Trucker Hullabaloo: the 360 Degree View
Four Protagonists Discuss the Controversy
Concerning Independent Truckers Working at the Port of
Oakland and Other Seaports Around the Country
General Manager, Maersk
Bay Crossings: What’s going on between the
truckers and you at the Port of Oakland?
PETER FORD: Right now, there’s nothing going on. We had an
issue—they had some issues—about a month ago, that wound up
with a large protest in front of all of the terminals here
at the Port of Oakland, resulting in a temporary restraining
order to keep them from out front, causing a disruption to
commerce and to the safety of people coming in and out.
Recently I heard there’s some rumors of some actions
starting up in July, but nothing is confirmed at this point,
at least on my side.
BC: The truckers feel very badly used.
They feel that the terminal operators, which I guess means
you, are parsimonious with them. Any truth to that?
PF: Well, here’s an actually pretty common misconception:
the terminal operators have nothing to do with the
contracting of truckers, or owner/operators, or even
trucking companies. The people who contract the trucking are
brokers, sometimes the steamship lines, but mostly brokers
acting on behalf of consignees or shippers. The problem
comes down to economics; it’s supply and demand; too many
truckers for not enough business.
BC: What’s going to happen with this
situation of the Port being threatened with a shutdown?
PF: I say allow the market to drive the excess
owner/operators out. If you can’t make a living at a job,
theoretically then you would find another job. And the
market would then regulate itself by having the right amount
of supply for the right amount of demand.
BC: The truckers allege that you’re
being a bit disingenuous; that, in fact, you guys are very
involved, even to the point of not allowing truckers to so
much as speak with each other about rates. Is there any
truth to this?
PF: Well, no. It’s the antitrust laws that prevent them from
speaking to each other about rates. For them to get together
and set rates among themselves would be a violation of that.
We don’t punish people for speaking out. We want to speak
out, too, against what ended up happening in front of my
facility and that was violence. A lot of people throwing
rocks, acting threatening, creating fear in other truckers
that needed to go to work because they had families to
BC: Truckers say you set fees arbitrarily,
and that you have been rapidly escalating them.
PF: But they haven’t been escalated. I take that back: fees
have been escalated, specifically demurrage (akin to late
fees charged by libraries for late books, but in this case
applying to empty containers). But that is actually as a
direct result of congestion, and it’s mostly in the Pacific
Southwest and Los Angeles. The Port authorities want to
reduce congestion and they’ve made it more expensive for
containers to just sit around.
As to the arbitrary part, the Wal-Marts of the world, the
huge shippers, certainly can negotiate contracts with the
shipping lines to get them more free time than is usually
allotted. That’s a business decision whether or not to offer
those types of incentives for the guys who ship hundreds of
thousands of containers with APL, or Maersk, or whoever the
case may be.
BC: Wouldn’t an average Joe sitting
having a beer feel it’s heavy-handed to not allow
minimum-wage immigrant truckers to discuss rates with each
PF: I certainly have sympathy for them. You know, it is not
an easy living. You say heavy-handed, but it’s not the
shipping lines, terminal operators, shippers, or brokers
that say they can’t; it’s the law.
BC: But do you think when the antitrust
laws were passed lawmakers had in mind guys driving a truck?
PF: Let’s take it to the other extreme. Do you want every
supermarket to be able to sit down and discuss what rates
they are going to charge for beef, for milk, or whatever
We want a better situation. What I see is
a market that has a super low barrier to entry to becoming a
trucker. For $2,500 you can pick up a truck right now, and
you’re in business. There’s a very low barrier to entry. And
there’s a huge amount of over-supply of labor for the
available work. In my perfect world, we would wind up with
trucks that have environmentally-friendly low sulfur burning
engines, trucks that would create a lot less pollution than
what we have now. Obviously, these would cost us much more
Terminal operators have spent hundreds of thousands of
dollars retrofitting our truck fleet to burn low sulfur
diesel and it absolutely aggravates me to no end when I see
lines of ancient trucks outside my facility messing up the
same air that I have just spent a bunch of dollars on trying
to clean up.
BC: So you’d be willing to pay, so long
as the trucks were environmentally friendly and there were a
stable, smaller market of trucks?
PF: I don’t want to say that I want to pay
more. We should pay the market rate. And unfortunately,
right now, the market rate is ridiculously low and I don’t
think it’s sustainable. At this level, it isn’t enough to
support the trucker’s families.
