Port of Seattle
4:55 pm
Tue February 14, 2012

Short-haul truckers heading back to work after two-weeks out

The two-week work stoppage by several hundred drayage drivers at the Port of Seattle ended this afternoon at a hastily-called press conference. The truckers who haul cargo containers from port terminals to distribution centers and rail yards walked off the job Jan. 30.

Demeke Meconnan, one of the first drivers to walk, said they're headed back to work, but their campaign isn't over.

"This is just the beginning, not the ending, " he said. "Because we just showed them how strong we are."

Meconnan says 45 of the approximately 50 drivers for his company, Western Port, took part in the work stoppage, which the group estimates had a total participation of about 300 or 400 short-haul drivers. The total workforce of independent drivers is several thousand.  

Meconnan says Target and Ikea noticed cargo movement slowing down as a result of their work stoppage. And now stakeholders from all sides of the equation are meeting to try and solve the issues raised by the newly formed Seattle Port Trucker Association.

Meconnen says his group will continue to fight for passage of the employee law they've been pushing, as well as one related to the safety of the trailers that their trucks pull. But now they feel they can go back to work and accomplish those goals at the same time.

Original story, from Monday's rally:

As a walkout at the Port of Seattle entered its third week, community groups rallied in support of short-haul truckers, who say they are being treated unfairly.  

They want lawmakers in Olympia to pass legislation they say would improve safety, by making the drivers, who are now independent contractors, into employees of the shipping companies. 

Strains of Aretha Franklin filled cold, cloudy skies under the West Seattle bridge as port drivers gathered for an event that was billed on Facebook as a strike rally.  

But as Franklin's Motown beats  intoned, it had less to do with work stoppage that with the theme intoned by her refrain, demanding "R-E-S-P-E-C-T."

Occupy the ports, continued

That sentiment was echoed in chants and on banners and signs held by the crowd, some of whom carried placards citing the "99%" of recent Occupy demonstrations. "Welcome to the Port of Poverty and Pollution," read one sign. 

Others carried union slogans or social justice banners from groups such as the immigrants rights group, One America, or the economically-minded Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans.

Several hundred people trickled in to hear speeches and a Unitarian blessing from an Eritrean priest. Then four of the short-haul drivers spoke about why they have walked off the job.

The complaint

The port drivers say the cards are stacked against them when they make their 2-mile treks between port cargo terminals and the rail yards where containers are loaded onto trains. They say they can only make a living if they tolerate bad working conditions that lead to low pay and safety violations, because they have to work very long hours to make ends meet.

They also say if they refuse a load because it seems too heavy, dispatchers retaliate by not giving them work  for days.

Immigrant drivers leading the charge

Zekarias Abebe represents the newly formed Seattle Port Trucker Association, which has been working with the Teamsters Union to address these concerns, legislatively. He repeatedly referred to the movement they are part of as "beautiful" and gave thanks for the rights to peaceful protest.

“We gather to demand respect, fairness and a safe working condition,” Abebe  said to the cheering crowd, "Is that too much to ask?"

He said he's in a video they are sending to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. They're demanding an investigation by the Department on Labor.

Among their concerns are what they say are overweight or unsafe container loads, which they say in practice they cannot afford to refuse, even though on paper they are told they should not carry any cargo they perceive as dangerous. They say shippers needs for profits are what is driving them to feel "backed into a corner."

“We’re sending her a message, that please, Secretary, come down to Seattle and see what’s going on here,” he said. 

They're trying to get her attention because they would need changes to interstate commerce laws to enable the state law that passed out of the house in Olympia over the weekend.

Opponents cite existing laws as the best fix

But opponents of the bill say it’s unlikely to get past the state Senate.

“I think the solution here is enforcement, not changing the business model,” said Larry Pursley, Executive Vice President of the longstanding Washington Trucking Association.

He says the Washington State Patrol has recently certified six commercial vehicle inspectors in Seattle.

“If they do their job, along with the Washington State Patrol, the safety violations will be cleaned up in a very swift manner,”  Pursley said.  

He was speaking last month, when the bill was introduced, but, reached on the day of the labor rally,  said those comments still stand. And he added that the new officers have been doing their jobs and the situation is improving. 

At that hearing in Olympia, other long-time truckers testified as well, saying the work as an independent is as good as it gets for drivers – and they’re happy with it.

But the rallying truckers say they don’t want to stop the momentum of the movement they’ve started.

Spokesman Abebe acknowledged that some of the several-hundred drivers who walked off the job more than two weeks ago have started " rolling their trucks again" because they have bills to pay. But he said the drivers who remain on strike understand.

"Let's not blame them," Abebe said, of truckers who have returned to work. "They have a lot of pressure on them...from the trucking companies, the shipping lines and some of their friends too." 

Aside from demanding to be re-classified as employees, they want the burden of maintaining the trailers they pull to be on the shippers. Right now, the drivers insist many of them are still pulling unsafe loads through the streets of Seattle. 

A truckers bill of rights

After the rally, the truckers marched to the nearby offices of one of the shipping companies they work for, SSA Marine. They delivered a "Declaration of Rights" there, which are the latest step in attempts at negotiating an outcome.

Today's Seattle Times has a more detailed look at negotiations and informational gatherings that have taken place over the last few days.

Port officials and others they are worried about the image of Seattle's terminals, in the face of ever-increasing competition. Their revenue fuels many programs in a state that has no income tax. 

A long list of left-leaning community and faith groups are supporting the striking truckers with cash donations and asking for donations online, to help those who remain off the job put food on the table and support their families.