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For Truckers, Long Haul Is a Costly One

Labor: Holdouts vow to continue harbor boycott, but find themselves struggling to survive.

May 30, 1996|JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jose A. Hernandez is a believer, but for how long he can't say. He took up his cause at the Los Angeles harbor, he says, because he was sick of being bilked and bullied by his employers. But he had no idea that the cause would cost him this much.

Hernandez, 31, was a truck driver who hauled freight from Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors until a few months ago. Rallying with thousands of other short-haul truckers, he has refused to work for the 200 trucking companies that service the waterfront, all in the name of higher wages and better treatment on the job.

Their boycott once had all the makings of a revolution in port operations. But one month after the work stoppage began, the majority of the truck drivers have returned to work, many because they found they could not survive without a regular paycheck. All that remains are holdouts like Hernandez.

In waging war on the trucking companies, he has lost his apartment, been kicked out of a homeless shelter, begged for rice and beans at a local church and alienated his wife, who is expecting their third child. But he says he will wash dishes in a restaurant or leave Southern California before he agrees to return to the ports without an increase in pay.

"You have to have some dignity some day," said Hernandez, a truck driver for four years.

Held captive by economic forces beyond their reach, the truck drivers who continue to stay off the job believe that they can win if they tighten their belts for just a few more months.

Hernandez, who came to America from El Salvador, worked as a janitor before enrolling in trucking school. Out of work for four months and saddled with debt, he volunteers at the union hall and plays his guitar to pass the time and entertain his comrades.

He and the other independent truckers, who own their vehicles and are paid a per-load rate, contend that they should also be paid for the time they spend waiting in line at cargo terminals. When the truck drivers began their boycott, many trucking companies raised their rates--in some cases to attract independent drivers to replace the old ones--but it is uncertain whether those new rates will stick.

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Even though they may work months or years for the same companies, the truckers are considered independent contractors. They have made several ill-fated bids to unionize since the trucking industry was deregulated in the early 1980s. Their current organizing drive, which began 19 months ago, has enlisted about 4,200 truckers--still not enough muscle to persuade trucking companies to pay the drivers by the hour or meet their other demands.

The truck drivers have turned to their union, the Communications Workers of America, for help. Every day, they line the halls of the two-story union office in Paramount to pick up canned beans, fruit and baby formula for their families and to apply for help in paying their bills. The union can afford to cover only those bills marked "final notice," one official said.

"These people are praying for milk," said Judy Perez, a union official who processes the families' requests for food. "They're very, very poor. They do not want welfare. They want a chance to work for a decent wage."

Jose Alfaro, 50, appeared at the union hall last week with $700 in electric, gas and rent bills in hand and picked up a packet of beans. He and his wife, Gladys, moved in with their son-in-law after they were unable to pay the rent on their Hawthorne home. He put most of his furniture and other belongings in a storage rental yard, but now finds himself unable to pay for that. And he says he owes thousands of dollars for medical treatment for his wife, who suffers from asthma and other ailments.

"I've been missing appointments because we don't have any money to pay for them. And I need to have a house, a home of our own that we can depend on," said Gladys, 46. "I hope this fight is over, so that he can start working."

Her husband of 28 years hung his head.

"I'm not thinking about going back to the companies that ripped us off," Jose Alfaro said.

Many truck drivers bet heavily on their new employer, Transport Maritime Assn., a Cerritos firm founded by former insurance agent Donald L. Allen. The company has released no financial documents, but claims to have $125 million in backing from British investors, and has pledged to buy or lease the drivers' trucks, and to pay them $25 an hour. Now the firm is mired in legal talks.

"They wanted to do this too quick, without all the paperwork they needed," said Libardo Gutierrez, another unionized trucker who volunteers at the union office. "They weren't ready."

The truckers also are waiting for their union, which has been devastated by recent telecommunications layoffs, to sign pacts with other harbor-area trucking companies. Still others are looking to city and state politicians to push for higher wages or longer terminal hours. Eight drivers have undertaken a hunger strike on the steps of City Hall to draw support for the boycott.

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