Port Truckers are a Symptom of a Rigged System

“Reyes Castellanos, 58, has gallstones and no health insurance, because he’s labeled an independent contractor instead of an employee.”

Recently, USA Today had an investigative report on port truckers, the people who bring goods from warehouses to your favorite (or least-favorite) retailer. The article is, naturally, a somewhat lengthy one but the main details concern the ways that workers (especially immigrants who speak little English) are exploited by one-sided contacts.

In these contracts, workers are given a leasing option of the truck, with a promise from the company that someday they can own it. But in reality, the process for paying these trucks is time-consuming, absurdly costly and doesn’t remotely match up with how much these truckers make a day. In addition, a widespread abuse of labor regulations, doctoring the log books and threats of starving them of work by their bosses, keep workers busy for sometimes 15 to 16 hours a day.

And even when they work this much and work almost everyday, they are often left with very little money. Partly, that’s because the contract claims that the workers are entirely responsible for any costs associated with the truck, including insurance and fuel. This is the case even though the workers do not yet own the truck and are still trying to pay it off. It also does not take into consideration the taxes that these truckers as “independent contractors” have to pay.

In case you’re wondering, this is all extremely dangerous:

Drivers at Pacific 9 Transportation testified that their managers dispatched truckers up to 20 hours a day, then wouldn’t pay them until drivers falsified inspection reports that track hours. Hundreds of California port truckers have gotten into accidents, leading to more than 20 fatalities from 2013 to 2015, according to the USA TODAY Network’s analysis of federal crash and port trade data.

To make matters worse, when the workers quit or sometimes even when they have to leave briefly for a funeral or any other emergency, their trucks are often taken away. And any money that the workers have paid towards it? Gone.

Make sure to read the whole article, because it’s pretty eye-opening if (like me) you knew very little about this industry. I knew some of these things already, but very vaguely. I knew that truckers often drove for much longer hours than they should, up to very dangerous levels. I knew about the practice of doctoring log books (how many hours they’ve driven) so they can still be paid, even if it violates federal labor laws to work that much, etc.

But I had no idea how this specifically intersected with the lives of immigrants (I presume there are some “illegal” immigrants as well but the article makes no mention of this) and how the trucking industry specifically exploits them. And this exploitation doesn’t just come from capitalism but also the system of borders that the US has which makes it much more difficult to integrate into the US culture.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, USA Today doesn’t get into any of the intersecting issues here. The closest it gets is asking corporations who profit from these exploitative practices (e.g. Target) what they think. Most play dumb, some decline to answer all together and Target themselves say it has nothing to do with them. Their reasoning (and the reasoning of another few corporations) is that the responsibility for what happens begins when it gets to their store.

But this is a naive (if not intentionally ignorant) reading of the situation.

Even if Target doesn’t directly hire the drivers, it’s paying the companies which pay for the drivers, to take the materials to their stores. For Target to simply say, “I have nothing to do with this!” is the equivalent of the person who hired the assassin to say they had nothing to do with the elimination of the assassin’s target.

Er, no pun intended.

After all, the target wouldn’t even be a target without the person hiring the assassin to begin with!

As Jeffery Klink, a former fraud prosecutor and corporate ethics professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Business says:

…[I]t’s easy for retailers to dodge accountability because they can argue they don’t directly hire port trucking companies.

“This is a classic case where the little guy gets screwed,” he said.

Speaking of naive:

“I don’t know of anything even remotely like this,” said Stanford Law School Professor William Gould, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board and one of the nation’s top labor experts.

“You’re working to get yourself out of the debt. You just don’t see anything like that.”

Speaking as someone who is “merely” over 6,000 in debt from going to an out of state college for one year, this is a goddamn joke to me. Especially from someone to say who is intimately involved with one of the most popular colleges, to act like people are not constantly fighting some sort of debt off (home, college, etc.) is bizarre.

The problem isn’t just limited to the debt of these truck drivers and their trucks, though it’s certainly more extreme than most. It’s a systematic form of debt where the things you try to own (your education, your home, your car) end up owning you. And I’m not saying this in some sort of anti-consumerist message to tell you to stop buying things. I don’t think the answer to disrupting and undermining capitalism (let alone building better alternatives) is to buy nothing.

In situations like these there are many tools at our disposal.

We could call the companies in question (though as this investigative report showed, this generally has little to no effect). We could try to get the workers in question to unionize, but that seems arduous and from the looks of all of the litigation against these companies, they have a lot of money to spare. We could try to encourage workers to form their own truck companies, but this too seems arduous and especially for low-class immigrants who barely understand English.

