By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
WASHINGTON (PAI)—Unionizing port truckers who drive cargoes out of the port of Los Angeles-Long Beach would not only give them decent wages, benefits and labor law protection, but would help solve the nation’s supply chain crunch, Teamsters President Jim Hoffa told the White House in a top-level meeting.
So said the Teamsters leader, according to AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan, another of three union leaders in the Oct. 13 session, in an exclusive telephone interview with Press Associates Union News Service an hour after it ended.
Democratic President Joe Biden called the meeting, chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris, to try to find solutions to the continuing supply chain crunch, which has seen freighters lined up in the Pacific Ocean outside the ports, waiting to unload containerized freight — carrying everything from computer chips to children’s toys — for a month or more.
But they’ve been hampered by inadequate rail lines out of the ports, and even more so by shortages of both rail workers and the port truckers. The nation’s Class I freight railroads were silent on solutions, according to a White House fact sheet, which announced that as a first step, L.A.-Long Beach would run 24/7, with added weekend and night shifts, too.
Hoffa wasn’t. With the ports’ leaders and corporate leaders listening, he said unionizing the truckers would help solve the supply chain problem at the ports, which handle 40% of all U.S. cargoes.
Make port trucker jobs attractive by making the workers “employees” and not “independent contractors” under labor law, Regan quoted Hoffa as declaring.
Right now, the misclassified drivers are “indentured servants,” Hoffa told the others.
The Teamsters leader told of one port truck driver toiling for more than 40 hours a week, “and after deductions, he took home a paycheck of zero.” His union has been successful in California state courts in challenging owners’ misclassification of the port truck drivers.
“Make sure they’re properly classified with decent wages and benefits,” Hoffa added, and there’ll be more drivers, according to Regan. “The corporate folks were smart enough not to push back.”
By unionizing, the drivers could bargain for decent pay and for the firms to cover expenses such as gas, tires and insurance. They’d also be eligible for jobless benefits, Social Security, Medicare and workers comp. The Teamsters have been trying to organize the drivers for five years.
Brian Deese, Biden’s National Economic Council chair, agreed with Hoffa, Regan said.
Hoffa wasn’t the only union leader to offer a way out of the L.A.-Long Beach gridlock. William Adams, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents workers who load and unload the freighters at both ports, pledged to find and send more stevedores to do so, Regan reported.
And the CEO of UPS, whose truckers are unionized with the Teamsters, pledged to hire more truckers for its fleets, too.
The bottlenecks and shortages are due to corporate greed, Regan said, citing the fact that even pre-pandemic, the nation’s Class I freight railroads, also are a key transportation link, had cut the number of workers by 22% over the prior four years.
After the back-and-forth, the group reached an agreement designed to both solve the nation’s immediate shipping problems before the holiday shopping season hits and to get started on permanent fixes.
Both are necessary, Regan said, because the nation faces a fall and winter and beyond of more transportation bottlenecks for several reasons.
The Class I freight railroads are mostly unionized, with several AFL-CIO unions the Teamsters Rail Conference, the Machinists’ Transportation and Communications Union, and the Firemen and Oilers, an SEIU sector. But those carriers’ cost-cutting is also a big part of the problem, he said.
The railroads have converted to and depend upon “precision scheduling,” while also lobbying for one-person freight train crews, over union opposition. But as a result, when a flood of imported goods hits our shores, those freighters must wait at least a month to unload, transportation experts point out.
That problem could get solved by running more rail lines into the ports and employing more rail workers, Regan noted.
Between the lack of port drivers, few rail lines and cuts in rail workers, delays lengthen, the White House fact sheet added.
“As the country recovers from a once-in-a-century pandemic and economic crisis, the private businesses that make up our supply chains, which get goods to businesses and the American people, have struggled to keep up,” it says.
“The pandemic has led to a surge in e-commerce, with sales increasing 39% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020. At the same time, Covid (the official name for the coronavirus) disrupted workers in key transportation and logistics nodes,” it adds. That included L.A.-Long Beach, where 1,800 workers so far this year lost time to the virus.
Besides Vice President Harris, Regan, Hoffa, the ILWU’s Adams, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, corporate participants included the presidents and CEOs of UPS, FedEx, Walmart, the Chamber of Commerce, Home Depot, the National Retail Federation and Target, among others.
While the session mostly focused on the immediate problems at Los Angeles-Long Beach, participants also agreed to set up a White House task force to meet three times a week to hash out long-term solutions, Regan said. Those solutions include “expanding port infrastructure,” using federal funds in the $974 billion transportation bill pending in Congress.
Regan noted there was one other key difference between this session and past White House confabs on transportation difficulties: Union leaders were in the room, and were heard and listened to.
He also expects the rail unions will be part of the task force “and they’ll be identifying choke points” in their industry, such as Chicago’s “backed up” freight rail yards stretching south and west from Union Station.
“And the unions can identify members who can quickly relocate to deal with chokepoint problems and how do we get out of this mess,” Regan noted. “In the past, corporate America would say they’re riding to the rescue without acknowledgement of how they got us in it in the first place” through their quest for ever-greater profits.