Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Port drivers fed up with doing the work, while Wal-Mart gets the gravy

Savannah port drivers are reaching out to the community to challenge their status as indentured servants. Like port drivers all over the country, they are misclassified as "independent contractors." Their employers force them into poverty by making them rent and maintain their trucks, and by refusing to pay benefits.

Now, with the help of Teamsters Local 728 in Atlanta, the drivers are fighting back.

Sarah Jaffe published a great story today, "Sharecropping on Wheels," about their efforts. She writes:
Independent contractors ... don't have the right to form a union, leaving the port truckers without an official voice. Meanwhile, the companies for which they work face continuing pressure from big-box retailers like Wal-Mart to lower their costs—pressure which results, inevitably, in the workers being squeezed, with no real power to resist. 
The drivers in Savannah are coming together to challenge their misclassification, but also to try to find a way to organize now, whether or not they are classified as employees. The question is, “How can workers excluded, not just organize as a lobbying force, but begin to engage in forms of collective action?” asks Ben Speight, an organizer with Teamsters Local 728 in Georgia. The work done by Seattle-area taxicab drivers, for instance, who associated with Teamsters Local 117, is a possible example for these port drivers. 
The South presents unique challenges to organizing, certainly—Georgia has long been a so-called “right-to-work” state, and unions have almost no foothold there. But the ports serve as an integral part of the global supply chain and thus present an opportunity for the workers to exercise some power. Federal money has been authorized for the dredging of the Savannah River to deepen the port (and to mitigate environmental consequences from the dredging), meaning that there will be a lot of focus on Savannah in the coming years. 
On June 1, the Savannah drivers will hold a community/driver forum with Larry Benjamin of the U.S. Department of Labor's wage and hour division, as well as faith and community leaders, and elected officials from the state legislature and Savannah City Council. The coalition hosting the event calls itself “Stand Up for Savannah,” and it's looking beyond just the issue of driver misclassification to discuss ways in which the newfound wealth at the port could benefit everyone.
Read the whole thing here.