The sun rises over the Southern California horizon with pinkish hues painting the dawn sky. Workers have been marching in circles for a few hours now chanting “Trabajadores unidos, jamas seran vencidos.” Workers united, will never be defeated. It is the morning of Oct. 1, 2018, and port truck drivers and warehouse workers are on strike.
About 40 percent of the United States’ economy is moved through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California. This is a grueling industry, one that has suffered at the hands of deregulation throughout the years. Worker abuse, wage theft and exploitation are rampant in this industry.
These same workers have gone on strike previously to protest the unlawful behavior they must endure on the job every day and have shown their willingness to do so until conditions improve.
Strikers targeted two major companies for unfair labor practices: XPO Logistics and NFI Industries. When port and warehouse workers at these companies tried to organize a union, their employers unlawfully retaliated against them and they strike in protest of these unfair labor practices.
Both of these multi-billion-dollar corporations boast major retailers as their customers, such as Toyota, Sony, Puma, Lowe’s and even Amazon.
XPO Logistics is no stranger to controversy and employs questionable labor practices across all their operations. In Southern California, XPO Logistics exploits the owner-operator model which misclassifies their employees as independent contractors and pushes the burden of operating costs onto their employees.
Workers, by being misclassified as independent contractors, are barred from accessing employee protections like unemployment insurance, disability insurance, traditional meal and rest breaks, access to comprehensive employer-sponsored health care and more. Being misclassified allows XPO to push the burden of costs onto the employee by forcing them to pay for costly repairs, diesel, tags, and insurance for both the driver and the loads they carry.
On top of shouldering these day-to-day costs, truck “owners” are also forced into prohibitive lease terms with XPO. These deductions come at such a high cost to the worker that often they take home miserably low wages and even negative pay checks. These workers have to pay out of their own pocket in order to work every day. Should a truck break down, workers are faced with such high repair costs that workers have to blow through what little life savings they have, or continue to borrow money in order to stay operational.
This owner-operator model isn’t unique to XPO Logistics, but XPO has found ways to constantly “recruit” more “independent contractors,” making this shady labor model appear lucrative and attractive but contributing further to the worker misclassification crisis.
“They paint this image to you that you’re going to make tons of money and be accountable only to yourself,” said Juan Islas, a driver for XPO. “They sell you this shiny new truck and a dream. The reality, however, is much different,” Islas said.
Drivers for XPO find that company rhetoric about being their own boss is false and misleading.
“XPO likes to say that I’m my own boss but that much is simply not true,” Islas said. “We are dispatched by XPO, we are told where to pick up and drop off loads by XPO, we are made to follow rules on the road that doesn’t even come from CHP (California Highway Patrol), and it all comes from XPO,” he said.
In order for these misclassified drivers to make any money, they need to be constantly working. This leads drivers to spend upwards of 14-18 hours on the road a day. On top of that, some truck owners have what are called second-seat drivers. These are also misclassified workers that drive the truck on behalf of an owner-operator, when owners aren’t working themselves. XPO claims that second-seat drivers are direct employees of the owner-operators, which is also misleading.
Isabel Samayoa is a second-seat driver with XPO. As a female truck driver, Samayoa has endured a host of experiences that many drivers don’t face in a male-dominated industry.
“I’ve been driving my entire career. I’ve driven everything from school buses to trucks for XPO now,” Samayoa said. “The biggest issue for me in this industry is the misclassification. XPO tries to make it look like the person whose truck I drive is my boss, but every day it’s XPO management telling me where and when to go.”
Besides dealing with the consequences of misclassification, Samayoa has to deal with issues that men don’t face on the job, like lack of clean and accessible restrooms that are appropriate for women.
“Every time I need to use the restroom is a challenge,” Samayoa said. “If I’m at the yard, I need to knock on a window and wait for somebody to let me in or use facilities that lack in cleanliness and toilet paper.”
Samayoa has brought these concerns to the attention of management at XPO and has yet to see any corrective action take place.
“It can be a burden sometimes,” she said. “It can impact my work and management doesn’t care.”
XPO isn’t the only bad actor in this industry, with workers striking NFI Industries as well. NFI Industries, based out of New Jersey, is made up of a few other entities such as Cal Cartage Express, K&R, and the Cal Cartage Warehouse. Much like XPO, Cal Cartage Express and K&R also engage in worker misclassification.
