Unions decry ‘independent trucker’ as misnomer
Trucking industry claims that most companies are not exploiting their drivers rings hollow to workers’ rights advocates. They say the evidence is clear that workers are not true businessmen with the freedom to pursue customers and set rates in the open market.
The Seacon Logix case is more the rule than the exception, Coral Itzcalli, communications director for Change to Win, told American Shipper.
Change to Win is an alliance between the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Service Employees International Union, United Farm Workers of America, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
There is a big difference between owner-operators in the drayage industry and long-haul, over-the-road truckers, she argued.
Truckload drivers actually make a conscious decision to go into business, saving money and getting financing for a truck, doing their own taxes, deducting business expenses and accounting for depreciation, earning a Class A commercial license and obtaining operating authority from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
At the ports, drivers knock at a company’s door seeking a job and are told they can have one if they agree to be classified as an independent truck driver.
Independent drivers lack the ability to choose how they operate, Itzcalli said. “They’re completely dependent on their companies for what they’re going to pay them, how many loads they get. They’re taking home less than minimum wage. They have to show up, have to clock in, get their work assignments, and at the end of the shift they have to return their truck.”
Port drivers are subject to strict behavioral controls, according to the 2010 study “Big Rig: Poverty, Pollution and the Misclassification of Truck Drivers at America’s Ports,” conducted by labor market experts at the National Employment Law Project, Change to Win and Rutgers University. In addition to specifying how, when, where and what sequence drivers work they impose truck inspections, drug tests, and stringent reporting requirements. And drivers’ behavior is regularly monitored, evaluated and disciplined.
The motor carriers are able to wash their hands of all legal responsibility by classifying workers as contractors, Itzcalli said. If a driver is caught by the California Highway Patrol or FMCSA inspectors exceeding hours-of-service limits, motor carriers can claim ignorance even though they assigned the drivers the loads. Drivers are fearful of declining a load and working excess hours because they need the income to keep a roof over their heads given the small amount paid per load.
“They have no choice,” Itzcalli said. “The minute they refuse a load, that’s the moment their dispatcher will say they can’t count on them and threaten to give their loads to other people. The punishment will be you won’t get a load. If you show up the next day, suddenly there won’t be enough loads. They can’t afford to say no.”
Itzcalli said drivers are paid the same rates as 20 years ago.
“They don’t have control over their schedule — that’s the irony. Their schedule is controlled by their dispatcher,” she added.
Drivers usually are told when to show up at the yard to pick up their truck and collect paperwork for their first couple of loads each day, call in for additional assignments, and return the truck at the end of their shift, according to the union official.
It is difficult for drivers to be more flexible and work off-peak periods because they don’t have sleeper cabs and many live two or three hours away, so once in town they’ll work straight through, usually without any allowance for breaks, she said.
The vast majority of trucking companies either lease-to-own or rent trucks to their drivers, and prohibit the truck from being used to haul loads for any other company, Itzcalli said. Most of their earnings are deducted from their settlement checks to cover truck expenses, including leases, fuel, insurance, maintenance and even washing the vehicle. Most drivers work for one company at a time, she added.
Truck drivers “are key elements in our nation’s supply chain. The only way they can have that voice is by coming together and forming a union,” Itzcalli said. “That’s how employees do it in America. They collectively bargain. At the port, that doesn’t happen.”