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TROUBLE ON THE WATERFRONT

Woes Spreading Beyond Ports

Economy: The labor dispute is putting a strain on independent truckers who move port-related cargo.

October 02, 2002|RONALD D. WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Truck driver Jose Luis Martinez doesn't care whether labor or management is to blame in the dispute that has shut down the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, near an idled berth on a main drag at the Port of L.A. called Terminal Way, he cared only that the wallet he would bring home to his wife and two daughters would be empty for the third time in four days.

Martinez is an independent, short-haul trucker who moves just about any port-related cargo, save for produce or other perishable goods, with his blue-green Kenworth T600 big rig.

As such, he's a victim of the dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn.

To make ends meet, he and his family depend on the flow of goods to and from the nation's busiest port complex.

But the PMA's lockout at ports all along the West Coast continued Tuesday, the result, the industry group said, of orchestrated worker slowdowns that made shuttering operations more cost-effective than keeping them open. For its part, the ILWU contends that the PMA is trying to break the union and eliminate jobs.

There are 10,500 to 12,000 truckers--the majority of them independent--who normally make as many as three visits a day to the ports, according to the California Trucking Assn.

The labor dispute, which has disrupted the ports for at least part of the last five days, is putting great strain on drivers such as Martinez, who are paid at rates that have dropped considerably since the trucking industry was deregulated in the 1980s.

"It's an economic disaster" for them, said Stephanie Williams, vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs for the trucking association.

If the lockout continues much longer, Williams predicted, "there will be bankruptcies by small trucking companies that won't be able to stay in business for a week under circumstances like this."

The last five days have been frustrating for 37-year-old Martinez, a native of Jalisco, Mexico, who lives in Bellflower with his wife, Esther, and daughters Mayrane, 12, and Dayanara, 3.

On Friday evening, Martinez arrived at the port just minutes before the PMA locked the gates. The lockout continued on Saturday, normally a lucrative working day.

On Sunday, having heard that the lockout was over, Martinez arrived at the ports for work at 6 a.m., only to be turned away without a load four hours later as a second lockout began.

"Sunday is my day to be with my family," Martinez said. "We usually go out to dinner."

But last weekend, with no cash in his pocket, they didn't go anywhere.

On Monday, Martinez was lucky to land a shipment of beer that had been moved off the port's property before the second lockout. He hauled it to Orange.

On Tuesday, however, there was no work to be found.

"I need to work to keep my family fed," said Martinez, whose wife does not have a job.

He drove around the ports late Tuesday morning hoping to stumble onto some business.

Most other truckers had given up on locating any work, leaving normally clogged roadways around the ports wide open.

By late in the day, Martinez too had decided to pack it in. "I'm going to stay home," he said, "until the harbor is ready."

In a good year, Martinez said, he grosses about $50,000. That's less than two-thirds of what the average dockworker manning the picket lines earns in union wages in a year, according to the PMA.

From his pay, Martinez must take out excise taxes, fuel and tire and maintenance costs. He said that reduces his income to $22,000 to $25,000 in a good year.

This is not shaping up to be a good year.

"We have no savings," Martinez said. "It's a lot of stress."

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