At the NFI warehouse, worker accounts of racial discrimination, improper use of temporary workers in the spirit of misclassification, and retaliation run rampant.
“In the 20 years I’ve worked at NFI, I’ve only seen about a $2 raise,” said Jose Rodriguez, who has worked at the NFI warehouse for over 20 years. “It wasn’t until my co-workers and I started speaking up and demanding that our rights be respected that NFI gave us a proper pay raise.”
Issues at the warehouse are exacerbated by NFI’s improper use of temporary workers. Temporary workers making abysmally low wages struggle to make ends meet, with many facing housing insecurity because of it.
“I’ve seen and felt first-hand the stress, frustration and fear upon my co-workers’ faces from racial discrimination and favoritism from management, especially the temp workers,” Rodriguez said. “Whenever someone speaks up, they are met with retaliation and suffer from loss of work. I think we all deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity.”
Workers Harness Their Power
The majority of this workforce is made up of immigrants and workers of color, where many speak English as a second language and have little to no familiarity with labor laws and worker rights in this country.
“I think they believe they can take advantage of us because they know we’re not familiar with the laws here,” said Domingo Avalos, an XPO worker.
Avalos is one of four XPO drivers leading the DLSE (California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement) claims against XPO. These workers were the first to file claims with the DLSE seeking wages stolen by XPO due to misclassification. Class action lawsuits and more DLSE claims from other misclassified XPO drivers, both second-seat drivers and owner-operators, have followed.
So far these claims have worked. Workers have been found to indeed be misclassified by XPO, with millions of dollars in stolen wages being awarded to drivers.
Workers at NFI Industries have also sought justice through the legal system to address their ongoing issues on the job, winning decisions from government agencies like Cal/OSHA and the California Labor Commissioner. There is also a pending case to address the racial discrimination that African-American workers face. Even the L.A. city attorney has sued K&R and Cal Cartage Express for unfair competition by misclassifying drivers.
“It’s thanks to the Teamsters that I’ve gotten involved in this fight,” Samayoa said. “Marches on the boss, worker delegations, lawsuits—these are all things that us workers have done together and will continue to do to make our voices heard.”
Despite working in an industry where the deck is stacked against workers, they are banding together and finding their voices.
“The Teamsters have helped me get educated on what my rights are,” Islas said. “I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that our stories are heard. I will go on strike as many times as I have to until something changes.”
Workers are finding their voices. They know the worth of the labor to not only their communities but the nation’s economy at large.
“If it weren’t for us and the backbreaking work we do, these companies wouldn’t have the items necessary to stock their shelves,” Rodriguez said. “You might think that handling merchandise for such huge retailers, and at the largest port in the country, Cal Cartage’s workers would share in that prosperity. Sadly, that is not the case.”
While workers wait for answers from the various legal claims in place, answers that can take years to materialize, strikes like this one are a way to hit companies where it matters the most: their bottom line.
“We know that our strikes cause a slowdown across the industry,” Avalos said. “Despite the fears of financial loss and retaliation, we will continue to strike in order to get our employer to listen to us.”
Immigrant Rights are Workers’ Rights
A large portion of this workforce is made up of immigrants, with a number of workers with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). TPS allows for people from countries affected by armed conflict or natural disaster to legally work and live in the United States. This program has since been cancelled and those that were living and working legally in the United States are now facing the threat of deportation.
A lot of TPS holders have lived in the United States for decades, have established families and careers and are currently living with fear and uncertainty. TPS holders who work at the ports, upon losing their TPS, will no longer have a valid TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) card. These cards allow truck drivers to enter and exit the ports, which is necessary to their job every day. For these TPS workers not only is their fight for dignity and respect on the job, but it’s also now fighting for the ability to stay in a country that they’ve given so much to. Of those workers who are about to lose their TPS, several face life or death situations should they be forced to return to their country of origin.
Miguel Garcia is a truck driver who immigrated to the United States to seek better opportunities for his family and to escape deteriorating conditions in El Salvador. Garcia has now been living and working legally in the United States for over 20 years. The threat of deportation back to El Salvador is now a threat he must live with every day. Garcia is the father to young children, one of whom has serious medical issues and needs access to quality health care in order to survive.
