PORTS OF L.A., LONG BEACH
Teamsters: Trucking system 'rotten'
Union blames driver shortage on independent contractor hiring, while companies point to ports' proliferation of empty containers
By Donna Littlejohn
Look no further than the trucking system now serving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as a key reason for the current driver shortage, Teamster union officials said Wednesday in discussing the supply chain problems that have gripped the nation this year.
In a Zoom presentation, officials from the Teamsters and others placed the blame for many of the problems that have led to a shortage of drivers serving the ports on those workers being classified as independent contractors by companies, though the Harbor Trucking Association pushed back on that notion.
"The problem is the way the trucking industry in the port area is done," Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said. "It's being done on the terrible, terrible basis of misclassification."
The system, he said, is inefficient and unfair.
Trucks are parked next to stacks of containers at the Port of Long Beach on Oct. 1. The trucking system around the ports has come under scrutiny because of supply chain problems.
"It's rotten to the core," Hoffa said, "and that's why truckers are not showing up. I don't blame them."
The hourlong presentation led by the union, which has been trying to organize port truck drivers for years, included comments from port workers, attorneys and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an advocacy organizations for working families.
The problem isn't too few drivers, Hoffa said, but rather a system in which drivers must bear much of the financial burden themselves, including paying for trucks and fuel — while having none of the regular employee benefits, such as sick pay or health insurance.
But Matt Schrap, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association, said Wednesday that the supply chain problems are much more nuanced and complex. Still chief among the issues, Schrap said, are too many empty containers clogging port terminals.
Schrap's organization represents trucking businesses that use both independent contractors and employee drivers represented by the Teamsters.
"Marine terminals are drowning in empty containers," Schrap said in a telephone interview. "There were 123,000 empties as of this morning."
Trucks aren't being dispatched because there aren't enough chassis available, he said — they are being used to house empty containers.
But there is a shortage of drivers, a problem the state recognized recently when they expanded the number of DMV locations that offer commercial driving tests.
"At the bottom of the supply chain are port truck drivers," said Mike Muñoz, research and policy analyst for the advocacy group LAANE, calling the system "a sweatshop on wheels."
Truck driving, he said, "used to be a respected job."
But since deregulation, he said, it's been a "race to the bottom."
Wages, Muñoz said, have declined some 30% since the 1980s as trucking companies shifted costs "onto the backs of the truck drivers. They have to pay for everything."
"It's created a wild west situation," he said. "There currently are over 18,000 drivers registered to work in both ports, 12,000 of which make regular-to-infrequent trips. This suggests there is no actual (driver) shortage, but a surplus of drivers."
There is, however, a shortage of good jobs, Muñoz said.
But Schrap highlighted the benefits of being an independent contractor, including being able to set your own hours and decide when and where to work.
"There are many independent contractors who have no desire to be employees," Schrap said,.
Still, he said, there are employee truck driver positions readily available now, he said — often with perks.
"Drivers are in such high demand right now," he said.
This is not a new battle. Over the past several years, pickets have conducted actions against port companies and more than 1,000 port truck drivers have filed claims in civil court or with the California Department of Industrial Relations' enforcement arm. Judges have largely sided with drivers, who have argued they should have employee status. The city of Los Angeles in 2017 voted to explore blocking companies that used truck drivers classified as independent contractors from doing business at the Port of Los Angeles.
A series of city actions resulted from the resolution, Muñoz said, that put pressure on the companies and included investigations into three companies who were among the offenders. The port also began enforcing concession agreements against the companies on a list of "bad actors," Muñoz said.
But the current backlog and surge in cargo has put a renewed focus on the problems.
Attorney Julie Gutman Dickinson, another participant on the Zoom call, said the supply chain focus provides more opportunity for additional pressure.
"It is high time for taking stock and using this moment with those we have in power to take action to end misclassification," she said, "and make sure cargo owners have codes of conduct."
Noting that the Port of L.A. has reported that 30% of truck appointments are going unfilled for moving cargo from the docks, Muñoz said, there's an "inability to coordinate" those jobs.
"Drivers wait for hours in long lines and those hours are unpaid," he said.
Hoffa has spoken with the Biden Administration's new labor secretary, Marty Walsh, a former union president, and said he's hopeful something might be done to rectify the situation.
State Senate Bill 338, which will go into effect Jan. 1, could also help, added Jessica Durrum, LAANE's director of Our People Our Ports campaign.
The law will penalize cargo owners who use companies with drivers who aren't employees.
Another piece of legislation, Assembly Bill 794, would disqualify trucking companies that don't follow labor standards from receiving funding for clean trucks.
"It's a big battle," Hoffa said. "It's going to be a battle all the way."