The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy
Business & Economy

LA and Long Beach Ports: Truckers win employee status, quickly vote to join Teamsters



Mike Acosta has driven a truck for Shippers Transport Express for four years.
Mike Acosta has driven a truck for Shippers Transport Express for four years.
Brian Watt/KPCC

Listen to

00:53
Download this 0.0MB

Days after becoming official employees of their company, rather than independent contractors, port truck drivers for Shippers Transport Express elected to be represented by the Teamsters Union. 

88 out of 111  drivers for the Carson-based logistics company signed union authorization cards, giving Teamsters Local 848 the authority to negotiate their first labor contract.  The election is a major milestone in a years-long campaign by the Teamsters to organize short-haul truckers at U.S. ports. 

That campaign has been waged recently on the picket lines, with labor actions against eight drayage firms at the Ports of LA and Long Beach.  But it has also been fought in the courts and labor enforcement hearings, with lawsuits and complaints challenging the classification of the truckers as "independent contractors."

STE, a subsidiary of SSA Marine, was not targeted by a labor action, but last September, a federal judge held that its drivers were "employees" with the right to pursue wage-and-hours claims under state law, and not independent contractors.  In November, the company notified its drivers it was transitioning to an employee-based business model on January 1. 

For 50-year-old Michael Acosta, the difference is huge.  He's driven for STE for four years, but has been a truck driver for 25 years. "We've been fighting for this for four years, and now we're here," he told KPCC. "We did this for the medical benefits and the pension, and to provide a better living for our families." 

Acosta said that as independent contractors, he and his colleagues were treated badly, had no rights and no say in their work flow. He spoke of one colleague who broke his arm in a fall on the job. "If his wife didn't have medical [benefits] at her job, he would have been screwed," he said. "We need medical. You know, this is 2015. This isn't 1915."

Organizers for the Teamsters said they were now in confidential discussions with 8 companies they'd targeted with labor actions last year and would not comment on the discussions. 

In a joint statement from STE and the Teamsters Port Division, STE general manager, Kevin Baddeley said:

“Shippers’ transition to an employee-based business model is a crucial step in the drayage industry’s efforts to modernize, make the ports more efficient, and reduce congestion at the ports and on our freeways.” 

Baddeley attended the announcement of the union election results. Afterwards, he acknowledged to reporters that the court decision compelled his company to make the transition. He said the other drayage firms who were resisting the shift simply hadn't yet had their turn in court. 

"This is the future of this industry, we're just the first," Baddeley said. "I'm okay with it."

The Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles, Gene Seroka, also showed up to the announcement, standing quietly off to the side. He called the event "significant" and "important".

 "We're seeing epic levels of congestion, a global supply chain that is broken, and many areas that need solutions," Seroka told KPCC. "We believe that the trucking community can be part of that solution." 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also issued a brief statement applauding the company and the Teamsters union for "their willingness to work collaboratively." 

While many advocates and union organizers say there are tens of thousands of U.S. port truckers "misclassified" as independent contractors rather than employees, representatives for the companies have insisted that most truckers would prefer to remain independent contractors for the flexibility and chance to own their own business.