“I worry a lot about what will happen to Brian should I be deported back to El Salvador,” Garcia said. “Due to his epilepsy, my son needs access to doctors and medicine, and that is something that will be extremely hard to come by back in El Salvador.”
Being the parent of a special needs child can already be difficult enough given the best of circumstances. Adding the stress and fear of deportation can make the task feel herculean.
“I’m not sure what will happen if I’m deported, but I will say that my family and I are terrified of being separated,” said Cesar Rodriguez, a truck driver for XPO. Rodriguez and his wife, who is also a TPS recipient, have five children and have lived and worked in the United States for over 20 years. “We want people to understand how important our jobs, and those TPS holders that do the work, are to this country’s economy. Without us the loads that customers and this country depend on would not be moved on time.”
Rodriguez, despite being worried about negative consequences, has gone on strike in the past and is one of the several drivers with DLSE claims against XPO fighting for lost wages. “We just want the abuse on the job to end, to have respect and dignity for all and to not live in fear in a country we’ve contributed so much to,” he said.
In light of the recent and growing attacks on the immigrant community, teaming up with immigration and community groups to highlight that immigrant rights and worker rights are directly tied together, was important for this strike. These are workers that have played by the rules and are not only demanding justice on the job but also justice in a system that is stacked against them.
Teamsters Participate in Civil Disobedience
On October 3, immigrant rights groups National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) led a caravan of workers, immigrants and community supporters in circling a federal detention center in downtown Los Angeles. That caravan then led a slowdown on a highway, one that is a major artery to port traffic in the area, ending at the Wilmington Waterfront Park, where a rally calling for the reversal of ending the TPS program took place.
After three days of labor and immigrant rights groups picketing together, these groups’ messages and purpose have all come together as one. Immigrant rights are essential to worker rights. Worker abuse in and out of the ports has gone unchecked for far too long and it’s past time for these companies to stop breaking the law and clean up their act. Groups of speakers included workers, TPS holders, community and elected leaders all beating the same drum; that the status quo is no longer good enough.
In an act of solidarity, 66 people, made up of Teamsters, community, clergy and other labor members, participated in an act of peaceful civil disobedience. These 66 individuals, three of whom were Teamster principal officers and an International Vice President, took part in the second-largest act of civil disobedience in Southern California since 2006.
Risking their own personal safety, these 66 individuals locked arms and peacefully took over an intersection, impacting the flow of traffic near a choke point to the ports. As police officers in riot gear surrounded these protestors, peaceful chants calling for respect for worker rights drowned out the noise. One by one these 66 protestors ignored instruction from a peace officer and waited to be hauled away into custody.
Rally attendees watched and waited on the sidelines as police worked to clear the intersection of protestors. This act of civil disobedience was the ultimate form of solidarity for striking workers and immigrants.
Briefly setting aside their privilege, the 66 participants experienced the fear of the unknown as they were awaiting arrest. That fear is one experienced by these workers every day on the job as they struggle to make their voices heard. Several hours later all protestors had been processed and released by local authorities.
The intersection where 66 people had stood their ground earlier had been returned to its intended use, but the community building that took place that afternoon will have lasting effects on this fight.
Workers Look to the Future
By Thursday afternoon, all striking workers had returned to their jobs. Did anything change? Not this time. These workers know that change is imminent and that it will take many more actions like these before any substantive changes occur. History is on the side of these workers and they know it. Their resilience shows with every picket line they put up and every claim they file suit for.
“People ask me all the time why I remain in this fight and why I don’t just quit and look for another job,” said Domingo Avalos, an XPO driver. “This is my favorite question to answer. Why am I going to leave this job, why am I going to quit this fight when every job is exactly the same in this industry?”
Despite slow-moving progress, workers are staying motivated and optimistic, hungry for the next opportunity to be able to share their stories and shed light on an industry that has been exploiting workers for far too long.
“We are fortunate to live in a country of laws. We know the law is on our side and justice will continue to be on our side. We must keep fighting with everything we have to make sure we end worker misclassification once and for all,” Avalos said.
“I’m never going to stop,” Samaoya said. “This is too important and we’re just getting started.”