Port of Los Angeles (photo: Ric Francis, Associated Press)
Did Southern California port truck drivers strike a major blow last week for the beaten-down middle class—their labor unions busted, their jobs outsourced to Third World nations and their employee status downgraded to independent contractor (sans benefits and decent pay)?
But a state labor board decision that seven drivers are entitled to $2.2 million because they were improperly classified as contractors was the latest in a string of victories by workers locked in years-long disputes over their status. The California Labor Commissioner’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) ruled that Pacer Cartage Inc. “knew or should have known” that those drivers fit the definition of full-time employees and were covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The workers are short-haul drivers who move goods back and forth from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to warehouses. They used to be paid solid middle class wages but that is not the case anymore. One port driver, Daniel Linares, told James Rainey at the Los Angeles Times, “We are making peanuts over there. Some people working at McDonald's, they make more money than us.”
The Times reported last month that the DLSE has recently ruled in favor of 30 drivers against 11 different trucking firms over similar claims, costing the companies $3.6 million in back pay and penalties. In addition to low wages and no benefits, drivers complained that they were forced into burdensome truck lease agreements that saddled them with vehicle improvements mandated by the state for air quality control.
The DLSE is said to be working on wage complaints involving around 500 drivers at the ports. Their complaints are not dissimilar from those of millions of Americans whose jobs have been downgraded over the years to contractor status although the job itself did not change.
Labor groups say 49,000 port truck drivers are misclassified nationwide. They are an organizing target of unions, who see an opportunity to highlight a decades-long corporate strategy of pretending employees work for themselves. The workers get no health benefits, no overtime pay, no reimbursement for expenses, higher FICA taxes, less job security, no sick leave and lower wages.
Alex Cherin, executive director of Harbor Trucking Assn., told the Times the workers like it that way. He said all the ruckus was created by failed workers and the Teamsters, who hoped to organize the workers into a union. “Like any industry, you have contractors that are very successful and those who are not,” Cherin said.