Now having said that, while we’re on the
way to working all this out, there will be work actions. To
not come to work is absolutely well within anyone’s right
but it’s also anyone’s right if they want to come to work.
Where it went the last time this happened—threatening
families, throwing rocks, destroying property—is not
BC: You have to say that because you’re
in management. But how would a strike action be effective
otherwise? What would you say to the guys that organized the
Boston Tea Party?
PF: But, this isn’t a strike. The truckers are not an
organized bargaining unit. An organized bargaining means a
union, set union rules, a strike fund. We want to be fair,
but it’s never okay to be violent.
Lopez, Independent Trucker
Bay Crossings: You’re a trucker and being
sued by the Port of Oakland. Why?
Ruben Lopez: We all got into a strike, which I didn’t know
until a few days before the strike. We all got together in
front of APL (American President Lines). While we were out
there, we figured that we needed some kind of representation
for everybody, to represent and negotiate with the Port. I
stepped forward for my Latino community and we all went to
the Port looking for all our demands. Then all of a sudden,
we found out that what they were doing was more than just
negotiating. The Port had demands, too.
BC: What were the things that you
wanted to negotiate with the Port? What are you unhappy
RL: Well, there were a whole bunch of things, starting with
the bad service at the terminal. Supposedly there would be
no more than 30 minutes to wait in line to get through a
gate, and sometimes they do that, but once you get inside
the gate, it could take more than one or two hours. Some of
us came at the fuel surcharges. So we put all those things
in a flyer, and then those were the demands that came out of
the whole group.
BC: Tell me about the life of a
trucker. You’re talking to me now on a cell phone from the
cab of your truck while waiting at the docks for a
container. What does your week look like?
RL: That’s something we don’t know, usually. We start
Monday, and hopefully we will make enough to pay our bills.
Sometimes you make good money, and when I say good money, I
mean enough to pay your bills. But sometimes you spend more
than what you made during the week. I just took a load out
to American Canyon. I started at 6:00 today. Hopefully I’ll
be out of here around 11:30 or 12:00, so that will be
between $120 to $150. That gives you an idea of how much
money we make. And that will be for myself, for the truck,
for fuel, for the insurance, and all the other expenses that
we deal with for the truck.
BC: Is it true that the shipping
companies don’t want you talking with other truckers about
how much you get paid?
RL: Yes. They said it’s an antitrust, and that’s against the
law—to talk about how much money we make. Because we are all
independents, and we all belong to our own companies,
BC: Do truckers get paid more or less
for doing the same thing?
BC: Now why would somebody get paid
more than you for doing the same thing?
RL: That’s a good question. From company to company there is
a difference on rates.
BC: Have you experienced punishment as
a result of this work you have done to help the other
RL: The only bad experience that I had is the suit that I
got from the Port of Oakland, which we got just by going
into their building and negotiating a good fee. We never
thought that we were going to get sued. In fact, what we
were trying to do is get the boys out of striking, we were
working in good faith.
BC: The Port says you guys wouldn’t
stick to the deal you made, that you kept changing it.
RL: Let me explain. They have to understand. I came out of
the whole crowd, and there are those who believe that I’m a
leader, or I have the power to manage every single person in
the Port, or people who work from other terminals. I’m not a
leader; I came out of the crowd. And the only reason I was
there was just to speak for the Latino people.
When they asked me if I could control the
crowd, and tell them not to do this or that, I said, “Well,
I will bring this over to them and I’m sure they are going
to hear what I said; but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to
stop everybody from doing what they’re doing.” There was no
organization at all back then. There was just a whole crowd
of people that came out of nowhere. In fact, if you asked me
how many people I knew from the crowd, I would tell you
probably not even 1 percent of them. We see each other
driving around inside the terminals, but we don’t know
anything about them—like names, or anything like that.
But nothing, nothing was planned. This
came out of nowhere. We came up and went to the Port. They
asked us what we were looking for. We said, “This right
here.” We gave him the flyer. And he said, “Well, somebody’s
going to have to negotiate. Who do we talk to?” And I said,
“The whole crowd.” They said, “No. You guys need to get
organized. You guys need to get one or two.” So I became the
person who can talk and negotiate about this whole thing.
