In a development union officials say could change the nature of trucking at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, about 65 drivers have reached contract terms with their employer, likely making them the first truckers at the port complex to win a collective bargaining agreement since Congress deregulated the industry three decades ago.
The drivers, who first voted to align with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in April 2012, haul goods, mainly from the ports to retail warehouses in the Inland Empire, for Australian logistics company Toll Group. The drivers will receive considerable raises, subsidized health care and access to a pension plan, according to union officials.
"These are truck drivers who have long been denied the middle-class standards they deserve," said TJ Michels, a spokeswoman for the Teamster-backed port campaign. "It shows what can happen when workers at the ports stand up and fight for what they want. I think we're going to see real change at the ports."
Unions at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are perhaps stronger than anywhere else in the country, with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union showing in its recent eight-day strike that it is powerful enough to shut down most of the activity on the docks. But truck drivers have largely been left out, with many working longer hours for considerably less money than their counterparts in the longshore union.
The reason: Unlike Toll Group, which made a somewhat unusual business decision to hire its drivers, many trucking firms treat drivers as independent contractors, who are not permitted to form a labor union under the National Labor Relations Act. Only employees can seek to form a union.
"I think that ultimately the port is one of the next bastions of success for the labor union in Los Angeles," said Peter Dreier, director of the urban and environmental policy program at Occidental College.
"The dockworkers are already unionized. There is a culture around the port and there has been a culture around the port since 1930s. It's kind of in the DNA in the place, and I think that it's a matter of time before the truckers at the port join in."
In recent years, the Teamsters have made port truck drivers a priority, committing time and resources to the campaign.
As part of the program, Teamsters officials have urged federal and state regulators to examine the relationship many trucking companies have with their drivers, noting that willfully misclassifying workers is illegal. (Workers generally can be called independent contractors only if they have a large degree of control over when and where they work.)
Union officials also have asked large manufacturers to re-examine their relationships with trucking companies. In the Toll campaign, union officials repeatedly appealed to many of the company's clients - retailers and manufacturers including Guess?, Polo and Under Armour - in hopes those companies would place pressure on the trucking firm to sign a contract.
Ultimately, the Teamsters need more trucking companies to change their employment relationship with their drivers, said John Logan, associate professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.
"The independent contractor model is a huge obstacle to improving working conditions and representing workers effectively," Logan said. "But I don't think it's an insurmountable obstacle. If pressure can be placed on the trucking companies through their brands or through other means, they will be forced to respond."
Alex Cherin, executive director of the Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbor Trucking Association, said companies must retain the right to choose whatever business model works for them. And he said many drivers prefer being independent contractors because they can control their own schedules.
Cherin also noted that an effort by the Port of Los Angeles to require trucking companies to designate drivers as employees failed in court. In 2011, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the port could not impose such a requirement, which had been part of a program to reduce pollution at the port.
"The Toll Group has been in discussions for a while now," Cherin said. "They obviously thought that was a good fit for their business model. We wish them success. That's not the business model that all other trucking companies use. As an association, we would fight for the right for any trucking company to use any method they think is best."
As part of the contract, most drivers at Toll will receive an hourly increase from $12.72 to $19. The drivers, few of whom contributed to their 401(k) in the past, will receive a pension plan and the company will pay 95 percent of each driver's health care costs.
Toll Group driver Alberto Quiteno said he hopes this contract will have wide repercussions across both ports.
"Hopefully, we'll get this ball rolling so everyone will have a contract of their own," he said. "This probably will be the beginning of the end for struggling drivers. We're so happy because we think this will be the turning point."