By Steve Gorman
LONG BEACH, Calif. (Reuters) - Long-simmering labor tensions between Southern California port truckers and shipping companies they accuse of wage theft escalated on Tuesday as a group of drivers demanded recognition as full-fledged employees and petitioned to join the Teamsters union.
The action, according to the Teamsters, was taken by at least 50 drivers who work for New Jersey-based Intermodal Bridge Transport (IBT) hauling freight to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the busiest cargo hub in America.
Teamsters officials said it marked an incremental but unprecedented effort in which workers treated by management as contractors had for the first time mustered a majority of their ranks to simultaneously seek employee status and union representation.
James Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, marked the occasion by appearing with a phalanx of union executives and picketers for a waterfront rally outside a marine terminal in Long Beach.
"You have the support of the 1.4 million Teamster members," he said, surrounded by union activists carrying signs that read: "Wage theft stops here" and "We are all employees".
Management rebuffed the drivers' demands, prompting petitioning workers - a majority of the company's 80-plus labor force in Los Angeles - to go on strike, the union said. Officials at IBT, a division of Chinese global shipping giant COSCO, were not immediately available for comment.
The IBT truckers joined scores of other drivers already picketing two other port-based trucking companies - Pacific 9 Transportation and XPO Logistics - likewise targeted by the Teamsters.
Although the striking drivers account for just a fraction of 13,600 tractor-trailer rigs registered to serve the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the dispute has implications for hundreds of companies and thousands of workers in Southern California.
The port drivers accuse management of engaging in wage theft by illegally classifying them as contractors and deducting truck-leasing charges, repair costs and other expenses from their paychecks.
Many truckers thus end up earning less than minimum wage, leaving a typical driver short-changed by some $60,000 a year, according to the Teamsters.
Their grievances have been affirmed in dozens of federal and state labor enforcement decisions and at least one court ruling, but the Teamsters say most of the companies have dug in their heels by seeking to appeal the rulings.
The Teamsters have managed to obtain union contracts for about 500 drivers through "labor peace" agreements with several trucking companies at the ports. But the IBT drivers were the first group of misclassified workers in which a majority had petitioned for union representation from inside the company, Teamsters officials said.
Teamster organizers said picketing would be expanded on Wednesday to a major warehouse operated by the California Cartage Company, where hundreds of workers hired at low wages through a staffing agency unload cargo for big retailers such as Amazon.com and Lowe's Companies.
(By Steve Gorman)