That’s how the whole idea came out. And
the only reason we got an Indian, a black man, and me was
because I don’t speak the different languages. I do speak
English, a little bit, and also Spanish, which is my
language. That’s why we kind of did it that way, not even
thinking that they were going to get this and turn it
around, and be against us.
BC: There’s talk about another strike
coming up on the 28th. What’s the mood with the truckers?
RL: They are really pissed off. Because at first, the Port
promised some things. They said, “Well, we haven’t got
anything.” We’ve been getting promises from everybody for a
long time, and they never get done. Then I got the suit. I
told them, “I’m in between right now. It’s up to you
guys—but I’m leaving.” I was getting phone calls, letting me
know that I was sued, saying that they wanted me to get back
into the crowd. Those were the little things that they put
in papers, that somehow I was leading the whole thing which
is not the truth.
BC: The shipping companies say the problem
isn’t with them, but with the trucking companies. For
example, they say they pay fuel surcharges to the trucking
companies that don’t get passed on to you.
RL: That’s a good question. That’s the
answer we never get. If you talk to the companies, they will
tell you one thing. But if you talk to the steamship lines,
they will tell you another thing. There is a big missing
thing between the companies and the steamship lines. The
steamship lines tell you that they could pay the fuel
surcharge, that they do pay good. Once you begin to talk to
the companies, they give you a totally different answer:
that they are not getting paid enough money; that they don’t
get the fuel surcharge most of the time; that they have been
BC: The shipping companies say there
are too many truckers and that the problem is one of supply
and demand. The trucking companies say there aren’t enough
drivers, that they have trouble finding drivers. Who’s
RL: There are too many truck companies and not enough truck
drivers. What the trucking companies do is they underbid.
There should be fewer trucking companies, and they should be
held to higher standards. Some of those companies think that
they have the right to do whatever they want. Once you get
into a negotiation with them, this is what they say: “Well,
if you don’t like my company, just go ahead and look for
another one. I mean, I don’t force you to be here.” But for
me to get another company, it takes one or two weeks before
they check all the paperwork. And you still have bills to
pay. We have a house payment, most of us.
Everybody’s pissed off. If you talk to
truck drivers down here, you can see them. They are the
normal truck drivers, driving around, but they’re not happy
at all. That’s why they—as soon as somebody calls up for a
strike; one single person can say, okay, let’s go on
strike—everybody joins that person and goes back on strike.
Editor’s note: As Bay Crossings went to press, the Port of
Oakland was in talks with the truckers to drop their lawsuit
against Rueben Lopez and the other truckers.
Scott Dailey, Director of Corporate Communications, APL
Bay Crossings: About this brouhaha
going on about the truckers; they say they are very
underpaid and badly treated by you all. Your reaction?
SCOTT DAILEY: We’re not really a party to the discussion. We
hire trucking companies to do our drayage. (“drayage” is
industry jargon for hauling). And the trucking companies, in
turn, hire the independent owner/operators. Those are guys
who either own or lease a rig, and they are independent
business people. They, in turn, work for the trucking
companies. So the amount that the drivers get paid is a
contractual agreement between themselves and the trucking
companies. Since we contract with the trucking companies, we
don’t directly have any business relationship with the
BC: What the truckers say is that the
shipping companies are very much involved and that, indeed,
you play hardball. In fact, they say you threaten them with
lawsuits if they even so much as talk to each other about
the rates. True?
SD: Keep in mind that we don’t hire the drivers directly.
But I can point out that they exist in a competitive
marketplace with the trucking companies. They offer their
services as independent business people with the trucking
companies. But they come to an agreement and, likewise, the
trucking companies and we come to an agreement about what we
will pay the companies.
BC: It’s clearly not a good situation,
because there are wildcat strikes. There’s another one
threatened for a week-long period of time this time—on June
28th. What do you think needs to be done?
SD: I think that if the drivers are unhappy, they need to
discuss individually with the trucking companies that hire
them. It’s just like, you own your newspaper. If you don’t
like what your advertisers are paying, you go to them and
try to get an increase in the advertising rates. And that’s
the situation with the truckers and the trucking companies.
We do care that the truckers are treated
fairly and properly compensated. In fact, the Journal of
Commerce did a survey and we came out on top. We have been
paying a fuel surcharge, something that maybe the drivers
have conveniently forgotten to mention. Now, we pay that to
the trucking companies. We rely on them to pass it on. If
they are not passing it on, that’s a different issue.
