Eight days in May

Most truckers (contrary to what the corporate media tells us) supported OCCUPY's recent West Coast Port Shutdown of December 12th. A look at the port truckers' strike of 2004 suggests why.

by Daniel Borgström

For eight days in May 2004, the Port of Oakland was occupied and virtually shut down by truckers striking for better conditions. The same port had been closed down by antiwar protesters just three weeks before, so a contingent of us from Direct Action to Stop the War joined them as a community support group and reported their struggle on Indybay.org.

The strike had begun in Stockton and Long Beach as a one-day protest, but in Oakland it lasted from April 30 to May 7, 2004. Movement of cargo was reduced to 25 percent of normal, and on some days to only 10 percent.

Several hundred of the striking drivers occupied the gate area of the APL (American President Lines) terminal along Middle Harbor Road. The truckers moved in and made themselves to home--they occupied it. Most were immigrants, some from the Punjab, others from Haiti, and a good many from the various countries of Latin America. Nevertheless, these diverse ethnic groups had gotten together for this action.

Four of their number were selected to represent them in negotiations with the trucking companies and port officials. These four were called "interpreters," and their function was to negotiate, but they couldn't make or sign agreements that were binding on the rest of the group.

"It's chaos," an unhappy port executive complained to the Oakland Tribune, "They have no leader."

Actually, everybody was a leader. It was one of those extremely democratic situations that we read about, but rarely witness in reality. Our community group spoke with the strikers and were deeply impressed with their solidarity.

We also found that nearly all of them were against the war. At least one of them, probably several, had joined us in our second annual demonstration at these same docks on April 7th. APL was one of the terminals we'd shut down that day, but in our case, only for a shift. These folks did it for over a week.

Often the drivers would gather into relatively small discussion groups. "El dolor de ellos es el dolor de nosotros," I heard one speaker addressing a group of 15 or 20 persons. He was talking about the solidarity between the various ethnic groups that made up the strike, and the meaning of his words was: "Their pain is our pain."

Across the street were three or four police cars that had been stationed opposite the APL gate. Mostly the police kept their distance, and weren't wearing riot gear.

When a scabbing trucker attempted to drive through, there arose a chorus of shouts from the Latino drivers--"¡Culero!" and "¡Judas!"

The strike was initiated by the recent jump in fuel costs. However, the drivers told me that there was a lot more to the problem than that. It was largely economic, but also a matter of dignity; the drivers said they were sometimes treated disrespectfully, and often made to wait at the loading areas for unreasonable lengths of time.

These drivers own or lease their rigs, also called "18 wheelers." So they're called "owner-operators," or "independent truckers," and it means that they have to pay their own expenses which include insurance, DMV registration and maintenance. Costs of all of these items have doubled or even tripled during the last decade, but pay rates have not increased.

The situation was complicated by the fact that there were as many as 60 different trucking companies that these drivers worked for. While some of the trucking companies were exploitative, that wasn't true of all of them. Some company owners were in sympathy with the drivers and willing to accept their demands.

One striking driver, Francisco, said his company treated him well and paid him adequately. He was nevertheless out there in solidarity with the other truckers, and added that if conditions continued to get worse, he might find himself in the same predicament as the others.

Another trucker, Willyz, told me he had been driving a rig for 12 years now. "Back then we made a good living," he told me, "Today, I might as well be working at Burger King."

Willyz's gross income was quite large, but after expenses, he earned about $7 or $8 an hour. It struck me as incredible, and I might've found that hard to believe, had I not read similar figures in several other sources. According to a report in the Long Beach Press Telegram, some truckers were making $60,000 a year -- but only taking home $10,000.

At the same time, Willyz told me that his situation was about average. Some were going into debt, while others were still making money, but were nevertheless out there on strike in solidarity with the rest.

These people needed a union. But the port officials warned them that to form a union would be in violation of anti-trust laws. The irony is that although the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 was enacted in response to popular demand for a law to fight corporate monopolies such as Rockefeller's Standard Oil, the law was at first used as a weapon against labor unions. Eventually, the anti-trust act was amended to prevent it from being used against labor. However, it was now again being used against these drivers on the technicality that they were legally classified as "independent contractors." That classification, according to port officials, made the drivers subject to anti-trust laws.

