More than 120 truck drivers who haul consumer goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to retail warehouses launched an indefinite strike on Monday, according to MSNBC, escalating a tumultuous multi-year union organizing effort among the drivers. The consumer brands whose supplies could be affected by the strikes include Skechers shoes, Ralph Lauren, Walmart, and Home Depot, according to a press release from strike organizers.
The core complaint underlying the union drive is thatcompanies like Total Transportation Services, Inc. (TTSI), Green Fleet Systems, and Pacific 9 Transportation deem their drivers “independent contractors” in order to avoid paying overtime and prevent their workers from enjoying various other labor law protections. The drivers say they are misclassified and should be treated as full employees, and have begun to flood the California Labor Commission with wage theft complaints in order to fight the misclassification and seek the pay that the “independent contractor” label has cost them over the years.
The short-haul trucking industry, known as the drayage business, is a key link in the nation’s supply chain between ports and the logistics warehouses that are crucial to low-cost retail companies from Amazon.com to Walmart. Misclassification helps make drayage cheaper and more profitable, which in turn helps support the cheap prices and high profits of the broader retail sector. Wage theft complaints and driver organizing threaten that arrangement.
Drayage companies have retaliated by firing workers who seek to organize, among other violations of the drivers’ labor rights. Green Fleet was charged with 50 separate labor law violations last month by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), including allegations that an agent of the company leveled death threats at drivers involved in the union push. A separate NLRB finding in March held that Pacific 9 drivers were being misclassified and suffering illegal retaliation for their organizing efforts. The largest company in the California drayage industry, Pacer Cartage, Inc., was ordered to pay misclassified drivers more than $2.2 million in back pay in April.
Monday’s strikes look to build on the momentum from those legal judgments in drivers’ favor. Previous strikes have lasted just a day or two, but the new round of picketing is intended to continue indefinitely. The drivers and their Teamsters allies have chosen a particularly tense time for the strikes, the Los Angeles Times notes, because the state’s roughly 20,000 dockworkers are currently working without a contract as union and port leaders work to negotiate a new deal. Labor leaders have “pledged to keep cargo moving until an agreement was reached,” according to the Times, but “it wasn’t immediately clear if dockworkers would honor Monday’s [drayage driver] picket lines.”
By one estimate, two-thirds of all short-haul drayage drivers nationwide are misclassified, but these companies are far from alone in using “independent contractor” rules to cut their labor costs. Misclassification of employees is among the most widespread labor law violations in the country. A company can save roughly $4,000 per misclassified worker per year, according to a 2012 Treasury Department study, by ducking unemployment taxes, Social Security taxes, and Medicare taxes. Those savings starve state and federal treasuries of resources and deny working people benefits they are supposed to have earned.
One Department of Labor study from more than a decade ago estimated that between 10 and 30 percent of all employers misclassify their workers. The total number of misclassified workers is somewhere in the millions, but no national data exist, according to a fact sheet from the labor coalition Change To Win. Misclassification cases have made the news in recent years in sectors ranging from private shipping and mail carriers to strip clubs.