without employees. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. The port drivers are considered independent contractors NOT employees. According to David Bensman of Rutgers University:

The quality of jobs for port truck drivers has decreased substantially since the Federal Motor Carrier Act was implemented in 1980. 

  • Drivers are on the job five days a week, from ten to twelve hours a day, earning an average annual income of $28,000 in 2008. 
  • As “independent contractors,” port truck drivers do not receive health care or any contributions to a retirement fund. 
  • Independent contractors are responsible for owning and maintaining their own trucks, which includes lease payments, fuel costs, tire repairs, truck maintenance, road licenses, taxes, insurance, tolls and traffic fines.” 

The legal fiction that port drivers are independent businesspeople means that shipping companies do not have to follow state and federal labor laws. They don’t have financial liability in case of accidents. All of the vehicle purchase and maintenance must be done by the drivers—people who average less than $30,000 a year, many of whom have families to support. Most are people of color, many of them immigrants, adding an ugly racial caste to the whole scam.


Port workers

Max Galvan,  a port driver in Southern California put its this way:

“What independence? They don’t let us haul for anyone else. They’ll fire you. Most companies make you sign a contract saying that you’ll only work for them. I went along with it because that’s just how things are done here at the ports…I’ve never negotiated the price of a single cargo load. Ever. It’s not something we port drivers can do. We don’t even know how much the retailer is paying for that load, so how can we negotiate? The company just tells us how much they are going to pay us, period."

 Trucking deregulation has made a mockery of the whole idea of a free market. To say with a straight face that an immigrant truck driver can negotiate on equal terms with a shipping giant like  Goldman Sachs’ SSA Marine is ludicrous. Workers who have spoken out against port injustices have been punished with job loss. What kind of freedom is that?

Despite what you may have heard from the Heritage Foundation, the Republican Party or your local Tea Party, a free market requires rules to protect the public interest. That’s why competitive sports have rules. Imagine the mass casualties on the field and in the stands if rules were suspended at an NFL football game and all the refs and security guards disappeared. Decades of trucking deregulation have left us with aging fleets, inefficient port communications, more deadly pollution, more dangerous highways and impoverished stressed-out truck drivers.

Also, economies are complex and while some areas of an economy can benefit from more competition and fewer rules, that’s not true of all sectors, especially the transport sector. A market is not free when the strongest, most ruthless and best financed bullies terrorize everyone else. Freedom is not anarchy.

 ML King button

 There are freedom fighters on the docks today, but you won’t find Republican presidential candidates  or Tea Party members in Revolutionary War costumes among them. Instead you will find people like Demeke “Yared” Meconnen, an Ethiopian immigrant who testified at the Washington State legislature about port abuses, was suspended for a week and then helped lead a walkout of port truckers that virtually shut down the Port of Seattle. Meconnen proudly wears a lapel button with the image of Dr. Martin Luther King and the message,”Into the Streets 2012”. 

 The port truckers may not have the global shipping companies on their side, but they have found friends among other port workers, community residents, environmental groups, Occupy activists, the teamsters union and liberal politicians.

Intermodel machine operator B.G. Lemmon, 26 year veteran at the Port of Seattle said this during a port shutdown:

“It’s beginning to seem like a ghost town because all last week I didn’t see a single truck come through from the major cargo haulers at the port. Seattle Freight, Pacer, Western Ports, none of them! This does mean less work for some of us, but me and the guys here get it. We all work at the same port, handle the same freight containers, and want the same things for our families. It’s not right that we have dignity while they are treated like dirt,”… “If I were forced to take safety shortcuts, I’d grab my coworkers and walk off the job too. They’re making a huge sacrifice. Maybe their companies don’t respect them, but all of us here at the railroad sure as hell do.”

Demeke “Yared” Meconnen speaks out 

Port drivers just ended a two week walkout at the Port of Seattle and will continue talks with the Port authorities. There is a bill before the state legislature that would make them into employees with actual labor rights and state health protections.

Hopefully port truckers will be able to finally organize themselves into a union and do what is necessary to reform the unacceptable conditions of their jobs. They need our help. There is a bill in Congress that would alleviate some of the worst abuses called The Clean Ports Act. That bill needs our support. But we also need to support the port drivers who are on the front lines of this struggle for justice.

Please take the Pledge to Support Good, Green Jobs and the Truck Drivers at America's Ports! You can sign the pledge HERE.

You can also donate money to help the drivers and their families though these difficult times HERE.

Since these drivers deliver most of the goods that come into the USA from around the planet, there is a good chance that you have stuff in your home that was hauled in one of their trucks. We owe them our thanks and heartfelt solidarity.

Sources Consulted:

The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports

Final Report: Puget Sound Air Toxics Evaluation by Puget Sound Clean Air Agency

Container trucks near Port of Seattle most dangerous in the state by Chris Ingalls, King5 News

Running on Empty: Trucking Deregulation & Economic Theory by Paul Stephen Dempsey, McGill University

Port Trucking Down the Low Road: A Sad Story of Deregulation by David Bensman, Rutgers University

 The Big Rig by Rebecca Smith, Dr. David Bensman and Paul Alexander Marvy

On the Waterfront: Labor, environmentalists fighting trucking deregulation  by Kristopher Hanson, Long Beach Press-Telegram

Employers’ new ruse: “Independent contractors”  by  Andrew Leonard

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