Nobody denied that the truckers were in a predicament. The Port authorities expressed official sympathy and scheduled a meeting for the drivers and the companies, to be held at the Port office building in Jack London Square. That was Thursday evening, May 6th. I assumed the meeting was open to the public, so I signed the register, took a name badge, and walked in together with the truckers. Three or four other supporters from the community, also intending to report for Indybay, were coming later, but they never showed up, and I wondered why. Afterwards, I learned they weren't allowed in. It was a closed session and I was just lucky to get past the gatekeepers.

According to that morning's Oakland Tribune (5/6/2004), the port officials had said the meeting "will bring together truckers, shipping company executives and truck company owners." So about a hundred drivers attended, expecting to meet face to face with the companies. However, it turned out that the port had set up two separate meetings, one for the trucking company owners on the 7th floor, and another for the drivers on the 2nd floor. I went to the drivers' meeting. The session began when an elderly gentleman introduced himself as Mr. H.G. Joseph, who worked under Mr. Jerry Bridges, the Port's maritime director.

A driver spoke up and expressed surprise that there were two separate meetings. "I thought we'd be meeting with the companies," he said.

Mr. Joseph replied that would be in violation of the anti-trust laws. "That would be in violation of the anti-trust laws," Mr. Joseph pointed out. "We can't put owner-operators in the same room with the trucking companies." It was another dubious reference to the anti-trust laws, but before anybody could voice objections, Mr. Joseph launched into the topic he was there to expound upon.

"You've made your point," he told the drivers. "We understand your problem. Believe me, we understand.

"Today there were three ships that didn't even come into the bay. Those ships went somewhere else." He paused. "To another port. That's 1,400 containers. 1,400 jobs -- lost. Those jobs are gone and won't come back." He paused again. "Another one or two ships are due tomorrow."

A driver spoke up, telling him that they couldn't live on what they were currently getting. "The rates were set 10 years ago," the driver said. "Insurance rates have increased. Maintenance rates have increased. Fuel rates have increased. We need a cost-of-living adjustment."

"The port or city council cannot change the rate," Mr. Joseph replied. "We can provide influence. We can talk to the companies."

"We need a single rate," a driver told him.

"A single rate is against the law," said Mr. Joseph. "It would violate the anti-trust laws."

"We need to know what the shipping companies pay the brokers," another driver told him. I assumed that by "brokers" he meant the trucking companies.

"Those are private companies," said Mr. Joseph. "It's not public information. We don't have the authority to demand that information. What we do have is influence. Port of Oakland has influence. We can make them understand. We can tell them that you need to make a living."

Pablo, a driver sitting next to me, shook his head skeptically. "Do you really think the port officials couldn't do something if they really wanted to?" he asked me. I told him I honestly didn't know, but I shared his suspicion.

The port's Executive Director Tay Yoshitani put in a brief appearance, and expressed more of the official empathy that we'd been hearing that day. "I know the problem," he said. "It has existed for many years. The rising fuel prices, that's only the straw that broke the camel's back," he said, and outlined some of the other problems facing the drivers. He assured them that the port was trying to help them.

"The worst thing you can do is to shut the port down," he said. "That's not in anybody's best interest. Please be patient. Jerry Bridges will be down to talk with you, he understands these issues better than I do."

Mr. Yoshitani handed the meeting back to Mr. Joseph, who said, "Jobs go away, ships go away. We are going to try to help as much as we can. We hear you. We really do."

"The fuel prices . . . ," A driver spoke up.

"We're going to use our influence to get the companies to come to the table, said Mr. Joseph. "To tell them they need to come to the table."

"If you can't answer the questions," said the driver, "We don't need to talk with you."

Another driver, one who'd been silent till then, said, "We cannot ask questions because we are asking the wrong source."

Then another driver reminded them of the interpreters, saying, "Four guys upstairs are negotiating, the four representatives. Everyone should wait for them to return."

Finally Jerry Bridges, the Port's maritime director, showed up, and a driver sitting a couple seats in front of me remarked to the others around him, "Esto es el mero mero." -- meaning this was the guy who could make decisions.

Mr. Bridges began: "I have been with the port since September 4, 2001. I came from the terminals, I'm one of those bad guys." He paused to hear a few chuckles. Then he said, "I respect you."

