Truck drivers at a Los Angeles-area freight hauling company cannot be treated as “independent contractors” or harassed for discussing the possibility of unionizing, according to a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling issued Thursday.
The ruling finds that a company called Pacific 9 Transportation made illegal retaliatory threats against several of its drivers back in the fall of 2013. To resolve that violation of labor law, the company must post documents at worksites notifying drivers of their right to unionize. That’s a significant victory on its own, but what makes the Pacific 9 ruling so significant is that the NLRB decided it has jurisdiction over these workers at all.
The drivers, who form a key link in the American retail supply chain bringing goods from southern Californian ports to the so-called “inland empire” of shipping warehouses and retail distribution centers, have long been treated as “independent contractors” for legal purposes. Companies misclassify full-time workers as contractors in order to duck a variety of financial obligations, including payroll taxes and minimum wage laws. Mislabeling a worker in this way can save a company almost $4,000 per worker per year, according to a 2012 Treasury Department report.
Roughly two-thirds of America’s 75,000 port truck drivers are misclassified by their employers, according to a recent analysis by a coalition of progressive groups that are backing the Pacific 9 drivers’ organizing effort.
If port truckers were indeed “independent contractors,” the NLRB would have no authority to intervene on their behalf with regard to workplace intimidation. As lawyers for the truckers explained in an email to ThinkProgress, “independent contractors have no rights whatsoever under the National Labor Relations Act –- they have no right to organize and no right to be protected from unfair labor practices. Thus, in order for the Region to propose this settlement, it had to first find that the drivers were employees.” By ruling on the matter at all, the government body declared these drivers are misclassified and are protected by labor laws.
That means the drivers’ other key complaint about systematic wage theft can get a hearing in California, and similar cases around the country should gain traction. The decision “could affect the entire port trucking industry,” according to a Justice for Port Drivers press release, “reshaping a structure that currently leaves many of America’s port drivers working full time yet earning less than minimum wage.”
It remains to be seen if the good news for port truckers will prove helpful for the tens of thousands of workers in other professions who are similarly deprived of their labor rights and wages. Misclassification is a problem in a variety of other sectors of the economy as well, placing a drag on federal and state budgets and undermining the traditional connection between a full day’s work and a fair day’s pay.