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Port Truck Drivers Push to Unionize Amid Squalid Conditions

Thursday, 09 February 2012 07:18 By Yana Kunichoff, Truthout | Report
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American port truck drivers are using tried and true tactics of public pressure and collective organizing to win union recognition and fight back against retaliatory tactics by their employer.

More than 65 truck drivers that work for the Toll Group, the largest transport and logistics employer in Australia, at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where they move merchandise for companies including Polo and Ralph Lauren under what they say are deplorable conditions, have filed for a union representation election.

"Why do we want a union? Let me tell you why," said Xiomara Perez, a port driver in Southern California. "In the night we are exposed to the elements, without anywhere to sit and have our lunch [during the day] and a horrible toilet."

The conditions the workers are demonstrating against include restrooms without running water in their primary work facility, the Transportation Workers Union said, and wages that are 32 percent less than the average California truck driver.

"We are professional drivers and it is a dangerous job," continued Perez. "We deserve better working conditions."

A majority of the drivers in the port, 65 of 75, signed a petition stating that they wanted to have the ability to collectively bargain and be represented by the Teamsters.

In return, the Toll Group began a period of illegal retaliation against its workers, found the National Labor Relations Board. This included hiring an anti-union consultant to intimidate the employees out of unionizing and firing 26 workers after they wore Teamster shirts to work.

"These workers generate vast profits for the richest in our society," said Nick Weiner, Port Campaign director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and yet "we should call out their insurance plan for what it is - prayer."

The truck drivers and their Teamster allies are now using a public pressure campaign to push the Toll Group, worth $8.3 billion, into acknowledging their right to unionize. The Transport Workers Union has started a web site to track the developments of the unionizing effort, and had clergy deliver their collective bargaining petition to Toll Group management.

"This is a process where there is regrettably little democracy if an employer such as The Toll Group has the resources for a fight," said Dr. John Logan, professor and director of labor and employment studies at the College of Business at San Francisco State University. "Anti-union tactics detailed by the workers are absolutely standard for employers ready" to push down unionization.

In contrast to its nonunion American workforce, 12,000 Australian employees of the Toll Group are represented by the Transport Workers Union. However, to the companies it ships for, the Toll Group maintains an outward presence of accepting unions.

"Like many companies, we appreciate the value of unions and are happy to work with them if our employees collectively choose to join. We are committed to behave openly and honestly and expect the unions to do the same," the company wrote in a January note to its retail clients.

Transnational companies with vastly varying approaches to unionization in different countries are not uncommon. Walmart, a bastion of anti-unionism in the United States, operates union shops in South Africa.

"No facilities for water or lunch are conditions that are not only substandard but wouldn't have happened in Australia," said Michael Aird, with the Transport Workers Union of Australia. "We are going to stand with our employees around the world and ... make it our business to see workers treated with respect and dignity."
 

Yana Kunichoff

Yana Kunichoff is an assistant editor at Truthout.

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