Wildcats Disable West Coast Ports
By Pete Little - Industrial Worker, June 2004.
Largely unreported in the mainstream press, one of the largest eruptions of independent worker rebellion in the U.S. in many years began April 30 with truckers shutting down a freeway in Los Angeles. Soon, thousands of truckers from Oakland, Sacramento, Stockton, Tacoma and as far away as Virginia and Texas were shutting or slowing down ports and rail centers across the country. These workers have for years been misclassified as independent contractors, leaving all liability for injuries, insurance and other risks or costs on the backs of the workers themselves. This classification has also left these workers without the limited protections for collective activity or union recognition provided in the United States, through the National Labor Relations Board.
The largely immigrant workforce in Los Angeles and Oakland have been building organization for years. After ten years of failed attempts to negotiate employee status and union recognition, workers have simply struck, picketing the ports. Demands have ranged from employee: status and increased reimbursement for rising gas costs to recognition of the Intermodal Trucker's Union.
The mobilizations were initially cited as a response to rising gas costs, organized' largely through CB radios, leaflets and publicized by sympathetic Spanish-language radio stations in the LA area. As the week pro gressed, daily gatherings of hundreds of workers in public parks around the ports have been used to rally workers behind the call for a new union.
After a week of picketing, the Port of Oakland succeeded in getting a court injunction, alleging that the strikers were impeding business by harassing truckers who crossed their picker line. At the same time, the Port began to offer small raises and gas reimbursement increases while negotiating with `strike leaders.' In articles in the local press, the Port complained that although they had `strike leaders' negotiating an end to the strike, they couldn't seem to find anyone capable of actually ending the strike. The self-appointed leaders attempted to downplay calls for a new union, insisting that the truckers work in conjunction with the companies.
Due to the somewhat, spontaneous nature of the protests, and the limited level of organization, strike actions have dissolved or called off, although meetings of the independent-truckers, or troqueros, continue across the West Coast and throughout the country. These workers have pledged to continue their actions, and ideas of the birth of a new independent truckers union, or with the IWW, have been discussed.
There are important lessons for other transportation workers within this short strike. With the failure of the National Labor Relations Act to act as a vehicle for effective change, with a general rejection of the Teamsters and their corruption and reliance on a legal bureaucracy that continues to fail these workers, the troqueros have taken things into their own hands. Rather than approaching each employer in the ports as individuals, they have simply decided to shut down the port themselves.
It is hard to know the real level of support for the strike within the workforce, but the effectiveness of these workers actions can be measured by reports of 85% reduced truck traffic at the Port of Long Beach, total closures and an inability to accept freight in rail yards across Southern California, and the Port of Oakland's pleas to the courts to, halt the workers' picket. What remains to be seen is how effectively these workers can use their weeklong strike to continue to develop sympathy and support for continued activity and organization within the industry.
In an economy, structured around just in time production, transportation workers occupy an increasingly powerful position in the economy. By comparison to the entire number of truckers in the industry, a relatively small number of workers engaged in. a risky, aggressive action that proved itself to-be incredibly successful. The question remaining is whether this demonstration of power by even a minority can be used to propel new levels of organization, and with them new victories and greater strength.