Truck Drivers Clinch New Power with First Union Contract at L.A. Ports

They did it again, and this time it paid off in a huge way. L.A’s Toll Group drivers, who made national and international headlines in April by overwhelmingly voting to become Teamsters, cemented their place in history by ratifying the first union contract in the drayage industry in 30 years. And boy is the contract a good one! The agreement is highly regarded as a standard-setting first union contract, and viewed as a huge win for any union and a definite game-changer for U.S. port drivers.

The drivers who haul apparel and merchandise shipped to our shores for America’s brand name stores will kick start 2013 with a contractual raise of more than $6 per hour along with paid overtimesick leave and holidays, a far more affordable health care plan with zero change in coverage, guaranteed shift hours and other provisions to provide job security – plus a pension plan.

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

The landmark agreement culminates more than 24 months of worker struggle and employer resistance in which these truckers – aided by a community coalition, their children, and clergy – borrowed bullhorns, leafleted consumers, gathered signatures practiced their picket lines, staged noisy protests, crashed shareholder meetings in a dogged campaign to end the Third World-like working conditions they once routinely endured.

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 fast food or retail workers though they clock an average of 59 hours a week. They must 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.

With American wages in freefall due to the imbalance of power enjoyed by multinational corporations, the scope and significance of such a labor accord with a transportation titan that operates in some 55 countries is alone a jaw dropper. What observers further find remarkable: The 65 workers who secured these middle-class benefits with their $8 billion employer are blue-collar Latino-Americans who hold jobs within a deregulated, virtually union-free industry at the ports.

“It upends the common wisdom that a workforce that lacks rights on the job cannot build the courage or bargaining strength to take on the Goliaths of the global economy. But these drivers, like the workers at the warehouses and Walmart and Wendy’s, understand they 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 of an international overseas union. 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, plus any overtime will 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. To be treated with dignity. A fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work. Decent, sanitary facilities to make a pit stop, rest, eat…you know, perform our jobs safely.

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

Elected leaders praised the union contract as both a middle-class builder and noted its high-road business merits.

“We’re talking about the men and women who are the backbone of our regional and national economy, yet they have never shared in the prosperity of the corporations they make so profitable,” said Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino, whose district includes the largest port in America. “The standards that Toll Group, its workers, and Teamsters Local 848 have set make it possible to reward and attract responsible port businesses that want to compete on a more level playing field based on innovation and quality, rather than who can pay Los Angeles’ vital workers the least.”

Contract Highlights:

Fair wages –The day shift hourly rate increased from $12.72 to $19, and the night shift hourly rate from $13.22 to $19.75. In addition to the over $6/hour increase in hourly pay rates, drivers won $0.50/hour per year raises over the life of the contract, giving Toll port drivers over a 60% hourly wage boost over the life of the 3-year contract. Overtime pay of time-and-half kicks in after a typical full time 40-hour week, which is extremely rare in an industry where truckers are exempt from federal overtime laws and an average week hovers around 60 hours.

Secure retirement –Prior to the contract, less than a dozen Toll drivers could spare any extra dollars, even pre-tax, to participate in the corporate 401(k) plan. As Teamster Local 848 members, they have been automatically enrolled in the union’s Western Conference Pension Trust. Such a retirement plan at the port has rarely been seen since trucking was deregulated in 1980. Toll will make a pension contribution of $1/hour per driver until 2014, and a $1.50/hour per driver by 2015.

Affordable health care – The Toll Group health care plan was financially out of reach for most of its truck drivers. The few who managed to meet the premium, deductibles and copayments will now keep significant more money in their pocket without sacrificing coverage, and the rest of their co-workers finally have access to quality, affordable health insurance coverage, including dental and vision care.  The company will pay 95% of the premium for individuals and 90% for family coverage. Drivers who previously had to shell out $125/month for individual or $400/month per family will drop to roughly $30 or $150, respectively.

Stable work hours and paid time off – Most truck drivers lose a day’s pay if they cannot work, are penalized by dispatchers for being unable to haul a load, and lack paid sick or holiday leave, making it stressful for family budgets and planning. But Toll drivers made substantial gains in all these areas. They will receive seven paid holidays, three paid personal days, and six paid sick days annually. They will accrue one or two weeks of vacation within the first two years of service, with longtime employees earning up to a month. They can also bank on guaranteed full- or half-day of pay regardless of seasonal slowdowns if they are scheduled to work.

Incentives to grow responsibly, level competition, and raise market standards – The agreement establishes a high-road business model for the port trucking industry that recognizes Toll’s competitors have not yet embraced livable wages and working conditions. To encourage a more level playing field and wide-scale unionization, drivers will have the ability to re-negotiate for improvements when a simple majority of the Southern California market is organized.

“We commend the drivers at Toll for their leadership in challenging the status quo at the ports. Workers everywhere are standing up and saying enough to poverty wages and Toll drivers have demonstrated that working families are ready to bring middle-class wages back to America,” said Teamster General President Jim Hoffa.

“For too long companies in the global supply chain have gamed the system by undercutting U.S. businesses that actually create good jobs. Toll Group and its drivers have raised the bar for responsible competition, and the Teamsters will not stop until the rest of the nation’s port drivers have a shot at the American Dream.”

Drivers from coast to coast in the virtually non-union and deregulated sector are eyeing the pact as a huge leap forward for the profession with the potential to trigger sweeping changes in the industry. Click here to see an infographic on how the L.A. Toll Teamsters stack up against the rest of the industry.

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