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Truckers Join IWW, Win 2-Day Strike

by Adam Welch Wednesday, Oct. 06, 2004 at 2:58 PM

More than 200 Stockton owner-operator truckers working out of the rail yards in California's Central Valley have joined the IWW since July and won several victories.

By Adam Welch, Motor Transport Workers IU 530 Organizing Committee - Published in the Industrial Worker, October 2004

More than 200 Stockton owner-operator truckers working out of the rail yards in California's Central Valley have joined the IWW since July and won several victories. In the past few weeks the union has successfully worked to reverse two IWW members' life-time banishments from the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe rail yard and negotiated a favorable settlement of a strike at the 11-driver Patriot trucking company.

The truckers are now preparing to take on the issue of the wait times they are forced to endure without pay, which can run up to two hours for an increasing number of drivers, and also fighting against short paychecks. "The truckers are fighting every single day to get their money," said one trucker.

Some 250 truckers in Stockton work for the rail yards and are considered independent contractors who lease the trucks they own to the companies they work for. Nearly 85 percent are Sikh Indians from the Punjab region of India. The work force also includes a number of Latino and some Filipino, Cambodian, Middle Eastern, black and white drivers.

In early May a strike broke out among West Coast truckers over the increasingly high fuel prices that drivers are forced to pay out their own pockets. The Stockton truckers claim to have been the first group to strike. "Fuel was the main problem then. The companies were getting a fuel surcharge, but they weren't passing this along to the drivers," said trucker Gurp Singh, 25, who has been driving for four years and came to the U.S. from India when he was 16 years old.

The strike lasted for two weeks and made significant gains, including 20 to 25 percent increases in the rates paid per load delivered and a reduction of unpaid wait times to a maximum of one hour. "When everyone stands together they pretty much have no choice. What are they going to do?" says Singh, recalling the May strike. However, nearly 30 companies in Stockton compete with each other for the business of the rail yards, and this competition has slowly eroded some of the gains of the May strike.

Joining the Union

A month after the May strike, Stockton truckers contacted the Industrial Workers of the World, and Bay Area organizers Bruce Valde, Adam Welch and Harjit Gill met with 45 drivers in the library of the Stockton Sikh temple. After an intense discussion entirely in Punjabi, the drivers voted to go with the union. All those attending the meeting immediately joined, and the truckers began working to sign up their co-workers.

Deciding factors in the decision were the IWWs previous experience organizing with independent contractors, that the union would address drivers' individual as well as collective grievances, and the presence of a native Punjabi speaker, IWW organizer Harjit Gill. "It felt good to be helping two communities at the same time the IWW and people who are from the same country and ethnicity my family is from," said Gill.

Bay Area organizers were then invited to spend two days under a tree near a Highway 5 off ramp to sign members up. Local leaders of the truckers got on their CB radios, Nextel phones and even created a home-made sign with a piece of cardboard and sharpie marker that they waved on the side of the road, flagging drivers down to stop and take out membership cards. The sign read, 'Truck driver stop for fill up application for union.' On the first day, nearly 90 truckers were signed up off the hood of a car.

Fighting "Banned for Life"

A follow-up meeting was then organized where members discussed several issues and heard the story of union member Vijay Kashatria, who received a lifetime ban from a Burlington Northern-Santa Fe rail yard cop when he disputed a ticket for running a stop sign. The drivers voted on a plan of action to win their fellow worker's job back.

After being contacted by the IWW, BNSF manager Bob Tooke claimed he had no record of the incident and that Kashatria was free to resume work. African-American member Robert Wooten also suffered a lifetime ban shortly after this when he attempted to have BNSF document pre-existing damage to a container load he was about to haul. Unhappy to see him speaking up, a rail cop asked to see his ID and Wooten refused. That ban, too, was quickly reversed.

Singh says after the incident he and other drivers made phone calls to spread the news of the victories. "Everyone was pretty much excited by it. It was only the second time ever," that a lifetime ban had been reversed, he said. Rail yards routinely bar truckers from working in the rail yards for three, seven or even thirty days for minor infractions of the rules.

Patriot Strike Wins Demands

Not being able to tolerate rate cuts and unfair treatment, a strike erupted at the 11-driver Patriot trucking company Sept. 13. Dewey Obtinalla said that these conditions, "ignited these people to go with it." After two days of striking, Patriot manager Casey Stevenson drove his pickup truck out to the field where the drivers had gathered during the strike and signed an agreement meeting about 70 percent of the drivers' 14 demands. "We feel it's a victory for us. It's not that big, but it's better than what we had. After they talk nice with the [truckers]. That's the real victory for us, that we're treated properly," Obtinalla said.

Patriot workers also recalled an incident where the manager had told the Indian drivers that they could not speak their own language in the company office. "The drivers didn¹t believe it was devoid of racism and neither did I," said Gill.

Waiting Without Pay

Now the drivers are preparing to demand all companies return to the one-hour wait time they agreed to during the May strike. After delivering a load to a customer, drivers are forced to wait between one and two hours without pay during the unloading process. After the period of unpaid wait time, drivers receive to for each additional hour that is charged directly to the customer.

"They are being lazy, that's part of it. But they are used to having that power over the drivers. They go treating you like some kind of animal . They want you to do the work for free, and if you refuse they tell you to go home," Singh says on the wait times.

Companies are constantly in competition with each other to be awarded work from the brokers, who make commission acting as middlemen between the companies and the rail yard and their customers. Companies that still have the one hour wait time are losing business to companies with two-hour waits, putting them under pressure to increase their unpaid wait time. "A few truckers can stop working and the boss is ready to negotiate. Truckers have a lot of power in the industry they are in," says organizer Valde, "and the IWW is behind these workers using that."

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