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Truckers strike, push to unionize

Some who drive at the ports accuse their firm of dissuading them from organizing.

August 27, 2013|Ricardo Lopez
  • Truck drivers on strike and their supporters demonstrate outside Green Fleet Systems' facility in Carson.
Truck drivers on strike and their supporters demonstrate outside Green… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

At least 15 port truck drivers with a Carson-based trucking firm went on a 24-hour strike scheduled to culminate in a Tuesday rally, alleging their employer is trying to thwart their efforts to unionize.

The action against the company, Green Fleet Systems, began late Monday when truck drivers and their supporters picketed outside the company's Carson facility. Truckers contend that company supervisors have been illegally dissuading them from joining a union -- an allegation Green Fleet denied.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 28, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Port strike: In the Aug. 27 Business section, an article about a strike by drivers for a trucking firm at the L.A. and Long Beach ports identified Alex Cherin as an attorney with Englander, Knabe and Allen, a Los Angeles law firm. It is a public relations firm, not a law firm, and Cherin, although a lawyer, was acting solely as a spokesman, not an attorney.

The demonstration kicked off a week of planned actions by labor groups representing workers in a variety of industries, including fast food and logistics.

It is the latest effort seeking to unionize drivers who move goods in and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The ports are the busiest in the nation, handling more than 40% of Asian imports.

"The few trucking companies with bona fide employees like Green Fleet Systems are routinely violating workers' legal right to form a union at their workplace," said Fred Potter, director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' Port Division. "Industrywide change is needed."

The Teamsters for years have pushed to unionize truck drivers at the ports. It has been difficult because most of these drivers are independent contractors. Only about 10% of port drivers work directly for trucking companies.

Some Green Fleet drivers have tried to organize to join Teamsters Local 848. They allege that the company has hired "union busters" to intimidate drivers out of joining the union.

In a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, they allege that a Green Fleet supervisor asked an employee to sign an anti-union petition. A Green Fleet supervisor also promised better pay and a boost in benefits if workers did not join the union, the complaint alleges.

A Sept. 16 hearing with the NLRB on the issue has been postponed to October, according to an attorney for the Teamsters union.

The company on Monday denied the allegations and said the rally is the latest in a series of unsuccessful attempts to unionize truck drivers.

"What they're trying to do is divide and conquer trucking companies and make false accusations that the majority of drivers want union representation," said Alex Cherin, an attorney with Englander, Knabe and Allen, a Los Angeles law firm representing Green Fleet.

Green Fleet, which has operated for 25 years, directly employs about 90 drivers, Cherin said. He said union organizers were misrepresenting how many drivers want to join the union. He also disputed the number of drivers who went on strike: Union organizers said it was 30, but he pegged it closer to 15.

"Green Fleet ... pays its drivers some of the highest wages in the [trucking] industry," Cherin said.

About 50 supporters of unionizing gathered Monday outside the company's shipping center, and the demonstration became chaotic at times.

Trucks leaving the facility were temporarily held up by protesters who blocked the exit, creating a bottleneck. Cars and trucks continually honked in support.

At one point, a trucker leaving the facility opened his window, gave the protesters two thumbs down and yelled, "Liars, liars!"

Overall, though, the protest was civil.

Among the drivers who went on strike was Agustin Cuevas, 60, who said he and co-workers are fighting for better treatment from their employer and protesting what he called intimidation by hired union busters.

Cuevas, who has worked as a driver for 20 years, said workers are demanding basic dignity and respect from the company.

"I've gone to work sick before," he said in Spanish by telephone. "If you're not a perfect employee, you get written up for any minor infraction."

The logistics sector, which includes trucking companies, warehouses and retail distribution, has seen much strife in recent years between labor groups, contracted firms and workers.

Several trucking companies have gotten in trouble for misclassifying employees as independent contractors, not paying those employees for meal breaks and committing other labor violations.

But there might be a bigger aim in trying to unionize truckers.

John Husing, an economist who studies the Southern California logistics sector, said labor leaders want to unionize the entire supply-chain system. That would include drivers and warehouse workers.

Unionizing warehouse workers could create a flood of new members at a time when labor unions' membership has been waning.

"The big prize is not organizing drivers at ports," Husing said. "It's organizing drivers at ports to give them leverage over all the nonunion warehouses. I suspect that's the deeper issue that's going on here."

--

ricardo.lopez@latimes.com

Twitter: @rljourno

Times staff photographer Anne Cusack contributed to this report.

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