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Truckers Growing Impatient for Work

Labor: Some already have broken ranks with the start-up firm that promised them jobs. Others say they'll wait a while longer.

May 10, 1996|TOM GORMAN and JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

FONTANA — More than 2,000 dust-caked trucks sit idled on a gravel lot here, keys in their ignitions but their batteries dying, testimony to one man's gambit to revolutionize business at the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors 50 miles away.

The owners of these trucks hope to find work at the Transport Maritime Assn., a Cerritos start-up company founded by a former insurance agent, Donald L. Allen. They are looking to him to provide the real muscle in their rebellion against the harbor's trucking companies because of low pay.

Allen's offer to the struggling independent drivers--to buy or lease their trucks, put them on salaries as his employees and leverage them back into the daily grind of harbor trucking--sounded so good that more than 2,000 truckers have parked their rigs out here, ready to rev up at Allen's word.

But these truck drivers are in their second week of waiting for deliverance. Even as they try to keep a stiff upper lip, their desperation is showing.

Truck traffic and the flow of freight at the ports appeared to have returned to at least 90% of their normal levels Thursday. Some drivers have peeled off and returned to work as independent contractors.

And the thousands who have not are saying they won't--can't--go without work forever.

"I can wait one more week," said Rufino Garcia of Long Beach, who parked his rig at Allen's lot April 29 so it could be appraised and Garcia could sign his employment papers. "He told us he would buy our trucks."

But Garcia said there has been no progress, and the wait is taking its toll. "Others--maybe a couple hundred--have left. They're frustrated," he said.

The renegades lacked the passion to fight the good fight, Garcia said. "They didn't wait long enough," he said. "If you want something, you have to be willing to fight for it."

Allen insists they still can, although he admits the road to success may be different from the one he started on. His Cerritos-based company was supposed to be a labor-leasing firm that would act similarly to a rental company, with customers paying $69 an hour to lease a truck and a driver to move a cargo container. But the harbor's 200-plus trucking companies--the firms that pay independent drivers by the delivery to move containers for such customers as J.C. Penney Co. or Wal-Mart--refused to lease Allen's employees.

Allen, who claims to have $125 million in financial backing but has shown no public proof, now says he may toss out his original plan and simply operate as another truck firm, competing with about 200 other companies. He said he sympathizes with the drivers who have broken ranks.

"Some guys have to go back to work because they have families to feed," Allen said. "You don't want to see anybody starve to death."

Officials at the union where Allen's employees have signed on as members, Local 9400 of the Communications Workers of America, acknowledge that a portion of the drivers have abandoned the company, but say the movement is not disintegrating.

Laura Reynolds, director of the union, estimated that 5% to 10% of the supporters had returned to work, but said that is typical for job actions. "It's just the natural cycle of the picketer," she said. "Any time anybody goes out on strike, they have to deal with that." But not all the drivers are so confident.

At Harbor Division Inc., owner Gary Satterlee said 14 of the 35 independent drivers he used to contract with joined the new firm, but that more than half have broken off and asked him for work.

"Eight of them begged to come back," Satterlee said. "We didn't hire them because they burned their bridges when they left." Since the job action began last week, Satterlee said he has paid drivers about $14 more per container for "hazard pay" and to compensate for recent diesel fuel cost increases. Back in Fontana, Oscar Navarro of Whittier showed a card he was given--with the telephone number of Transport Maritime Assn.'s dispatch office, and a personal ID number. When he has called it to see if he has any work, the line is either busy or goes unanswered, he said.

"Everybody is frustrated because there is no money yet," Navarro said. "We came here in good faith, but there is nothing concrete yet. We were promised money, but have not seen it yet."

Scores of truck owners have removed their rigs, citing concern over the lack of security at the lot and saying they want their trucks closer to home where they can keep an eye on them. But some drivers wonder if those colleagues moving their rigs are in fact quietly breaking ranks and going back to the harbor as independent drivers.

"They say they are worried about the security here, but you don't know if that's really the reason they're leaving," said Heber Bercian of Downey, who bides his time at the lot, talking shop with other idled truckers.

They express bitterness that the harbor trucking companies are now paying independent drivers--from Northern California, Arizona and elsewhere--double the rates that prompted the work slowdown.

"I bet that when this is over, they will be paying us even less than before, because they'll know by then they'll have all the drivers by the tail," said Garcia.

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