And to be clear, I’m not putting words into the mouths of the workers. Many of the workers who USA Today interviewed were immigrants with a poor understand of the English language. That’s part of how these trucking companies are able to exploit these workers in the first place. They hand these workers contracts with little to no time to consult their lawyers or other folks who may have a better understanding of contracts and try to force them to say “yes or no” on the spot.

Under situations like this and with such obviously disparate power dynamics, it’s obvious why abuse comes early and often in companies like that. The immigrants who want to feed their families and even US citizens who want to feed their families, are barely able to keep up payments on their truck. Sometimes, after making thousands of dollars in a week, that paycheck is reduced to hundreds or even tens of dollars. One even ended with 0.35!

I’d be lying if I knew what the solution to all of this is.

What I do know is that the first thing is to pass knowledge around about these incidents and try to help people (especially influential people) understand that these are not isolated incidents. These companies are acting within a system of privileges that give them advantage over any sort of law. The companies reactions to these laws are to easily subvert them and pass those costs on to the workers.

The solution then, isn’t to change the laws or appeal to state regulatory agencies, especially not when they are partially the cause in the first place:

With little up-front investment, drivers – most of them independent contractors who owned their own trucks – could make a decent living squeezing the last miles from dilapidated big rigs that weren’t suited for the open road.

In October 2008, that changed dramatically in southern California, home of the nation’s busiest ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach. State officials, fed up with deadly diesel fumes from 16,000 outdated trucks, ordered the entire fleet replaced with new, cleaner rigs.

Suddenly, this obscure but critical collection of trucking companies faced a $2.5 billion crossroads unlike anything experienced at other U.S. ports.

Instead of digging into their own pockets to undo the environmental mess they helped create, the companies found a way to push the cost onto individual drivers, who are paid by the number and kinds of containers they move, not by the hour.

That’s, at least in part, why I don’t think liberalism will ever work as a constraint on corporations. There are no “right” regulations or regulators that corporations cannot bribe or finds ways around. True, corporations have had to pay in court, but these were largely (from what I can tell) settled out of court or done as quietly as possible, with plenty left to spare.

These businesses are still in control and the businesses they service are as well. There was only one business that decided to defect from assisting in this exploitation, but it was easily outnumbered by the ones who did not. These sudden changes to trucking left companies scrambling for the most cost effective way to keep (ahem) trucking. And often times in a capitalist system, the most effective is not the most ethical or good for the workers.

Ultimately, the people who know best how to counter this mess are likely the workers themselves. Giving them legal help, economic help, helping them organize more effectively, spreading the word about their plight and trying to get companies like Target to stop giving these trucking companies money unless they change their policies, could be helpful.

But so far, Target and many other companies have proved resistant. So what are we to do?

All I can say is to keep up the pressure and look for better alternatives, if they’re out there. If you don’t have any luck pressuring where the trucks are going and where they are coming from, what about the people who these companies are buying the trucks from? That wasn’t an angle I saw in the investigative report and it’s the only other one I can think of.

Most importantly, we need to keep in mind that these port truckers and their horrible experiences are not the result of a state agency trying to be environmentally responsible. It isn’t just the results of capitalism or labeling these workers as “independent contractors”. And it isn’t just the results of borders and systematic racism against immigrants.

These are all important factors, but at the heart of this mess is the government and its insistence on privileging the work of corporations in this economy. It’s a regulatory framework that benefits and was historically designed to benefit big corporations, so long as the most meager concessions were made to workers. It’s a system that empowers bosses over workers at almost every turn economically and culturally that results in industries like this.

All of these factors combine into a toxic system that rewards hard work, where hard work can sometimes mean as much as death. And when you want to avoid death, you’re going to have to avoid some industries and lines of work, just to make sure you keep whatever you have left of your spirit.

The investigative report gives us few answers and although that’s frustrating, it’s understandable. The trucking industry is what many big box retailers are dependent on for their very existence. Transportation subsidies are also at the heart of what makes big box retailers like Target overpower the smaller competitors. And so challenging these subsidies, these state granted privileges, as well as the pervasive culture of bossism is important in our struggles as well.

“Nobody cares about us,” said trucker Gustavo Villa, “because we are living in the dark.”

I hope articles like USA Today and maybe in some small measure, this one, can shed the light these truckers need so they can resist their bosses. So that people who need to work to support their families can at least do it without having to worry about whether they can use the bathroom or whether they’re even going to see their family at all.

This may be the worst of what capitalism has to offer, but it’s not the only thing. Capitalism is worth fighting on so many fronts and these truckers are just one of the more obvious places.

I don’t know what the solution is to this, but more discussion about it can hopefully lead to smarter minds than mine thinking them up and helping turn this all over to the workers themselves.

After all, that’s real empowerment.


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