By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Truckers who haul freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will vote on Saturday whether to go on strike, organizers said, in a move that could revive labor tensions at the nation's busiest cargo hub as it recovers from a crippling dockworkers dispute.
Picket lines could go up as early as Monday at various terminal yards, rail yards and other locations around the twin ports, said Teamsters union spokeswoman Barb Maynard, whose group does not represent the drivers but backs their efforts.
The truckers demand to be treated as employees, not independent contractors, by the companies they drive for and be allowed to bargain collectively over wages and conditions.
The outcome has implications for hundreds of companies and thousands of truckers in Southern California serving the twin ports, which handle 43 percent of containerized goods entering the United States.
Roughly 500 port truckers have filed wage claims with the California Department of Industrial Relations, accusing the companies of illegally misclassifying them as freelancers and charging them to lease the trucks they drive.
The agency has ruled on at least 56 of those claims so far, siding in every case with drivers in collectively awarding them over $5.5 million in back wages and penalties, the Teamsters say.
Thousands more drivers have yet to file claims, and port trucking companies in California could be liable for wage and hour violations of up to nearly $1 billion each year, the labor-backed National Employment Law Project has estimated.
In January, seven truckers won a $2 million judgment against shipping company Pacer Cartage in a misclassification suit supporters say could bolster class-action litigation against other trucking firms.
"As in any industry, change happens slowly, but it happens by forces and pressures on multiple fronts," said Maria Severson, an attorney for some of the drivers.
Several hundred truckers are expected to attend a meeting on Saturday to discuss strategies and to vote on whether to strike, Maynard said, adding she expected some form of a strike.
How disruptive that might be remained uncertain. A series of strikes against several trucking companies last year caused little disarray at the ports.
The vote comes as West Coast port cargo traffic is still returning to normal following months of slowdowns stemming from a dispute between shipping companies and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. That dispute was resolved in February with a five-year labor accord.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)