Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Truckers Conduct Work Slowdown at Washington Ports

Hundreds of truck drivers who normally haul goods to and from ports throughout Washington State stayed off the job last week to send a message in a dispute over pay and safety issues.

At the Port of Seattle alone, about 300 to 400 truckers chose not to work delivering cargo containers at the port and nearby BNSF Railway yard last week. Of those, an estimated 120 missed work to make a trip to the state capital, Olympia, to witness and participate in hearings the state Legislature has been conducting on two statewide pieces of legislation.

One bill, House Bill 2395, would reclassify drayage truckers as employees, instead of the current independent contractor designation; another, HB 2527, would make shipping companies responsible for any defects in chassis and containers, rather than truckers.

HB 2395 doesn’t outright ban owner-operators from ports, but would allow the Washington Department of Labor to reclassify independent contractors as employees if they enter port property.

Some truck drivers and supporters say the legislation is needed to protect drivers, who have little rights and independent contractors and must carry an inordinate amount of the burden in event of an accident or other event that causes damage to a cargo container or its contents.

The truckers, many of whom are immigrants from other countries, have the support of various community groups, such as Puget Sound Sage, a coalition of labor, faith and community organizations.

“They are at the fulcrum of our economic recovery,” David West, executive director of Puget Sound Sage, said of the drayage truckers. “But they do not share in industry prosperity because the system is fixed against them. They work in sweatshops on wheels.”

There has been industry opposition to both bills, however. Capt. Michael Moore, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, said in a letter to Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma executives that HB 2527 would “threaten the future viability of both ports” and “result in confusion and inefficiencies while increasing congestion, emissions, costs and liabilities.”

Also, the Washington Trucking Association, which opposes the employee mandate in HB 2395, contends that any attempt by a state to regulate the rates or services of trucks engaged in interstate commerce violates federal law and that if the state Legislature approved either bill, the WTA would challenge it in court.

HB 2395 is similar to an employee mandate that the Port of Los Angeles attempted to enact in recent years as part of an anti-air pollution program. Last September, however, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the mandate.