A truck driver is seen in San Pedro with the Port of Los Angeles in the background.… (Los Angeles Times )
It takes 10,000 professional truck drivers to move all the goods that come into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. And it's no wonder. Our two ports handle 40% of all goods imported to the United States.
A lot of the jobs generated by the ports, including those of unionized longshoremen and railroad workers, pay good wages that contribute to a solid middle class in the region. But many of the truck drivers who serve the ports find themselves stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder because of the way their employers classify and exploit them.
These mostly immigrant drivers are trapped in a largely unregulated system in which many are designated independent contractors by their employers, who then deduct all kinds of expenses from the fees they pay the drivers. Drivers see their checks shrink because of deductions for such things as the cost of fuel, truck maintenance and insurance. Drivers have told me that, as a consequence of all the deductions, their first 30 to 40 hours of work each week go to paying for the trucks they drive. Only after that are they earning money for their families.
Last week, some of the port drivers called a one-day strike to protest their working conditions. We should support them, because we all have a stake in their success.
As a Los Angeles city councilwoman for 10 years, I fought hard to help develop and improve the ports. One success was instituting an innovative Clean Truck Program, which has reduced toxic diesel pollution by an estimated 80% in just a few short years. Running cleaner trucks has not only provided public health benefits, it has brought together groups that are often at odds, including environmental justice advocates, businesses and labor unions.
But the powerful shipping and trucking industries undermined one advance we were poised to make at the ports: They successfully sued to strip out fair labor provisions that would have prevented them from continuing to call drivers independent contractors, and would have held the companies responsible for bringing trucks up to new standards. Without that provision, drivers are often the ones who bear the costs for cleaning up the air.
Fortunately, over the last year, the U.S. Department of Labor and the California labor commissioner have devoted resources to investigating the situation, and they have found that some trucking companies routinely violate laws governing hours and wages at both the federal and state levels by classifying truckers as contractors rather than employees.
In fact, each case brought so far has been decided in favor of the drivers. To date, more than 400 port drivers have filed wage and hour claims with the California Labor Commission, worth an estimated $50 million in back pay and damages. Ultimately, port drivers could be owed nearly $1 billion in back pay.
Can you imagine the positive effect on the local economy and housing markets from an infusion of $1 billion in new consumer spending that requires absolutely no new taxes or government spending?
Last year, port drivers won a major victory when drivers at a prominent global trucking company — Toll Group — voted to affiliate themselves with the Teamsters and successfully negotiated an excellent union contract. In addition to winning affordable health insurance, a pension and overtime, drivers won a $6-an-hour raise, something unprecedented in today's economy.
And consumers don't need to worry that the improvements for truckers will raise prices in stores: Providing a living wage for port drivers can be done for a fraction of a penny on the price of a new pair of sneakers.
The U.S. economy needs to be rebuilt from the middle out in a way that helps working people. As we enter the holiday season, I hope you will remember the port truck driver who transported the gifts you purchase for your loved ones. Their success in creating a fairer and more just economy will benefit all of us.
Janice Hahn is the representative for California's 44th Congressional District, which includes the Port of Los Angeles.