Mr. Bridges continued, "We've had ships bypass the port. The port cannot remain closed. We would like to see this strike stop," and explained that the companies told him they needed time to talk with their customers, to work things out. He also recommended meeting four times a year to talk about issues.

"We're all in this together," Jerry Bridges told the drivers.

He also told them that each one of them was running a "business," that they should see themselves as businessmen and as members of the middle class.

Did these drivers aspire to being middle class? I wondered. Maybe they did, but being unable to make a decent living, that irrelevant line about middle class status must've sounded manipulative, a slip in the performance of an otherwise consummate bullshit artist.

"I've spent 18 years around the piers, seen plenty of guys getting rich," a driver said to Mr. Bridges. "We don't trust the brokers, the dispatchers. We don't know how much they keep."

Another driver added, "It's more than just the money. It's the disrespectfulness. The two-hour waits. This has to be addressed because we're tired. We're running negative every week!"

"We were pushed to the wall."

"We woke up. If it goes to LA, the drivers there are going to wake up too."

Finally, at about 6:50 p.m., the four negotiators, "interpreters" as they had been designated by the drivers, entered to give a summary of their negotiations with the trucking companies. There had been very little progress, they reported.

"We have to negotiate the best deal we can," Jerry Bridges told the drivers, using the pronoun "we," as though he was really empathizing with the drivers, on their side. "The companies want to negotiate with you. They need time. Thirty days."

That's what he said, "thirty days." but in his next breath he called the negotiators back to try again, promising that this time they'd be back in 30 minutes with results. I wondered how he could suddenly offer a favorable outcome within half an hour, having just said it would take a month.

One of the drivers stood up and turned to the audience. "Don't go back to work!" he said, "Don't go back!"

"The companies want 30 days to work things out?" exclaimed another driver. "We gave them 10 years!"

The meeting dissolved into a break. Some people went out into the hall where they gathered into groups to discuss the situation.

The four negotiators soon returned, this time with a list of thirty trucking companies willing to comply with most of the drivers' requests. I was surprised at this sudden breakthrough, and so were the drivers. They asked if this was really true, if they could go back to work the next day, if the drivers who'd been fired would be reinstated, and many other questions. They were assured that it was for real. It looked like the strike was over.

The next day, Friday afternoon, I was surprised to find that the strike was still on. The drivers were angry, feeling that they had been tricked at the meeting of the previous evening.

What had happened was that when the drivers looked more closely at the list of employers that they'd been given, they found that the thirty firms on it employed a sum total of only about 200 drivers. There were about 3,000 drivers. So those 200 jobs were only a drop in the bucket. The trucking companies who had the great majority of the job positions were offering no substantial concessions.

The truckers showed me the list and went over it in detail, telling me about each company. Only 3 or 4 of the companies on the list employed 30 or more drivers; none employed more than 50. Some of the companies on the list had gone bankrupt years ago. Others were companies that nobody had ever heard of and appeared to be non-existent. "This is a joke!" a driver told me, "They're just playing games with us!"

Meanwhile, the Port of Oakland had obtained an injunction against the strikers that morning. Someone pointed to a bundle of papers lying out in the middle of the road. Nobody touched them. They were copies of a temporary restraining order from an Alameda County Superior Court judge.

Many truckers were leaving; they seemed to be ending their occupation of the port. Some said they were just going home for the weekend; others said they'd be back to continue the strike on Monday. Actually, nothing was very clear as to what would happen next.

The next morning I picked up the Oakland Tribune and read that port officials had gotten the injunction after the drivers had supposedly "reneged" on their promise. "They promised [Thursday] night that they would go back to work," a port spokesman was quoted as saying.

From what I had seen, the drivers had expressed a desire to return to work, but made no promises. The port authorities had negotiated in poor faith, but the newspaper didn't report that. The truckers knew they'd been tricked, but didn't see a way to win their battle at that time. The strike and the occupation were over.

The above is a rewrite of an article I originally wrote in 2004

a letter from truckers
December 2011

In an
Open Letter from America's Truck Drivers on Occupy the Ports, port drivers wrote: "We are inspired that a non-violent democratic movement that insists on basic economic fairness is capturing the hearts and minds of so many working people. ... Poverty and pollution are like a plague at the ports. ... Just like Wall Street doesn't have to abide by rules, our industry isn't bound to regulation. ...We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels. ... We have never recovered from losing our basic rights as employees in America."

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