Truck Drivers Strike as Tension Mounts at West Coast Ports

LOS ANGELES (Los Angeles Times/MCT) -

Some truck drivers who work at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., walked off the job Thursday, organizers said, in a protest against two trucking firms they accuse of wage theft.

The job action — the fifth in about a year — comes amid rising tension between a powerful dockworkers union and multinational shipping lines, which are negotiating a new contract for some 20,000 workers on the West Coast.

It’s unclear if dockworkers will honor the truckers’ picket lines.

Truckers argue that they are improperly classified as independent contractors, leaving them with fewer workplace protections and lower pay than if they were company employees.

In July, they put down their picket lines after LA Mayor Eric Garcetti requested a “cooling-off” period. Protest organizers say the struck companies promised to allow all drivers back to work without retaliation.

But Thursday morning, organizers said drivers from two harbor-area firms, Total Transportation Services Inc. and Pacific 9 Transportation, went back on strike, alleging that the companies have since retaliated against them.

Drivers set up picket lines at company yards in Compton and Carson and will picket terminals if company trucks enter those locations, said Barb Maynard, a spokeswoman for the Teamsters Union, which is backing the drivers.

Maynard said she did not know exactly how many truckers walked off the job.

The companies make up a small minority of the firms that serve both LA and Long Beach ports. There are 1,000 trucking companies registered to haul goods from both ports, said Port of Long Beach spokesman Art Wong.

Protesters targeted two terminals in Long Beach, but cargo there continued to flow normally, Wong said.

Port of Los Angeles spokesman Phillip Sanfield said protesters were at four LA terminals Thursday morning, but it was unclear if they had set up picket lines. Sanfield said there has been no disruption to the flow of cargo.

During the drivers’ last strike, in July, longshoremen honored the picket lines, closing four terminals at the LA and Long Beach ports.

An arbitrator, however, quickly ruled that the dockworkers’ contract didn’t allow them to leave the job in sympathy with the striking drivers, and the terminals reopened.

However, with no contract in place now, such a quick resolution isn’t available.

And tension between dockworkers and their terminal-operator employers has risen sharply since July.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers, have lobbed public accusations against each other in the last week. The barbs have raised concerns that a lockout or strike could shut ports up and down the West Coast.

The public sniping, experts say, signals that both sides have grown frustrated and probably have come to an impasse at the negotiating table.