BREAKING: Truckers who haul for Wal-Mart and Forever 21 plan surprise strikes today

Exclusive: Hundreds of workers will defy vengeful companies and laws that deny they're even employees

Published November 18, 2013 12:45PM (EST)

                                      (Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

In labor’s latest challenge to a low-wage economy and a legal system that excludes huge swathes of the workforce, hundreds of non-union Port of Los Angeles truck drivers plan to stage surprise strikes against three companies Monday. The workers transport goods from the port to companies including Costco, Forever 21, Sketchers and Wal-Mart. They allege their companies -- Green Fleet Systems, American Logistics International, and Pac 9 -- illegally punished workers for organizing and exposing wrongdoing. While drivers striking at GFS and ALI (starting at 5 a.m. PST and 4 p.m. PST respectively) are legally employed by those logistics companies, the workers at the third company, Pac 9, are among the growing ranks of so-called “independent contractors” who legally aren’t employed by anyone at all. They plan to walk (or drive) off the job at 5 p.m. PST Monday.

“I’m demanding what a worker deserves,” Pac 9 driver Jose Galindo told Salon in Spanish in a pre-strike interview. Wal-Mart, Sketchers, Costco, Forever 21, GFS, ALI and Pac 9 did not provide comment on the workers' allegations in response to Friday inquiries (Pac 9 referred Salon to a communications firm, which did not respond to a Friday request for comment).

The port truckers, backed by the Teamsters union, are the latest to take up tactics that have characterized a wave of low-wage, non-union strikes since 2012. Like strikes targeting the Wal-Mart supply chain and the fast food industry (also significantly supported by affiliates of the same union federation, Change to Win), the truckers are mounting one-day strikes rather than indefinite ones, and framing their protests as a response to illegal retaliation – two tactics with some potential to maximize public scrutiny on bosses while reducing the ever-present risk that the striking workers lose their jobs. And like fast food workers or Wal-Mart warehouse staff, the Pac 9 truckers are facing down a “Who’s the Boss” problem: Subject to the will of one corporation (McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Pac 9), but legally employed by someone else: a fast food franchisee, a warehouse company or, in the case of Monday night’s strikers, putatively self-employed.

While “working for yourself” sometimes gets touted as a twenty-first century American Dream, many port truckers allege they get all the hassles and limitations of employment, but few of the otherwise-promised protections. “Like employees, they tell us where to go – we can’t negotiate on many things,” said Galindo. But “we pay for gas, tires, maintenance” out of pocket, “even though the truck is not ours.” Lacking minimum-wage protection, he added, “Sometimes I can be stuck at the ports for three or four hours” waiting in line, “and the company doesn’t pay us for the time.” Galindo told Salon that after he ripped a shoulder tendon while working on the landing gears of his truck, his disability payments were cut off early because the company told the government he was a contractor.

“We’re seeing all sorts of businesses designing new structures of work,” Rebecca Smith, the deputy director of the pro-union National Employment Law Project, told Salon Friday. “And many of these structures – and independent contractor misclassification is prime among them – separate workers from their labor rights, from their basic workplace benefits that are guaranteed.” That trend “really is turning the workplace into a place where people can’t support their families,” said Smith, and “transforming us into a nation of low-wage workers.”

“Misclassification” is a term for the crime of treating someone who works for you as an independent contractor when by law they should be an employee. “Independent contractors” are excluded from many protections for “employees” under both employment law (like minimum wage and overtime) and labor law (the right to unionize and collectively bargain). Denied such rights, supposed “independent contractors” from taxi drivers to fashion models have recently taken up a range of tactics to try to transform their industries – from lobbying, to consumer pressure, to strikes.

Smith called misclassification “a ruse that’s used in low-wage work from agriculture to home health to janitorial to construction, and that’s used in mid-wage jobs like IT,” and charged that port trucking companies “are making millions of dollars every year” off the crime. The Teamsters charge that four-fifths of the workers in the industry are misclassified; in July, a federal Labor Department spokesperson told me the government lacked the data to measure the specific extent of the issue in port trucking, but that the “numbers suggest that misclassification occurs in significant numbers and, across the country, workers are finding themselves without the basic protections that Congress has enacted to ensure they receive fair pay, safe workplaces, and necessary supports when they are hurt or lose their jobs.”

As I’ve reported, the past two years have seen a series of challenges to the port trucking status quo, many of them backed by the Teamsters and Change to Win. In 2011, when Occupy activists urged West Coast port shutdowns, a group of drivers wrote an open letter highlighting the role of companies including Goldman Sachs in their industry, and urging attention to their conditions. “There are no restrooms for drivers,” they wrote. “We keep empty bottles in our cabs. Plastic bags too. We feel like dogs.” Later that year, port truckers classified as independent contractors staged a rare strike in Washington state, seriously slowing down the port by refusing to drive cargo and instead mobilizing at the state capitol in an unsuccessful effort to get a new law cracking down on misclassification passed.

At the same time, port truckers for the Australia-based Toll Group, part of the minority of the industry actually recognized as employees, were mounting a hard-fought struggle to join the Teamsters union, during which key union activists were fired. With pressure from an Australian union and leaflets targeting a Toll client, they won a union election in April 2012 and a union contract nine months later. (A series of contemporaneous Toll scandals in Australia, including one in which the company blamed an outside contractor for the fact Toll executives wore penis-emblazoned aprons at a work function, may have slightly sapped Toll’s hunger for a prolonged public war with the Teamsters.)

This year, groups of drivers unionized in New Jersey, held a forum with a Labor Department representative in Georgia and filed “wage theft” claims in California they say could mean a combined $100 million liability. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a Teamster-backed bill designed to crack down on misclassification; Governor Andrew Cuomo hasn’t indicated whether he’ll sign or veto one passed by the New York legislature. Separately, a group of port truckers in Oakland went on strike last month, and Wednesday circled City Hall seeking more time and money for a required truck upgrade.

Galindo told Salon he hoped Monday’s strike would win him and his co-workers a change in status. “If we were classified as employees,” he said, “we'd gain protections under the law that would help improve our lives.”

By Josh Eidelson

MORE FROM Josh Eidelson