NPR: Faith and community groups rallying for short haul truckers

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

By Bellamy Pailthorp

Read the article at NPR.

As many as 30 or 40 percent of the short-haul truckers who normally move containers from docks to railcar terminals at the Port of Seattle have stopped working.  

The work stoppage comes after one of the drivers was retaliated against for attending a hearing in Olympia last week on a proposal to improve their working conditions.

They’re independent contractors, who are predominantly immigrants, and say the conditions they’re forced to contend with make the job unsafe.  

Community groups are now rallying in their support.

Michael Ramos, director of social justice ministries for the Church Council of Greater Seattle, says hundreds of short-haul truckers have been off the job for a week, but they still feel their message isn't getting out there. So, now advocacy groups are now showing solidarity.

“Drivers should be able to go to Olympia to ask for safer trucks, without having to worry about the possibility of losing their jobs and being verbally harassed or threatened, " Ramos said, with a virtual chorus of supporters surrounding him and chanting to show solidarity. "Corporate-owned equipment is the responsibility of corporations themselves and not the immigrant drivers who cannot even be allowed to inspect them.”

Also at the rally, which took place on the waterfront outside Port of Seattle headquarters, were representatives of the Washington State Labor Council, the immigrants rights group One America,  a new social justice and environmental group called 'Got Green,' and several of the affected drivers.

Even though the drivers are independent contractors, they are often at the whim of the shipping companies they contract with. The trailers and containers they pick up are the property of the shipping companies, but many drivers have been ticketed for hauling unsafe loads. 

The drivers want a change in state law to allow them to become employees and then form unions – or at least, relieve them of responsibility for unsafe equipment.

A hearing in Olympia is expected to take up that issue tomorrow. Shipping companies say the jobs are regulated by federal law, not local ones.

A shipping industry spokesman asked not to be quoted for this story.

Some importers say they’re already feeling the impact of the work stoppage; their cargo is stuck in transit.

In response, officials at the Port of Seattle say they’re trying to be supportive of the truckers. But spokesman Peter McGraw says their priority is keeping commerce flowing.

“More cargo coming in means more jobs – more family wage jobs" Mcgraw says. "That’s 20,000 here on the working waterfront alone and close to 200,000 statewide. And so the best thing the Port can do is continue to act as an economic development engine.” 

The short-haul drivers are asking state legislators for a change in the law, to require the shipping companies to employ them directly. Then they could join a union, such as the Teamsters, which has been helping the drivers organize their lobbying with local governments.

Similar scenarios have played out in California…where a law was recently implemented and then shot down by the Supreme Court, because it involves interstate commerce. More on that case here.

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