BC: The truckers say they are made to wait in endless lines
for no pay, sometimes as long as eight hours.
SD: As far as I’m aware, we don’t have eight-hour lines at
our terminal. Every terminal is different. We have an
appointment system at our terminal; you can come right in.
Yet our appointment gate’s very little used. If they have an
appointment, they can come right in.
Bay Crossings: Could you set the stage for
us, what’s the issue with the truckers, what’s their gripe?
Jim Demaegt: It really goes back to President Reagan’s
deregulation in the 80s. There’s probably ten drivers for
every job, and the amount of compensation goes down, down,
down, down. Truckers now own their own trucks, well, the
banks actually own them—but even on a good day they may make
just a tiny bit of money. Often, they actually lose money.
And getting more so, and that brings on
wildcat strikes. The latest big spike in diesel fuel brought
on an unplanned, uncoordinated shutdown of virtually every
port in Los Angeles. The California Chamber of Commerce
estimates that on April 30, 85% of the Port trucking
business was shut down. I believe in Oakland they started
the next day, and shut down for several days after that. The
truckers want to unionize; they want to get a living wage,
which is basically what this is all about.
BC: Who are these truckers?
JD: They are all sorts of people. In Los Angeles, there’s
approximately 10,000 port truckers; by port truckers, we
mean people who haul from the various harbors here. You can
call them the Long Beach Harbor, the Wilmington Harbor, San
Pedro—but they are all kind of connected. In L.A., they are
almost all Latino; I would say over 90%, from El Salvador,
Mexico, people who have been in the United States, even born
here—but from Latino or Spanish-American, Mexican heritage.
In Oakland, the ethnic mix is quite different.
BC: And whom do they work with, whom
are they unhappy with?
JD: You have shipping companies, and then you have brokers
and trucking companies. They supposedly contract with
independent contractor truckers. The problem is that the
shippers very often either own or dominate, totally and
completely, the brokers and trucking companies. Often, they
totally dominate the terms. When they say, “Take this
contract or leave it,” there’s no bargaining. If they are
going to dictate the terms of the employment like this, then
truckers are employees and deserve the rights and privileges
of being an employee.
BC: The shipping companies and terminal
operators I’ve talked with say they have no dog in this
fight, that the truckers’ problem is with the trucking
companies. Are you saying that this is disingenuous?
JD: Yes. What happens is a kind of disappearing act.
Whenever you try to find out a responsible party, the
shipping lines will say they’re not responsible. And the
truckers say, “Well, we’re just contractors for the shipping
lines.” So there’s really nobody to deal with. At this
point, what needs to happen is, the truckers just need to be
organized. Frankly, they could be organized either as an
independent association, which I don’t approve of, or they
can form a union. They could join an existing union.
BC: Weren’t these docks entirely union
at one time?
JD: That was before deregulation. Reagan’s deregulation had
the effect of ending the Teamsters’ primacy. Non-union
companies came in and took all the business from them. So
once those union companies lost the business, the
trucking—the port truckers—were no longer unionized.
But these are exciting times and there’s
hope because of these general unorganized, unled calls for a
harbor shutdown. Even though there may be ten drivers for
every job, just when the call went out, “Do not haul,” L.A.
harbor was totally and completely shut down. Nobody scabbed.
That was not an issue of force, because who would have the
force to do it? It might have been the case when 99% didn’t
run, and one trucker began to run—there might have been a
little coercion used against them. I don’t necessarily
approve of that.
However, in general, it was just a total
agreement. Even though somebody could say, “I’m going to
make a lot of money. I’m going to go out and rent ten trucks
and go haul on this day, and charge double,” nobody did. I
think that’s amazing. The problem right now may be the lack
of a plan. Since there’s no centralization—and apparently
the teamsters are not moving forward to help.
BC: Why not? If not the Teamsters, why
not the longshoremen? Or any other union.
JD: The longshoremen don’t have jurisdiction. I think the
longshoremen have been quite friendly and helpful, but they
don’t have jurisdiction to unionize the truckers. The
AFL-CIO has said Teamsters is the only union that has
jurisdiction, but the Teamsters has not moved on this issue.
BC: How likely do you think more Port
shutdowns in the near future are?
JD: I think there’s a 98% chance on the week of June 28th
through July whatever, depending on how long it lasts: maybe
the 7th, maybe it will only go to the 4th. There’s going to
be a nationwide action. It’s going to be big in L.A.