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Cargo Cowboys : Truckers' Roads From Harbor to Rail Yards Aren't All Lined With Gold

July 28, 1985|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

An hour after sunrise, Gonzales Sanchez brings his rig to a halt near Tuna Street on Terminal Island, jumping out of the cab as other truckers quickly line up behind him. Another long, frustrating day has begun.

"I go from one big line to another," the 37-year-old Sanchez says as the row of trucks grows by several hundred yards within minutes. "There are big lines here, and there are big lines downtown at the rail yards. I spend a lot of time doing nothing but waiting."

Sanchez, an independent owner-operator who started driving two months ago when he was laid off at a furniture factory, is one of hundreds of drivers who travel in and out of Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors ever day, hauling containers filled with everything from televisions to teapots.

Drivers More Numerous

As the amount of container cargo moving through the ports has increased, and since deregulation of the trucking industry, the diesel drivers have grown in number, becoming a part of the landscape in harbor communities as their rigs sit idle on city streets waiting for a turn at a cargo terminal.

They are visible elsewhere. Motorists on the Harbor and Long Beach freeways sometimes feel the truckers, in their haste to reach destinations, breathing down their tailpipes. California Highway Patrol officers fume helplessly when a trucker barrels past a roadside weight scale.

But in recent months the truckers, called cowboys because of their free-wheeling spirit, have drawn attention for other reasons.

Last February, the truckers staged a one-day work stoppage at the two ports. A convoy of more than 300 drivers converged on the downtown area near the rail yards, blaring horns and exchanging thumbs-up signs in a peaceful demonstration. Their complaints: long delays at the cargo terminals and stingy rates paid by port businesses.

At the same time, the Teamsters Union, for the second time in three years, is attempting to organize the owner-operators. The union, which says more than 900 truckers have filled out membership applications, claimed a victory in June when it announced that an agreement had been signed with 11 companies that use about 450 independent and company-affiliated drivers.

The contract calls for the drivers to receive $102.50 for a round trip between the ports and the rail yards if they haul a full load each way--about a 25% boost over prevailing rates. The agreement also calls for the truckers to be reimbursed $25 an hour after the second hour they are forced to wait in line to be loaded.

Truckers and industry officials are hard-pressed to estimate the number of independent truckers who operate out of the ports. Monte Ogden, executive director of Teamsters Local 692, which has spearheaded the drive to organize the drivers under its owner-operator division, estimates that there are about 1,500 such truckers, but says others place the number closer to 2,500.

Whatever the figure, Ogden and others say the independents have mushroomed in number as the amount of container cargo flowing through San Pedro Bay has continued to rise in recent years--officials at both ports say the amount increased more than 20% in 1984 over the previous year--and the trucking industry has gone through the throes of deregulation.

'Marketplace Economics

"What you are seeing are pure marketplace economics," says Joel Anderson, an economic development specialist with the California Trucking Assn., a trade organization.

Before the federal government deregulated the industry in 1980, industry officials say, the rates paid for transporting cargo to the rail yards and other inland areas were set by carriers and subject to Interstate Commerce Commission approval, making it easier for unionized trucking companies in the harbor area to compete with non-union carriers and owner-operators.

Since then, union companies have found it tough to compete as rates have either fluctuated or dropped as competition has grown. Many have fallen on hard times; others have shut down. California Cartage Co. halted its trucking operations in April after operating in the harbor for 40 years.

"Since 1980, it has all turned to the owner-operator structure," said Gordon Kirby, director of industrial relations for the trucking association. "I think you would find one unionized carrier out of 50 down there now."

The truckers are lured by the prospect of earning more as independents than they would if they worked for a company for wages. With a lot of hustle and long hours, they explain, an owner-operator can sometimes make three or four hauls a day from the ports to the rail yards or other inland destinations.

For example, Robert Cooper, a 28-year-old owner-operator, says he has been hauling out of the ports for five years, and earns $88 per round trip for hauling containers between the ports and a warehouse in the City of Commerce. He says he makes $1,200 a week.

High Operating Costs

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