Independent truckers walk out at New Orleans port

| Friday, April 18, 2003

A group of independent truckers walked off the job at the Port of New Orleans April 14 to demand higher pay and better working conditions. Port officials said April 16 the walkout appeared to have caused a cargo volume drop of 40 percent, The Times-Picayune reported.

Most participating truckers are short-haul drivers who carry containers and other port cargo between local wharves, warehouses and railroad yards.

Port Executive Director Gary LaGrange told the paper: "We are sympathetic to both sides … these are tough times. The truckers are trying to clothe their children and put food on the table. The best solution is more business for them coming from more ships in the river."

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said, "It's easy for unaffected parties to express sympathy, but that doesn't pay anybody's bills. The economic situation for port drivers is abysmal in virtually every port in the country. Truth is, freight commodities are shipped from the other side of the world for next to nothing.

"To say drivers are frustrated is putting a really nice face on how they feel. The reality is, they either stop working, or they leave the industry. In fact, that's what's happening right now -- hundreds of thousands of truckdrivers have left in the past 28 months."

The full number of truckers honoring the stoppage is unknown, the paper noted, because the truckers don't have a union. Moreover, an association formed by about 350 local truckers this year disbanded last week after lawyers told the group that organized work actions by independent truckers could violate federal and state antitrust laws.

The walkout came a week after officials with the now-defunct New Orleans Truckers Association said they were postponing any job action until they consulted with labor lawyers and gave trucking firms more time to respond to their demands for higher wages and other concessions.

Truckers said the walkout was spontaneous. A number of the strikers emphasized that each trucker made an individual decision to walk out; it was not part of any organized plan.

Legal considerations

As independent contractors, the truckers are not allowed by law to join labor unions and are not covered by laws that protect striking union members. Each trucker works as a contractor for one of about 20 local trucking firms that provide dispatching services and act as middlemen between the drivers and shipping companies. The truckers are responsible for buying and maintaining their rigs, purchasing most of their fuel, and paying their own insurance and licensing costs.

"I can't afford to run my truck at the rates we are getting," said Chalmette, LA, trucker Henry Doyle, one of the participating drivers who spoke to the newspaper. "I'm out here as long as it takes."

Meanwhile, attorney Murphy Foster III of the Louisiana Motor Transportation Association, a state trade organization that represents trucking firms, said the group was evaluating the protest to determine whether the work stoppage was legal.

"If they got together and collectively said, 'We need to strike carriers to get higher wages,' then that could cause legal problems for the truckers," Foster told the paper. "We haven't decided anything about that, but it is an issue out there."

Wait time and wages key issues

Truckers have complained about sitting in line for hours at a time at port docks waiting for shipments to be loaded and unloaded from their rigs. The long waits cut the number of hauls truckers can make and reduce their earnings.

Port officials and dock operators have said they are working on the problems. They say cargo will flow more smoothly when the port opens a new containerized cargo terminal this summer at the site of the old Napoleon Street Wharf along the Mississippi River.

But striking truckers said April 14 that wages were at the core of their unhappiness.

Abraham Venson, a 29-year veteran trucker from New Orleans, said local drivers made about $45 a haul 20 years ago. Now, drivers make $30 to $35 a haul, he said.

Meanwhile, drivers have been forced to absorb higher costs for fuel, insurance and truck maintenance while getting little or no help to cover those costs from trucking firms, he said.

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