LONG BEACH — Johnny Fugate says he used to make decent money in the mid-1970s, hauling shipping containers from the ports to customers in Los Angeles.
Fugate, the owner/operator of a tractor truck, says he used to make four or five trips a day--earning about $145 per trip. Diesel fuel prices and insurance prices were low. There were a lot of containers and not as many truckers to haul them.
Now that fuel and insurance costs have soared, and competition has increased, Fugate says his income per trip has fallen to about $90.
But Fugate says he and other truckers are even more frustrated because they have to wait hours to pick up their cargo at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Truckers sometimes are limited to one trip a day because of the delays, he added.
Many truckers have parked their rigs and set up picket lines at the ports to protest the delays at some container terminals. They are demanding to be paid for the time they wait in line.
"You can't cover your costs," Fugate grumbled as he stood with picket sign in hand outside the Long Beach Container Terminal. "It's been coming to a head for the last three years," he said.
Fugate is a member of the Waterfront/Rail Truckers Union, which went on strike July 19 in an effort to force the trucking companies and the container-terminal owners to the bargaining table. The trucking companies hire the truckers to haul containers.
Jerry Bakke, president of the 1,200-member union, described the delays as the chief issue of the strike. Truckers routinely have to wait four to eight hours at some terminals, he said.
The delays have been a longstanding irritant, but have become increasingly acute this summer, which is customarily one of the busiest times of the year in the shipping-container industry, Bakke said.
The Federal Maritime Commission, which has jurisdiction over container terminals, recently rejected the union's request to be paid for waiting time.
The Long Beach Container Terminal has been one of the strikers' chief targets. Art Merrick, general manager, said an overdue ship and problems in scheduling longshoremen in past weeks contributed to the jam at the Long Beach yard.
Some container-terminal operators acknowledge that the strike has hurt. Andreas Hoebich, who operates the Evergreen Marine Corp. Terminal, said the strike cut truck traffic by 20% to 30% last week, although some truckers were returning this week.
"We are seeing more and more truckers coming back," said Hoebich, who works for Metropolitan Stevedore Co., which operates the terminal for Evergreen. He said the yard has contingency plans in case the yard runs out of space for containers.
Bakke said the National Labor Relations Board is scheduled today to hear a complaint by California United Terminal that the strike is illegal because the truckers have no contract with the terminal.
Employees in Effect
The union contends that even though the truckers are technically independent contractors, they are, in effect, de facto employees of the trucking companies and terminals. They depend on the terminals and follow their orders as if they were employees.
A Long Beach Superior Court judge last Thursday restrained picketers from engaging in violent acts outside the Long Beach Container Terminal. Judge Robert Parkin also has limited the numbers of pickets at Long Beach as well as at terminals of American President Lines, Evergreen Marine Corp. and California United.
Bakke termed the strike a success. With the limitations on pickets at the terminals, he said his union has expanded the picketing to include about 15 trucking companies.
But the union has failed to achieve its primary objective--forcing trucking companies to sign contracts with the union or forcing the trucking companies to join the union at the bargaining table to negotiate with the terminals to cut waiting times or pay truckers for waiting.
Bakke said trucking companies are hesitant about the union demand that a representative of the longshoremen's union be allowed to sit as an observer at the talks.
Although the union claimed widespread support for its strike, not all truckers were participating.
Marty Rosewitz, waiting in the cab of his truck at the gate of the picket-free Inter national Transportation Service Terminal in Long Beach, said he agreed with the union's objectives, but balked at joining.
"If you join the union and the (trucking) companies find out, they'll throw you out," he said. Also, he said some truckers are hesitant about having to pay union dues.
He said regulations are needed to boost rates, and terminals need to set up better systems to unload and load containers to cut waiting times.
Truckers may sympathize with picketers, but "a lot of guys can't afford to shut down," said Russ Clevenger, another trucker at the ITS Terminal. Some have to keep working to make payments of $350 or $400 a month on their trucks, he said.